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Song, dance and LGBTQ visibility reign supreme at Eurovision Song Contest

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The over-the-top pop music extravaganza known as the Eurovision Song Contest has long been something of an annual holiday for European gays, one where camp reigns and flamboyance is queen, as the nations of Europe (and now Australia) battle it out for tuneful supremacy.

But in recent years, the pan-continental competition has increasingly also become more than that —openly showcasing a broad range of LGBTQ identities, and serving as a powerful beacon of equality to audiences across Europe and far beyond, while courting a fair bit of controversy in the process.

Eurovision 2018 is arguably the most broadly and unapologetically LGBTQ edition to date, with both the first-ever out lesbian contestant (Finland’s Saara Aalto) and an on-stage gay romance (courtesy of Ireland’s Ryan O’Shaughnessy).

Image: PORTUGAL-EUROVISION-ENTERTAINMENT-MUSIC-TELEVISION
Ireland’s singer Ryan O’Shaughnessy performs the song “Together” during the first semifinal of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 8, 2018.Francisco Leong / AFP – Getty Images

“Ryan’s on-stage performance is the clearest depiction of gay love that we’ve ever seen at Eurovision,” William Lee Adams, founder of popular Eurovision Song Contest website Wiwibloggs, told NBC News. “His two dancers, who hold hands and caress, perform opposite Ryan and a female pianist, whose romance is implied through the camera angles. He’s allowing gay love and straight love to share the stage.”

Earlier this week during the contest’s semifinal round, the unabashedly queer staging of O’Shaughnessy’s song “Together” was enough for the broadcaster of the competition in China, Mango TV, to censor it. Eurovision’s producer, the European Broadcast Union, swiftly responded by terminating its relationship with the Chinese network.

Meanwhile Russia, no friend of LGBTQ visibility in recent years with its notorious “gay propaganda” laws, seems to have blinked in the face of openly queer representation at Eurovision this year. Though rumors circulated that it too might censor O’Shaughnessy’s performance, it thus far has not.

Launched back in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has grown from just seven competing countries to this year’s 43. Along the way, it’s served as the international career springboard for the likes of Celine Dion and ABBA — and well more than a thousand also-rans, who, as they try to grab the audience’s attention during their allotted three minutes per song, have used every showy stage trick in the book.

“Gay people — even if they aren’t fully aware of their sexual orientation — can identify with the glitz and glam and flamboyance of Eurovision stars,” Adams said. “Perhaps they represent a sense of freedom and emancipation that gay men and women crave. Eurovision is like gay pride — a safe place to let it all hang out.”

Image: Israeli singer Dana International
Israeli singer Dana International performs her winning song at the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest held at the Birmingham Indoor Arena on May 9, 1998.Dylan Martinez / Reuters file

The contest’s first real LGBTQ groundbreaker was Israel’s Dana International, who, a full two decades ago in 1998, boldly became the contest’s first trans entrant — and winner — with her song “Diva“. In 2014, Austrian “bearded drag queen” Conchita Wurst was crowned Eurovision’s second out LGBTQ champion with “Rise Like a Phoenix“.

“Conchita was a target of abuse not only from straight people, but also gay people who said she presented a ‘freakish’ image of the LGBT community,” said Adams. “Now people don’t bat an eyelid when they see her. It’s proof that having role models — from across the spectrum — can normalize supposedly strange or bizarre aspects of people. She’s my favorite for making the gay community look at itself and what it considers normal.”

Image: Singer Conchita Wurst representing Austria
Singer Conchita Wurst representing Austria performs the song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in the B&W Halls in Copenhagen, Denmark, Saturday, May 10, 2014.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)Frank Augstein / AP

Marija Šerifović of Serbia won Eurovision in 2007 with her fairly obviously lesbian-themed performance of “Molitva” and has come out as a lesbian herself since her triumph — but Finland’s Saara Aalto marks another queer milestone this year.

“Saara is perhaps the most ‘out’ lesbian at Eurovision ever,” Adams said. “She speaks openly about her manager and fiancée [Meri Sopanen]. Her song ‘Monsters‘ could be read as a reckoning with her own sexuality. Self-hatred, homophobia, the various bigots she’s encountered in her life — she’s dancing past them and tearing down the walls inside her head.”

