‘Have you noticed that Eurovision is very popular with gay people?’
For once, music and fun takes pride of place ahead of politics in Ukraine
Israel’s IMRI performs with the song “I Feel Alive” during a dress rehearsal on Friday for the Eurovision final at the International Exhibition Centre in Kiev. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
A German man in a silver dress and a glittering crown is sweetly singing Dana’s All Kinds of Everything for me , not far from from a cordon of armed, black-clad policemen in Kiev.
His name is Andreas Goesmann and his singing almost makes up for the fact that Ireland’s Brendan Murray has not made it into Saturday’s Eurovision final.
Goesman owns a bridal shop in Dusseldorf and his tailors make his costumes. “We are, perhaps, a little crazy,” he says. “I come to Eurovision nearly every year. I love it when all the world comes together. It’s so nice and friendly and we go to all the gay clubs in the different cities to see what’s happening there.”
He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Have you noticed that Eurovision is very popular with gay people?”
It’s unclear how out of the closet Eurovision is in Ukraine. Both Zoryan Kis, a brave Kiev Pride organiser, and Andrei Kurkov, the acclaimed novelist, say they think that Eurovision’s importance to gay people has gone unnoticed by the average Ukrainian.
Kis certainly notices. The webpage for Kiev Pride feature a Eurovision symbol, and last year’s third ever Pride parade was a success because authorities worried that the usual violence from far-right protesters would look particularly bad in advance of Eurovision.
Kurkov thinks that hosting the competition is most significant as a symbol of normality after three years of conflict with Russia in the east. That conflict infiltrated the competition, with Ukraine banning the Russian contestant from entering the country after she played a concert in illegally annexed Crimea.
And the politics is also on the streets here. At Maidan Nezalezhnosti, beside a well-attended Eurovision Village, people sell ribbons to raise money for military volunteers and a stall campaigns for the release of writers imprisoned in Russia.
On Wednesday, I walk around the city centre with Irish fans Tom Davitt and Rob Delaney. Davitt is a self-described “Eurovision nut” who follows all the national finals and Junior Eurovision “because my withdrawal symptoms are intense.”
He can talk about Albania’s national final or the controversies that dogged the Spanish selection or the way Ireland sends “songs Irish people don’t even like themselves”.
The issue with the Russian contestant, he says, “has left a sour taste in the mouth of fans”.
Other fans ignore the politics entirely. “I was in Serbia for Eurovision,” says Juha Piik, a Swede wearing a toy monkey as a necktie. “
A journalist asked, ‘What do you think of Kosovo?’
I said, ‘Who does she sing for again?’”
He laughs. “Look, when you leave the airport you come into the Eurovision bubble. Every city is different. But the bubble is the same.”
This year the bubble is only accessible after passing an intimidating cordon of policemen and being submitted to a metal detector and a search.
At an event at the Euroclub, Northern Irishman Patrick Heaney tells me how he fell for Eurovision while sitting in the Crow’s Nest, a gay bar in Belfast, watching Johnny Logan win in 1987. “I just became a fan.”
His partner Sam Cunningham fell for Eurovision shortly after falling for Heaney in 1993. “I’m from Co Tyrone and there was nothing for us then. I had nothing to express my identity with.”
“To make matters worse,” Cunningham adds, “I’m a Catholic and Sam’s a protestant.”
Ukraine, with its territorial war and issues with gay rights, reminds them a bit of the Northern Ireland they grew up in. “I wouldn’t like to go back to that,” says Cunningham. “But Ireland changed. I hope having Eurovision is a light at the end of the tunnel for gay people here.”
I’m beginning to feel guilty. Everyone is having a good time until I bother them with politics.
At the exhibition centre a man in lederhosen is giving out “free hugs” and flag-draped fans wander about singing their favourite songs. “I have always said that we can take the Eurovision song contest to any country in Europe,” says EBU executive supervisor Jon Ola Sand. “Well, look around, it proves I am right.”
Will he be relieved when it’s over for the year?
Only briefly, he says, because as soon as a winning country is announced the work for next year’s contest will then begin. “Tonight, I will open a new chapter and go somewhere else to work in a new territory with a new broadcaster. It will happen all over again.”