Way back in 1998, transsexual singer Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest with her song ‘Diva’, representing Israel. Her win by some was heralded as the degradation of society as we know it, for how could such a creature come out on top of the inanely well-respected singing competition that pits European countries against each other in a battle of the vocal chords? As it turned out, people simply liked the song, and Dana International’s win started the ball rolling in terms of conversations about trans rights, with pop culture figures like Coronation Street‘s Hayley Cropper and, erm, Nintendo’s Birdo. Fast forward to 2014, and trans rights are being talked about all over the media, with the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race alumnus Carmen Carrera and Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox becoming visible advocates, trying to educate the masses and stamp out oppression. So, when Austrian singer Conchita Wurst, the alter-ego of Thomas Neuwirth, swooped in and took home the Eurovision crown in May, naturally tongues started wagging, and not all for the right reasons.

Wurst’s win was a huge victory for the LGBT community across Europe, and the lady with a beard was well deserving of the win, thanks to a powerhouse performance of her song Rise Like A Phoenix, with dramatics that would give Dame Shirley Bassey a run for her money. However, Wurst’s win wasn’t applauded by all. Many didn’t see a singer performing a song, instead choosing to interpret Wurst’s presence in the contest as nothing more than a promotion of LGBT rights being shoved down the throats of horrified heterosexuals sitting open-mouthed and aghast as Wurst’s douze points kept rolling in, one country after another.

Image source
Image source

The division in Europe between the liberal north and west, and the conservative south and east, was exposed as never before, thanks to Wurst’s win. Being gay in eastern Europe doesn’t make for an easy life, and most people in the region seem content to simply ignore the presence of LGBT folk in their society. So, to see a triumphant Wurst on their TV screens was to be forced to acknowledge the unspoken ‘other’ in their midst, to open their eyes, and for a brave few LGBT folk in eastern Europe, the Austrian chanteuse’s win allowed them to speak out, to let themselves be known, and to allow a dialogue to start, even in the face of extreme resistance and sheer ignorance.

As a gay European, who has travelled to countries like Romania, Serbia, Moldova, Lithuania and Ukraine, and met and befriended LGBT people there, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Conchita Wurst. She might not have anticipated it, but her win has made people open their eyes, and realise that there’s still a lot of work to be done in Europe before every part of the LGBT rainbow is granted acceptance and shown tolerance, instead of hiding away or living in fear of violent repercussions for simply being who they are, even in countries that pride themselves on their open-mindedness. I salute you, Conchita. Now the hard work begins.