“Monsters” is actually Finland’s second patently LGBTQ entry — in 2013, singer Krista Siegfrids stirred controversy by including a lesbian kiss in the performance of her song “Marry Me“, which she said was to protest Finland’s lack of marriage equality. The Finnish Parliament voted to allow same-sex marriages the following year.

Social undertones actually abound at this year’s Eurovision, from Israel’s #MeToo-esque entry “Toy” to France’s refuge-crisis-themed “Mercy.” But if the bookies are to be believed, Cyprus’ sexy and completely apolitical “Fuego” may walk away as the winner.

Still, O’Shaughnessy is quickly gaining ground, having jumped to third place this week in pre-contest wagering. And Eurovision is nothing if not always full of surprises.

The 2018 Eurovision Song Contest final begins at 8 p.m. local time on Saturday in Lisbon, Portugal, and will be broadcast live in the U.S. on the Logo network at 3 p.m. EDT, 12 p.m. PDT.

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COVID-19: Lebanon’s health service close to collapse with case numbers beyond ‘wildest predictions’ | World News

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The head of Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital has said the country’s health system is close to collapse – with not enough beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators or staff.

In a stark interview with Sky News, Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax coronavirus restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and deaths over the past few weeks.

He allowed our cameras into the casualty department and the intensive care unit of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut to see the pressure he and his staff are under.

Dr Abiad said all hospitals were reporting full, or almost full, intensive care units – and many have patients stuck in emergency wards, waiting for a bed.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
Image:
Dr Abiad said the government has thrown the healthcare system ‘into an abyss’

“Some patients are not able to find a bed and there’s been several cases where patients have died in their homes,” he said.

“If you look at the sharp rise in cases you see that Lebanon is really seeing unprecedented COVID numbers which is even beyond our wildest predictions.

“The number of daily new cases has almost quadrupled since where we were almost a month ago,” said Dr Abiad.

“At the same time we’ve seen that the number of deaths has also tripled and the number of patients in ICU has gone up by almost 100%.”

On 17 December, four days before a nationwide lockdown was due to end, the government decided to ease a series of restrictions for the holiday period.

Under intense pressure from businesses, they allowed nightclubs, bars and restaurants to open at 50% capacity while urging people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

But videos on social media over Christmas and New Year showed packed clubs and bars. No attempts were made to crackdown on the violations.

“It’s clear that those were catastrophic [decisions] and what has happened is they’ve thrown the whole healthcare system of the country into a major abyss,” said Dr Abiad.

In the casualty department, the pressures are obvious. There is a shortage of beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators and staff.

It is a relatively modern hospital but it looks sparse, except for the number of patients.

A nurse strokes a patient’s head.

“I am passing out… I am passing out,” he tells the nurse.

“No, no! You’re doing very well. Don’t be scared. Your oxygen is good. 99%. Honestly it’s very good,” she reassures him.

In the next bed is 53-year-old Aida Derawi. She first began to feel unwell 15 days ago. Her family had hoped she would recover at home, but this week things got worse.

“Yesterday I felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “My back and lungs were aching. My kids took me around to find a hospital but not a single one would accept me.”

Eventually space was found and she is improving slowly.

Nurse Hussein al Khazn tells us that in this wave of the virus, the patients are no longer predominately elderly.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse. Pic: Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad
Image:
Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad is very much on Lebanon’s frontline

“Much younger now,” he says. “Before we had 50, 60-year-old patients.

“Now it’s 20, 25, 30-year-old patients and they’re very, very critical – all of them.”

On the other side of the city, we’re given access to the Lebanese Red Cross coordination centre.

In a well-organised control room, a team of volunteers is juggling telephone calls from patients’ families with radio calls to the ambulance teams on the ground.

“So, she’s ill with coronavirus?” a volunteer asks down the line. “So she’s got shortness of breath?”

A radio message is sent to one of the dispatch teams.

“We’re dispatched to a patient that tested positive for COVID and she’s currently suffering from desaturation and vomiting,” volunteer medic Waad Abdulaal says from the passenger seat of the ambulance.

“So we’re going to go ahead, assess her and see if there’s a need to take her to the hospital.”

Lebanon was already in a critical state economically.

Years of accumulative economic mismanagement has led to a slow collapse in every sector of society.

That was then exacerbated by the pandemic and the devastating port explosion last year.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
Image:
Ambulance crews carry an 80-year-old woman down a flight of stairs in darkness due to another power cut

Up several flights of a stairwell, in darkness because of yet another power cut, the Red Cross team reaches its patient.

Madame Imad is 80 years old. She tested positive last week and her diabetes is complicating her condition. She needs to go to hospital, but there is an issue finding a bed for her.

The positivity rate across the country this past week has been at 21% (the 14-day rolling average).

That means the community spread of the virus is out of control. It needs to be at 5% before there is any chance of regaining a grip of the crisis.

Calls are made and they think space has been found at a hospital nearby.

Madame Imad is carried down the stairs as her daughter Sophie looks straight into our camera and pleads: “Show them that there are people dying before they reach the hospital.”

The elderly woman did make it to the hospital. But she was sent home again. There were no beds. Her family has told us her condition this weekend has worsened.

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Alexei Navalny supporters clash with police and ‘hundreds arrested’ as mass protests expected across Russia | World News

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Hundreds of people have reportedly been detained as a series of demonstrations in support of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny begins across Russia.

The gatherings, which police have declared illegal, are the first by Mr Navalny’s supporters since he was arrested last weekend on his return to Moscow, after spending five months in Germany recovering from novichok poisoning.

Police detain a man in Moscow. Pic: AP
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Police detain a man in Moscow. Pic: AP

More than 200 people have been detained in central and eastern Russia because of the protests, according to monitoring group OVD-INFO, with more than 100 held in Moscow, according to a Reuters witness, the location for one of up to 70 marches this weekend.

There have been scuffles in the southeastern city of Khabarovsk, and videos also show people being taken away from a protest in Yakutsk, where people have been gathering in -50C temperatures, and one person lying on the ground, apparently injured, in Novosibirsk.

Other footage shows people being hit with batons in Orenburg and riot shields and tears gas being used in some cities.

Police detain a man  in Khabarovsk, Russia, during a protest against the jailing of Alexei Navalny. Pic: AP
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Police detain a man in Khabarovsk during a protest against the jailing of Alexei Navalny. Pic: AP

Hundreds, possibly thousands, appear to have been taking part in rallies and marches in Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk.

There have also been reports that mobile phone and internet services in Russia have suffered outages as police
crack down on anti-Kremlin protesters.

Authorities sometimes interfere with communication networks to make it harder for protesters to get in touch with each other and the wider world online.

Protesters run away from police officers in Vladivostok,
Image:
Protesters run away from police officers in Vladivostok,

Six journalists have been held in St Petersburg, according to Avtozaklive.

Mr Navalny, 44, who is one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

He is charged with breaking his bail conditions – and is facing a potential three-and-a half-year jail term if found guilty.

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Navalny supporters clash with Russian police

Protesters gathered in support of Mr Navalny in temperatures on -50C in Yakutsk. Pic: Ksenia Korshun/via REUTERS
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Protesters gathered in support of Mr Navalny in temperatures on -50C in Yakutsk. Pic: Ksenia Korshun/via REUTERS

Anyone who takes part faces charges of rioting, fines, problems at work, prison and even threats over child custody as the Russian state tries to crack down on the demonstrations, which could be the largest against Mr Putin since 2018.

Officials also enforced a crackdown in the run-up to the demonstrations, arresting members of Mr Navalny’s team, including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

They launched an investigation after young Navalny supporters flooded TikTok with anti-Putin videos, pushing for people to support the action this weekend and using the using the hashtags #freenavalny and #23Jan.

The content has been viewed more than 300 million times.

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TikTok videos in support of Navalny

Anger mounted against Mr Putin this week after Mr Navalny’s team released a documentary exposing a vast and opulent palace built by Russia’s leader on the Black Sea coast.

The programme claims the complex – 39 times larger than Monaco – cost £1bn to build and was funded through illicit money.

It is said to have a casino, an underground ice hockey complex and a vineyard.

More than 60 million people have now viewed the Russian-language video on YouTube within three days of it being published.

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Navalny calls for protests over his arrest

On Friday, ahead of the weekend of planned protests, Mr Navalny issued a statement saying he wanted it known that he had no plans to take his own life in prison.

The arrest of Mr Navalny has attracted widespread criticism from Western leaders, sparking new tensions in the already strained relationship with the US.

Despite the plans for the protests, Mr Putin’s grip on power appears solid, with the 68-year-old regularly recording approval ratings of more than 60%, many times higher than those of Mr Navalny.

Protesters attending a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow
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Protesters attending a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow

‘Our kids are being brainwashed’
Eyewitness by Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent

The rally is not due to start until 2pm, but already here in Moscow, the police are making arrests and there are several hundred people around waiting.

It reminds me very much of the protests in the summer of 2019. There are huge numbers of press following each arrest. I haven’t seen any beatings yet, but the arrests are not pleasant.

Among those attending are Olga and Vladislav Sheglov, father and daughter.

Mr Sheglov told me: “I came here because I cannot live like this anymore, what they’re doing is not acceptable.

“I always tell myself we have the best country, but the worst government.”

His daughter Olga said: “Our kids are being brainwashed. You have families with low income and they have another view of politics.

Olga and Vladislav Sheglov
Image:
Olga and Vladislav Sheglov

“When we saw the Putin’s palace investigation, we were so shocked. We used to vote for him, but this was the last straw. We believe 150%, a million percent that Navalny was poisoned.”

Another person at the protest, 16-year-old Yaroslavl, who we are not naming fully because he’s 16, said: “There’ll probably be more detentions than normal because it’s such a big day.

“I’m a bit concerned, but so many people have come together to defend their own opinion and to defend Russia.

“I was told at school not to come, that they might have extra lessons today, but I ignored them. And my parents were even more serious about me not coming, but I ignored them too.”

He said that today everyone went out not for Navalny, but for themselves, to fight for their rights.



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Alexei Navalny supporters clash with police as mass protests expected across Russia | World News

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Police have clashed with protesters as series of demonstrations in support of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny begins across Russia.

The gatherings, which police have declared illegal, are the first by Mr Navalny’s supporters since he was arrested last weekend on his return to Moscow, after spending five months in Germany recovering from novichok poisoning.

Dozens of people have been detained ahead of the protests, according to a monitoring group, and there have already been scuffles in the southeastern city of Khabarovsk, the location for one of up to 70 marches this weekend.

Videos also show people being taken away from a protest in Yakutsk, where people have been gathering in -50C temperatures.

Pic: Yulia Navalnaya
Image:
Alexei Navalny, pictured with his wife Yulia, was poisoned with novichok

Mr Navalny, 44, who is one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

He is charged with breaking his bail conditions – and is facing a potential three-and-a half-year jail term if found guilty.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Navalny supporters clash with Russian police

They face charges of rioting, fines, problems at work, prison and even threats over child custody as the Russian state tries to crack down on the demonstrations, which could be the largest against Mr Putin since 2018.

Officials also enforced a crackdown in the run-up to the demonstrations, arresting members of Mr Navalny’s team, including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

They have launched an investigation after young Navalny supporters flooded TikTok with anti-Putin videos, pushing for people to support the action this weekend and using the using the hashtags #freenavalny and #23Jan.

The content has been viewed more than 300 million times.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

TikTok videos in support of Navalny

Anger mounted against Mr Putin this week after Mr Navalny’s team released a documentary exposing a vast and opulent palace built by Russia’s leader on the Black Sea coast.

The programme claims the complex – 39 times larger than Monaco – cost £1bn to build and was funded through illicit money.

It is said to have a casino, an underground ice hockey complex and a vineyard.

More than 60 million people have now viewed the Russian-language video on YouTube within three days of it being published.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Navalny calls for protests over his arrest

On Friday, ahead of the weekend of planned protests, Mr Navalny issued a statement saying he wanted it known that he had no plans to take his own life in prison.

The arrest of Mr Navalny has attracted widespread criticism from Western leaders, sparking new tensions in the already strained relationship with the US.

Despite the plans for the protests, Mr Putin’s grip on power appears solid, with the 68-year-old regularly recording approval ratings of more than 60%, many times higher than those of Mr Navalny.



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