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Österreich Wien LGBTI Marsch
Image: DW/Jessie Wingard

Reaching out to Russia

Jessie Wingard, Vienna
May 22, 2015

The LGBTI community is using Russia's popularity at the Eurovision Song Contest to reach out to Moscow, but that's not the only thing being done to promote tolerance. DW's Jessie Wingard reports from Vienna.


Building Bridges, the motto of the Eurovision Song Contest is all about uniting east and west. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities from this year's host country, Austria, used the opportunity of the world's biggest gay-friendly music event to make a statement that Europe needs to improve the rights of its LGBTI people.

More than 200 people marched through downtown Vienna Thursday to spread the message of tolerance and acceptance. Carrying a 40 meter (131 feet) banner made up of flags from more than 70 countries where homosexuality is forbidden or the death penalty is imposed for LGBTI people, demonstrators called on law makers in all European countries to enact legislation that would allow gay and lesbian people to have the same access to anti-discrimination laws as heterosexual people, Angela Schwarz, co-organizer of the To Russia with Love march told DW.

To Russia with Love, the organization behind the rainbow march, says that while all European countries need to make improvements to varying degrees regarding LGBTI rights, its biggest concern is Russia and the lack of rights minority communities have there.

Österreich Wien LGBTI Marsch Angela Schwarz
Angela Schwarz is co-organizer of LGBTI activist group To Russia with LoveImage: DW/Jessie Wingard

Moscow's membership in the Council of Europe, its signature on the European Convention on Human Rights and the significance each of those hold is in stark contrast to legislation Russia imposes on homosexuality. A law passed in June 2013, is just one example of where people can be imprisoned for circulating information to minors about "non-traditional sexual orientation," the organization says.

To Russia, with love from your fans

As Moscow's heavy-handed gay laws continue to be condemned by the international community, organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest had pre-recorded applause on standby for the live semi-final broadcast in case the audience showed any animosity toward Russian contestant Polina Gagarina.

The move came after Russia's 2014 Eurovision entrants, the 17-year-old Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed before both their dress rehearsal performance and their live final - a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's anti-gay propaganda laws.

But, the pre-recorded sound was not needed. Instead, rainbow colored flags - the symbol of the LGBTI community - were waved in support of the singer who says the song she has chosen to perform at Eurovision, 'A million voices,' "is about love. We all speak one language, the language of love. It doesn't make a difference who we are. We can build bridges."

Eurovision communications coordinator, Jarmo Siim, told DW that due to Polina's positive reception in the first semi-final, the show's producers will be using audience sound live from the venue, rather than pre-recorded applause. "Looking at the response the Russian contestant has received, we are confident she will be cheered with the same enthusiasm [at the final]," Simm added.

Österreich Wien LGBTI Marsch Simon Hill und Steve Cannon
Simon Hill and his partner Steve Cannon said they would not feel safe traveling to RussiaImage: DW/Jessie Wingard

Despite her government's anti-gay stance, Russia's Polina seems to have won the hearts of the LGBTI community not only with her gay-friendly song, but after she shared a photograph earlier this week on Facebook of herself and last year's winner from Austria, gay-icon, Conchita Wurst.

But the LGBTI community is worried if Russia wins Saturday's Eurovision final.

Simon Hill who is in Vienna with his partner Steve Cannon for the song contest told DW that if Russia wins then he does not think he could travel to Moscow and feel safe.

"If the state does not lock me up, then the people in Russia might beat me up," Hill added. While Cannon says it is important to use events like Eurovision, especially when Russia is participating with a hugely popular song, to send a "loud and clear message that it is not acceptable to have homophobic legislation in Europe."

Sentiment echoed by Darian Michtits, a political science student from Vienna.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable going to Russia. I don't want to be attacked. We have to change that so people can feel comfortable in the whole of Europe so they don't have to fear for their lives."

Lit-up lovers guide the way

And it is not just the music that is getting people around Vienna talking about LGBTI equality. For 49 pedestrian traffic lights across the Vienna Ring, a famed boulevard right in the middle of where the song contest is being held, the little green and red men who normally provide pedestrians with directions on when to cross the road are no longer just male stick figures - but couples. Some lights flash a man and a woman holding hands. Others, two men. Others, two women.

Österreich Wien LGBTI Marsch Darian Michtits
Political science student Darian Michtits was in Vienna to protestImage: DW/Jessie Wingard

The new gay-friendly traffic fixtures have become so popular with locals and tourists that they are set to stay as a symbol of tolerance and acceptance. Austria's state broadcaster ORF quoted the city's deputy mayor, Maria Vassilako, as saying the lights, which have received cult status, are to stay well beyond the conclusion of Eurovision 2015 after more than 20,000 people signed an online petition to have them remain.

Eurovision 2015 will conclude on Saturday night when contestants representing 27 countries, including special guest Australia, compete to be crowned winners of the 60th edition of the world's biggest entertainment event. More than 200 million people across the world are expected to watch the television broadcast.

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