About a Beard: Music, Politics, and Gender Converge

By David Michael Newstead.

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When a drag queen won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, ultra-conservatives in Eastern Europe immediately began to lament the decay of Western morality. The singer, Conchita Wurst, is the persona of an openly gay Austrian man who dresses like a woman and has a full beard. Moreover, she just achieved a major victory as a vocalist against more conventional competitors from across the region. And while her facial hair makes her gender and orientation impossible to ignore, starkly different reactions to her success highlight the deepening international fault lines over LGBT rights.

In the east, outcry to the Eurovision results was swift and damning. Among elected officials, numerous members of the Russian parliament as well as the Deputy Prime Minister were eager to mock and condemn Conchita’s very existence as an insult and an omen of things to come. They painted a chaotic, verbal portrait of a valueless and genderless West where sexual perverts destroy everything good and decent and normal. Some proposed Russia withdraw from the contest entirely, that she should have been edited out of broadcasts, and that Conchita must be banned from ever entering the country. Among Russian celebrities, one pop star described the win as a sign of “mental illness in contemporary society” and feared ever having to explain homosexuality to his children.

This immediate and visceral disdain coming from authorities and popular figures is indicative of a global divide with little middle ground. In 2013, the Russian government passed sweeping anti-gay legislation, which nominally seeks to ban ‘homosexual propaganda’ to minors. But in reality, it marks all homosexuals as enemies of the state and equates them to pedophiles. Gay adoption was also banned and the definition of ‘homosexual propaganda’ effectively came to mean anything, including dissenting media coverage on the matter. Further draconian measures are in the works, but the letter of the law is not really the critical point, especially when it comes to governments that don’t value the legal process anyway. In Russia and in other countries, violence against homosexuals goes unpunished even when it is blatant. Hate groups have been known to lure homosexual Russian teens under false pretenses and then film the violent encounter that takes place. The teen is ambushed, horrifically beaten in broad daylight, and forced to publicly out themselves as gay. The group then uploads this video to social media in full view of everyone and the authorities do nothing about an obvious assault. Other crimes and even murders are well documented. But this lack of official condemnation or even a response from the same people outraged over a bearded singer is perhaps the loudest message of all.

And while the conduct of the Russian government is reprehensible in this regard, the degree of public support these measures carry is cause for concern. It reflects a kind of deeply embedded hostility among segments of the population and has no easy solution. At a time when many Western countries are tweeting in support of girl’s education #BringBackOurGirls, men in Eastern Europe are posting photos of themselves shaving off their beards to protest Eurovision #ProveYourNotConchita.

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Elsewhere in the world, there’s a similar tide of state-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community. Recent events in Nigeria will only briefly eclipse discussions over its own anti-gay law and the international implications. The unanimously passed 2014 bill bans same-sex marriages, outlaws gay organizations or advocacy, and places a 14-year sentence on convicted homosexuals. In addition, it specifies a 10-year prison term for any “friend or ally who administers, witnesses, abets or aids any form of gender-nonconforming or homosexual activity”. Such a broad legal mandate is a virtual declaration of war against anyone who is different or those that might sympathize with them, even to a limited degree. Earlier this year, Uganda also signed a version of this legislation, making homosexuality punishable with life imprisonment. President Museveni went on to describe gays as “disgusting” in interviews and backs up the law’s legitimacy with a Ugandan scientific study that somehow concludes definitively that homosexuality is a matter of choice. More disturbing, however, is that this was quickly followed by a front-page tabloid story, supposedly exposing 200 of the country’s most prominent homosexuals by name and included their photographs as a thinly veiled incitement of violence against everyday citizens.

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No matter where you are, a bearded drag queen might stand out more than the average person. But Conchita Wurst is now a focal point for a major human rights divide. Around the world, some politicians are stoking an unapologetic climate of intolerance and terror against anyone who is sexually different or simply suspected of deviating from gender norms. This is an alarming counter weight to the significant progress of LGBT rights in the U.S. over the last decade. And if there’s any crisis of Western morality at all, it’s an open question about how to respond to this situation.

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