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Eurovision’s LGBTQ contestants make their mark in a turbulent year for the contest

LGBTQ inclusion is broader than ever at the spectacularly campy Eurovision, held this year in Sweden against a backdrop of unrest over Israel’s participation.
From left, Nemo of Switzerland, SABA of Denmark and Mustii of Belgium perform at Eurovision.
Switzerland's Nemo, left, Saba of Denmark, center, and Mustii of Belgium are among the eight LGBTQ artists performing at Eurovision.AP; Getty

MALMÖ, Sweden — Inside Malmö Arena in southern Sweden this week, the Eurovision Song Contest has continued its decades-old legacy of serving as a safe space for harmony and extravaganza — much of it with a decidedly LGBTQ flair — where the world’s struggles and strifes are largely forgotten. The festivities will culminate in a spectacular final Saturday evening local time, when more than two dozen countries will compete for the glass microphone

But outside the arena, on the streets of Malmö, thousands of protesters have expressed their anger at Israel’s involvement in this year’s competition, some with banners going so far as to dub this the “Genocide Song Contest.” Among the protesters was climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose mother, Malena Ernman, happened to represent Sweden at Eurovision in 2009.

Despite the unrest, the second round of Eurovision’s semi-final went off seamlessly on Thursday, with a series of elaborately staged performances by 19 of this year’s 37 contestants from nations across Europe and beyond. Eight of this year’s performers are part of the LGBTQ community, including three who identify as nonbinary, marking a new queer milestone in the long-running high-drama annual contest that’s often called “Queer Christmas” by superfans.

Nemo from Switzerland
Nemo, who is representing Switzerland, is seen as a frontrunner going into the final.Jessica Gow / AFP - Getty Images

Thursday’s performers included Denmark’s Saba, an Ethiopian-born queer woman and advocate for those with mental health challenges; Belgium’s Mustii, who identifies as queer and serves as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race Belgium; and Switzerland’s Nemo, whose song “The Code” is an anthem to their acceptance of their nonbinary identity, and is a strong contender to take the top prize at Saturday’s final. 

“‘The Code’ is, I would say, about the journey of finding my true self,” Nemo told NBC News. “It’s about everything that came with that journey, the good things and the less nice things. I feel like it kind of incorporates everything in these three minutes without judging it or whatever.”

Three minutes, for the Eurovision-uninitiated, is the maximum length for a song in competition. The only other requirements are that the song be original, that it be delivered live and that no more than six people appear on stage at once during its performance.  

From there, anything goes, and usually does. This year’s performances have already included everything from a DJ in a bright blue bird costume (from the Netherlands’ Joost Klein) to pants-less prancing across the stage (courtesy of Finland’s Windows95man). 

Which is not to say that the Eurovision Song Contest hasn’t also advanced greatness, most famously serving as the global launchpad for Sweden’s ABBA in 1974 and Céline Dion (competing for Switzerland) in 1988. More recently, Måneskin’s 2021 Eurovision win for Italy helped catapult the band to international stardom.

Mustii from Belgium
Belgium's Mustii also serves as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race Belgium. Jens Büttner / dpa via AP

Since this year marks 50 years since ABBA took the top prize with “Waterloo,” rumors have been rife about a possible surprise reunion appearance during Saturday’s final. Also marking an anniversary this year is Austria’s “bearded drag queen” Conchita Wurst, who won with “Rise Like a Phoenix” in 2014 and will perform at the final as part of an ABBA tribute.

Former winner, Loreen, who identifies as bisexual and took home her second Eurovision title last year for Sweden with her song “Tattoo,” will also perform at this year’s final.

LGBTQ performers make their mark 

Mustii’s Eurovision participation this year was first floated during the taping of an episode of Drag Race Belgium, where he’s been a judge since the show’s debut last year. 

“I was in my dressing room getting ready when Sandrine Roustan, the director of Belgian French national television broadcaster RTBF, came to me and suggested the idea,” he told NBC News. “So you could say that Drag Race Belgium was the starting point for my participation in Eurovision. And for me it’s very logical, given that these two shows share the same values.”

Saba from Denmark
Denmark's Saba considers herself an advocate for those with mental health challenges. Jens Büttner / dpa via Getty Images

Saba, an advocate for several underrepresented communities in Denmark, said she hopes to inspire others to dare to step forward and pursue their dreams. “I hope and believe that I, as a brown woman who is also adopted, queer and struggling with mental challenges, can play an important role in making Malmö an inclusive party, where I can represent a lot of people and Denmark in my own way,” the singer told NBC News.

Switzerland’s Nemo was the only LGBTQ performer from Thursday's semi-final to move through to Saturday’s final. They will join the U.K.’s Olly Alexander, who is gay and nonbinary and automatically qualified as a member of the Big Five; Lithuania’s Silvester Belt, who is bisexual; and Ireland’s Bambie Thug, who is nonbinary and received a flurry of media attention after their underworldly performance in a trans flag outfit at the first semi-final.

Nemo’s toughest challenger for Eurovision 2024 champion appears to be Croatia’s Baby Lasagna, whose rock banger “Rim Tim Tagi Dim” harkens back to decades of nonsense-titled Eurovision classics like U.K.’s “Boom Bang a Bang” (sung by none other than Lulu) in 1969 and the Netherlands’ “Ding-a-Dong” in 1975.

Despite, or perhaps because of the controversy surrounding her involvement in the competition, Israel’s Eden Golan is currently placing second behind Baby Lasagna in the betting odds, just ahead of Nemo and Bambie Thug. 

In March, U.K. activist group Queers for Palestine called for Alexander, who is one of the competition’s most well-known artists and is representing the U.K., to withdraw from the contest because of Israel’s involvement. That same month, Alexander joined Nemo, Thug and six other performers who signed a statement supporting a cease-fire in Gaza. 

“We firmly believe in the unifying power of music, enabling people to transcend differences and foster meaningful conversations and connections,” read the statement. “We feel it is our duty to create and uphold this space, with a strong hope that it will inspire greater compassion and empathy.”

The Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final will stream live on Peacock on Saturday, May 11, 2024 at 3 p.m. ET. Peacock and NBC News are both units of NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast.

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