Eurovision win for Russia could chill interest among gay fanbase

Eurovision is known for kitsch, glitz and its strong gay following. But some members of the LGBT community are concerned that Russia - tipped as a favourite among this year's contenders - could be a less than welcoming host in 2017 if it wins in Stockholm on Saturday.

Among the many flags seen at Eurovision Song Contest events is the rainbow flag - a symbol of the annual music competition's strong gay fanbase.

On the eve of the grand finale in the Swedish capital on Saturday, Russia's entry Sergey Lazarev is tipped as one of the favourites to win, generating some concern among fans.

Russia's restriction of gay rights - notably the so-called "gay propaganda" law, enacted in 2013 - has been controversial. The law, which forbids the promotion of homosexuality in public, has been lambasted by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, as well as human rights groups and Western governments.

After qualifying for the final, Lazarev was asked if it was safe for members of the international LGBT community to visit Russia if the country should win and therefore be selected to host the Eurovision event in 2017.

“Gay life exists in Russia, it’s not a secret,” he said. 

"We are a modern country, all cities have gay life, we have gay clubs – you can check it on Google and see how many gay clubs in Russia we have,” the singer added.

“I think if Eurovision will come to Russia, it will be very supportive for the [gay] community in Russia," Lazarev said.

Russia's ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, told Swedish public broadcaster SVT that he did not anticipate any problems for gay Eurovision fans, should Russia win.

"Since the new laws [on homosexuality] were enacted, we have had many big events," he said, noting for instance the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

"I can tell all the gays in Sweden and the West that they can freely come to Russia and know it is peaceful to stay," he added.

But he cautioned against openly kissing on the street: “You should not really kiss in public. The law says so. You have to show respect for the order in society."

A Russian victory would not result in a boycott, said the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL), following discussions with Russian counterparts.

But the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which organizes the event "must ensure that the fans that go will be able to celebrate the diversity that Eurovision is,” RFSL vice president Magnus Kolsjo told dpa.

All major international events are "an opportunity to highlight the situation for LGBT people," he added, and a possible Eurovision final in Russia could even be turned into a "big rainbow party."

Among those concerned is 2016 Eurovision contestant Hovi Star. The Israeli singer said that he was harassed last month at passport control when arriving at Moscow airport for a pre-Eurovision event.

He warned that "people like me" have a "rough time" in the Russian capital. “Maybe because I’m gay, maybe because I dress like this, maybe because I wear make-up, I don’t know,” he said.

“They told me I couldn't go in, they looked at my passport, they ripped my passport, and then they laughed at me,” Star told a Maltese TV station in a clip made available on YouTube.

Russia's neighbour Finland is home to the world’s largest Eurovision fan club, Euroviisuklubi OGAE Finland ry, with about 1,300 members.

“Many fans like the Russian song but won’t travel to Russia,” fan club president Jouni Pihkakorpi told dpa, adding there is a sense of "wait and see" should Russia win.

Pihkakorpi estimates that about half of the club's members are gay.

In 2009, when Russia hosted the event, the Finnish fan club organized a joint group trip with hotels, tickets and an overnight train to Moscow.

A similar trip set up by the fan club - should Russia win this year - could entice more fans to travel, he said.

Outside the Stockholm Globe arena, the venue for the final, Christian Wittkoetter, visiting from Germany, told dpa he doubted Russia would win, but would not rule out travelling there if it did end up hosting next year's event.

“Actually I think you should go there, to spread our message of love, tolerance and freedom and give Russia a piece of that” he said.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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