“Conchita, Conchita” the boys squeal. I am standing in a gay night club in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I glance behind me, and sure enough, there she is – Conchita Wurst. Never mind that she looks less than glamourous in her frumpy brown calico frock. Or that she is a little on the short side, and most definitely Asian. She is Conchita incarnate, with her straight black hair reaching down to her waist and her little more than five-o’clock-shadow beard. The boys whisper as she passes us. Throughout the night, the squealed refrain is heard again and again. She never graces the stage, but rather wanders about, talking and flirting with various boys, giving a lap dance or two. Eventually, the dress and wig come off and she is just another gay Kyrgyz boy, albeit with a painted on beard.
Conchita Wurst, the stage name and persona of Austrian singer and EuroVision contestant Tom Neuwirth, was the transcendent hero of the spring and summer of 2014. The EuroVision Song Contest is an annual transnational singing competition held among the members of the European Broadcasting Union. Both highly entertaining and highly political, it is perhaps best described as the Olympics of pop music. I had followed EuroVision a little on Facebook from Bloomington, Indiana. My Austrian roommate had been the first to point out to me that a drag queen or a trans woman or an intersex woman or a bearded lady or whatever Conchita Wurst really was (and there was plenty of debate) would be Austria’s contender, and it took a little while for me realize that she would be far more than a novelty. Rather, Conchita would become emblematic of a global battle for the right to queer expression. Not gay expression, not even trans expression, but queer expression. Conchita was someone who could pull off the combination of beard and pretty dress – the archetype of “genderfuck” – and do it in a way so seamless, so natural, that one hardly realized she was fucking with gender at all.
As EuroVision commenced, the internet was ablaze. The voting, in particular, became the moment where her importance began to emerge for me, where she was not the sideshow but the battleground. Where Conchita equaled queer equaled freedom equaled Europe, and Ukraine’s voting was of particular interest – which way would it sway? A vote against Conchita was viewed ideologically as a vote for Russia, a fact that was highlighted most clearly in votes for the Russian contestant. The Cold War had reemerged writ large on the svelte body of an Austrian drag queen.
In addition to EuroVison, spring of 2014 saw the introduction of a bill that would create a gay propaganda law in Kyrgyzstan, a law that was broader in scope and harsher in punishment than the Russian law passed in 2013. This law would criminalize anything that fosters, “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations, using the media or information and telecommunications networks” and would be punishable by both a fine and up to a year in prison. This came after a series of events beginning in January of 2014 that increased the visibility of LGBT people in Kyrgyzstan. First, the Human Rights Watch had held a press conference in conjunction with the release of a report detailing 40 instances of police brutality toward and extortion of gay and bi men in Kyrgyzstan. One of the speakers was a Kyrgyz LGBT rights activist, who publically came out as gay. The next day, the then-acting Grand Mufti, Kyrgyzstan’s highest religious authority, released a fatwa paraphrased as “if you see a gay, kill him.” Violence against LGBT people escalated, and in February, a mob gathered outside the US embassy and burned the photograph of a pro-Ukraine activist who was rumored to be gay.
It was against this backdrop that I returned to Bishkek in May and that Conchita really began to mean something to me, and then only through what she meant to other people. Before, she had largely been a sensationalistic singer singing a mediocre song, interesting for what she said about international politics. I was interested in her in much the same way I had been interested in Finnish monster band Lordi several years before. However, as I would encounter her again and again in Kyrgyzstan, brought to life by a Russian man from Russia who performed at the talent show at the LGBT Summer Camp; or by the Kyrgyz boy giving lap dances at the gay club in Bishkek; or simply in her tune, “Rise Like a Phoenix,” hummed defiantly on the jailoo (summer pasture) or the alleys of Bishkek, I began to see her as a beacon of hope, and as a figure who was intimately relatable to Kyrgyzstan’s feminine gay men.
Conchita’s relatability surprised me at first, for in the United States, Conchita’s appeal came in part from the very fact that she was not relatable, that no one knew quite how to categorize her or even make sense of her. Although she was the stage persona of a gay man, the term drag queen did not seem quite applicable, in part because of the presence of the beard, and in part because without the beard she could totally pass as a woman. She was over-the-top, but in all the wrong ways.
This in between status, this ability to resist categorization is, I believe, precisely what made Conchita so accessible and relatable in Bishkek. In Bishkek, many gay men straddled the line between cis and trans, neither binary nor non-binary, men who were somehow exempted from womanhood (including trans womanhood) and yet not really men either, but at the same time, neither bigendered nor agendered. Conchita was a physical representation of the condition that defined their lives, feminine manhood as separate and distinct from trans womanhood. She proved that one could have a beard and a male body and still be the pinnacle of femininity. There was nothing masculine about Conchita, and yet she was not a passable woman.
That summer, anyone could be Conchita. You did not have to be pretty, or be able to pass. You did not have to be thin, or glamourous. You only had to be recognizable, and all that took was the juxtaposition of a wig and a beard. And who wasn’t Conchita, rising from the ashes, defiantly telling the writers of propaganda laws that we too will prevail, that self-expression is worth standing up for, that ultimately, gender is made to be fucked?
Samuel Buelow is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on LGBT issues in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. His current work focuses on Kyrgyz “crossdressers” – men who look like beautiful women.