What an evening! We saw a disco Leonard Cohen, a Cypriot homage to Right Said Fred: The Prison Years, and more revealing hot pants in 45 minutes than you’d see at an entire Bear Pride week in Sitges.
But the drama on stage was nothing compared the theatrics at the following press conference which saw the assembled journalists learn a potted history of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and what flags we should and should not use.
Before that particular can of worms was opened, the spotlight fell on Russia’s contestant Sergey Lazarev.
It’s no secret that the LGBT community makes up a huge proportion of the travelling press and fandom that follows the contest from country to country. Eurovision’s campy nature coupled with its pervading themes of acceptance, unity and respect captures our attention quicker than the opening foghorn of Euphoria.
So now that favourites Russia have definitely qualified for Saturday’s spectacular, the question on a lot of people’s minds is: “Will we have a gay old time?” Russia’s record on LGBT rights isn’t quite as impressive as her achievements at Eurovision – six top five finishes over the last decade – so it’s no wonder that people have been mulling over what Sochi 2017 might feel like as a gay fan.
Step forward Ukrainian journalist Michael Komadovsky who asked the question on a lot of lips: “Sergey – you’re a big favourite to win, and a big part of the competition is the LGBT community. Is it safe for gay and lesbian people to come to Russia next year?”
What unravelled next illustrates some of the tense, mixed feelings about the situation.
The question was immediately boo’d by another young journalist, siting to the left of me, from the Netherlands, and then applauded and whooped by most of the rest of the room.
Sergey, who comes across as very genuine and immensely likeable, gave his answer: “I can tell you that a lot of talk and rumours about LGBT problems in Russia are talk and rumours. Gay life exists in Russia, it’s not a secret, I think. We’re a modern country, and all our cities have gay life and gay clubs – you can check it on Google!
“But I think if Eurovision did come to Russia, I think we’ll be very supportive of the gay community and also I think that you have to come to Russia and see that.
“We hosted the Olympics in Sochi and it was amazing, and a lot of different people came to Russia of different nationalities and sexual orientations and they had a great time there. They had fun, and there was no problem there.
“We hosted Eurovision in 2009 and it was also so good, and everybody came there and had fun, and for sure it would happen again if Russia wins. All Russians love Eurovision and we really want to host it, and we’ll do our best for our guests, for sure. You can feel safe in our country.”
All credit to the Russian heart-throb, he answered the question as best he could and was applauded for tackling the question head on – but shortly after this, the booing Dutch journalist marched up to the Ukrainian who’d asked the question and barked in his ear: “You should be ashamed of yourself, asking that question,” before darting off and hiding in the back of the crowd.
I’ve heard from some quarters that there’s a sense that perhaps the gay community has too much of a hold on Eurovision, and that maybe we get caught up in the politics too much – so I was interested to find out why the Dutch journalist needed to assert himself like this.
Though he wouldn’t tell me his name or company – hiding his press pass under his arm, so I couldn’t see – I managed to catch up with him and ask why he’d felt the need to react in such a way.
“It’s not just a gay competition,” he huffed.
“Maybe I was a little frustrated and I shouldn’t have reacted that way, but I’m fed up with that sentiment. I don’t think his question was legitimate.”
“I don’t like that the question is asked, because I don’t think there’s a reason for it – it’s never been asked of any other country than Russia.”
He’s right – the question of safety hasn’t been asked of any of the other contestants, and lord knows there are problems with LGBT rights all across Europe and particularly in some of the other countries in semi final one.
But Russia are favourites to win it. Even more so now that Sergey will perform in the more favourable second half of the show.
So there is a bit of an elephant in the room and it has been the talk of the press centre. What if Russia do win? How will Sochi, Moscow or Novosibirsk cope with thousands of gays who very rightly aren’t ashamed to ask questions like the one Michael posed?
There’s no easy answer, and judging by the reactions from around the press conference, the EBU will have a difficult task ahead of them if Sergey is triumphant.
This is my fourth Eurovision reporting for GT, and I’ve been happy to walk around Malmö, Copenhagen, Vienna and Stockholm with a big plastic laminate stuck to my chest that says “GAY TIMES” – chance’d be a fine thing, eh? – but would I feel so confident in Russia? Well, no. Would it stop me from going there? Fat chance! Unlike the young Dutch guy, I feel we don’t make progress by asserting a point before running off to hide in the crowd, no matter how difficult it may be.
If not this year, Russia will win it soon. They put in the effort. They want it. They deserve it. But there are going to be a lot of difficult questions that need to be faced head on and I hope the Eurovision producers and the fan community can work together to make sure the competition is enjoyable for everyone.
Malta’s Ira Losco was the last qualifying competitor to be interviewed, and the final journalist pointed out her government’s exceptional record on progressing gay rights in what is a predominantly Catholic country. Ira replied:
“I’m a proud, avid supporter of LGBTIQ rights” – girl knows her acronyms – “and I hope that we’d be able to make Malta a happy little Eurovision island”.
I guess that’s all any of us want.
[Update 10:25 – Turns out the Dutch journalist is Editor in Chief of a prominent Australia-based Eurovision fan blog]