The only thing that probably rubbed off on me properly, since I moved to Britain ten years ago, is that I now also love the underdog. So when Austria’s gender-bending bearded drag artist, Conchita Wurst (aka Thomas Neuwirth) won the Eurovision Song Contest on 12 May, I was more than pleased. It’s always great when someone from our side wins.
Even more so after the uproar and division her entry to the semi-finals caused between Europe’s progressive liberal side and the traditional values and nationalist rhetoric of countries on the ‘other side of the fence’: Russia (who introduced a law last year prohibiting so-called gay propaganda), Armenia and Belarus blasted Conchita Wurst as an example of the West’s ‘decadence’ and branded the Eurovision contest as a ‘hotbed of sodomy’.
Some bigoted Armenian protestors launched a Facebook petition demanding Conchita’s removal from the contest. Activists in Belarus had even urged the country’s state television network to bypass the live broadcasting rules by editing Conchita’s performance out of its Eurovision transmission.
Conchita won nonetheless with her song Rise Like A Phoenix, which include the lyrics: Waking in the rubble, Walking over glass, Neighbours say we’re trouble, Well that time has passed… You were warned, Once I’m transformed, Once I’m reborn, I rise up to the sky, You threw me down but I’m gonna fly. Not the most poetic song (or singing voice… let’s be honest). Still, it sent a strong and clear message of hope to LGBT people and our supporters throughout Europe.
Later, when I asked a friend what he thought about her victory, he said: “Well, it’s okay. But I’m not interested in all the glitter and the ‘show’. What I want to know is: Will this start a conversation? Will her being on the stage and winning begin a conversation between a gay child and his or her parents?”
There was a smidgen of cynicism in what my friend said, but he had a point because Conchita Wurst represents social change. But how effective will she be? To answer my friend’s question, I reflect on my own coming out:
I grew up in South Africa during the stifling conservative and racist Apartheid era, in the 1980s. During this time, a phenomenal drag artist emerged, called Pieter Dirk Uys. He began his career as a serious playwright but switched to one-man cabaret-style shows at the height of the Apartheid era.
Pieter Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhoud
Pieter Dirk Uys’ alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout (also known as Tannie Evita) — a white Afrikaner socialite and self-proclaimed political activist — was highly controversial, to say the least. Not only because Uys was a man who dressed up as a woman (a no-go for the white, righteous-religious Afrikaners), but also because he used Evita Bezuidenhout to criticise and expose the absurdity of the South African government’s racial policies. With her satirical comedy and uncanny humour, Evita Bezuidenhout lampooned the South African regime and its leaders, as well as the sometimes hypocritical attitudes of white liberals.
She got people thinking. She got me thinking.
When Evita Bezuidenhout came on the scene, I was 11 years old. Already questioning my sexuality, Evita was a spark of hope at a time when I thought there was nobody else on this earth that was like me.
It was a very lonely place to be.
When I found a black and white caricature drawing of her in a Sunday newspaper, I stuck it on my bedroom wall, right next to my pillow where I could look at it every night before I went to sleep.
My aunt and uncle (who were my guardians) noticed the picture on my wall, but said nothing at first. However, when I started to mimic Evita Bezuidenhout, making no secret of my adoration for this flamboyant character, my uncle came to my room one evening and sat on the side of my bed…
“Tell me about this picture,” he said.
“It’s Evita Bezuidenhoud,” I answered, excited that he showed an interest in something I liked.
“What do you like about her?”
“She’s funny…” I also wanted to tell him how outrageous I thought she was and that I admired Pieter Dirk Uys for being so brave, but my uncle interrupted me.
“You know it’s not really a woman? It’s a man dressed up as a woman.”
“Don’t you think there is something wrong with that?”
“No. That’s part of what I like about it.”
“But you realise it’s not right. It’s not the type of thing men do.”
“I don’t see anything wrong it.”
“Well, be that as it may, your aunt and I would like you to take the picture down.”
There was no way I was going to hide the picture of my heroine. In fact, I blatantly refused his request. As a result, my bedroom door got shut whenever we had guests at home, because “what will the people say?”
Evita and the late president Nelson Mandela
Evita Bezuidenhout will always be a significant figure in my life. She played a big part in me coming out to myself. In a way she was the fairy godmother who prompted me to begin a conversation in my head with myself, which enabled me to acknowledge, for the first time, that ‘thing’ inside me that was yearning to come out — the ‘secret’ aching to be told.
Since Evita, it has taken me years to finally admit to the world that I am gay — 14 years to be precise (I came out when I was 25 years old). It was a painful and prolonged process, which started with a picture of a drag artist on my wall and that awkward conversation with my uncle.
I’m almost 40 years old, and that conversation is still ongoing… mostly in silence. But enough has been said (and kept quiet) for me to know that there is no acceptance to be found with him and my aunt… In their house my bedroom door will always be closed to stop the the world from seeing who I am… but that is their closet, not mine and I don’t have to live in it. I have also learned that in any conversation it’s best not to be fixed to an outcome, but instead to stand firm in the truth of your own story.
Since her victory, the ‘Conchita Effect’ (as I like to call it) has been remarkable. She has not only raised the profile of LGBT people, but also lifted the lid on how archaic mainstream society’s perception of gender is. The day after she won, I remember seeing a few mainstream newspapers referring to her as transgender, when in fact “She” is actually a 25 year old boy, called Thomas Neuwirth. So the first lesson from Mizz Wurst was: as a drag artist, as soon as those luscious lashes are stuck on, we use female pronouns. But when they come off, we’re back to male pronouns…
Gender fluidity! Who had ever thought?
Truth be told, radical feminists claim that they’ve been trying to dismantle gender for the past 40-or-so years, but I’m yet to see evidence of their success… the gender box is still on almost every application or online registration form. Conchita knows no such box — and she won’t let radicals, Russians or right-wingers tell her who she is supposed to be… a bearded Beyoncé perhaps? Who cares.
Worrying whether she is ‘one of us’ will be a waste of time because, if anything, she is an ambassador for diversity. She is also a beacon of light, especially for LGBT people in countries where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are disowned by their families, often to be beaten, humiliated, persecuted and locked away by society.
Conchita’s victory is far from novelty nonsense. In fact, I suspect since she’s graced our television screens quite a number of young teenagers have started a conversation in their own heads about how they identify with themselves… and that’s really all that counts, because the journey towards acceptance has to start somewhere.
Conchita Wurst as Tom Neuwirth