They used to call the line between east and west the Iron Curtain. As of last week, you could call it the Sequined Curtain.
That's the night an Austrian drag queen with a fondness for glittery dresses won the crown of the Eurovision Song Contest, and Russia was not amused. The bewhiskered Conchita Wurst, the drag alter-ego of a former boy-band singer named Thomas Neuwirth, beat out predicted favorite Great Britain - as well as a pair of white-blonde Russian twins who were booed as they took the stage - to win the annual celebration of euro-kitsch. In doing so, she shined a fabulous disco ball on the growing chasm over LGBT rights between Britain, Spain and the rest of the liberal West, and Russia and the former Soviet countries in the East.
Eurovision, for the unenlightened, is an annual song contest most famous in the United States for launching the career of ABBA in 1974. This year's broadcast had an estimated 125 million viewers; not surprisingly, many of them are gay. While the event has spawned several international hit songs, smug Western Europe increasingly tends to view Eurovision as something no one could possibly take seriously - and song entries have reflected that. But in the east, it's serious business - and that's the problem.
More recent participants to the contest -- think Azerbaijan, Armenia or Ukraine -- see it as a coming out party of sorts, often using it to hide human rights abuses at home. And often, those human rights abuses are aimed at LGBT people. In advance of the contest, Russia and Ukraine ignored their territorial spat long enough to petition Eurovision officials for Wurst's removal from the competition. And when she won? Russia was apoplectic.
One Russian politician sneered "There is no limit to our outrage. It has turned wild. There are no more men or women in Europe, just it." Meanwhile, a social media campaign has Russian men shaving their beards to prove they're manlier than Wurst.
It's as exhilarating as it is depressing: there's no longer any doubt of Western Europe's direction towards equality and tolerance. The jubilation in Vienna, London, Paris and Madrid over Wurst's win proves that. And there's no question Russia is moving in the opposite direction. Vladimir Putin's Russia has very loudly proclaimed that LGBT people are not welcome, but until now, it's appeared to be a top-down phenomenon. Internet reaction to Wurst in Russia and other former Soviet countries proves that it's much more widespread than that.
This isn't the first time a gender-bending act has made it to the Eurovision finals - transgender Dana International scored a win for Israel in 1998. In 2007, Verka Serducha, another drag queen - from Ukraine, of all places - came in at number two in the finals. But Dana International presents unequivocally as a woman, and Verka Serduchka is a clown who claims to be straight. Wurst, beard, sequins and all, flaunts her courage to be who she is in front of all of Europe, Russia included, making a mockery of Putin and his homophobic laws. And male heteros freaked.
Wurst summed it up herself in a message she leveled directly at Putin: "This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable."