2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first official Pride march. To celebrate this milestone, Stylist is carving out space for stories of LGBTQ+ joy in our new series, The Moment That Made Me, in which we invite LGBTQ+ writers to reflect upon the moments they first felt seen and heard in popular culture. Here, author and trans advocate Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir reflects upon one of the most groundbreaking moments in Eurovision history: Dana International’s 1998 victory for Israel.
I’m seven years old. I’m sitting in front of the TV at my parent’s farm in rural north Iceland during a bright summer night, absolutely mesmerised by one of the most captivating women I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why just yet, but what I do know is that I want nothing more than to be like her.
She is beautiful, confident and commands the stage with a presence unlike anyone else. She is unapologetically herself in a way that I’ve never seen before. The hosts are making comments about her name and calling her a man, but I don’t care, because I know they are wrong.
I am captivated by this woman, who, despite all the odds, is proudly expressing herself and performing with her head held high.
One of my earliest memories of watching the Eurovision song contest, Dana International made waves in 1998 when she won the competition for Israel with her song Diva. I didn’t know it at the time, but her historic win was going to affect me profoundly at a moment I would come to look back upon and treasure.
Many years after I watched Dana International triumph on stage, I read that her critics, including prominent Orthodox rabbis, had tried to have her removed from the competition. They said that choosing her to go to Eurovision was like sending “a message of darkness to the world”. A member of the Israeli parliament even described her life as a trans woman as “worse than an act of sodomy”.
But for someone like me, she was a light in the darkness. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing yourself represented on screen – let alone in front of millions of people across Europe. She was a trailblazer, and it was obvious that she had won everyone’s hearts.
And Dana wasn’t deterred by the backlash; not by those who used her deadname and misgendered her during the competition, or the Israeli lawmakers who had decried her win.
“My victory proves God is on my side,” she said in a defiant statement. “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness: try to accept me. I am what I am.”
At the time, it was a rare and unexpected instance of LGBTQ+ visibility, especially for trans people. As Eurovision’s first ever trans winner, Dana International showed Europe that trans people were also people just like them. It allowed people to connect to her as a person and as a performer they enjoyed – not as a freak or someone to be feared or judged, but as someone to be celebrated.
Her legacy also had a profound effect on Eurovision as a contest, as many queer performers have followed in her footsteps and had a chance to express themselves in front of the whole of Europe – and spread a message of love and acceptance.
Dana International paved the way for the sensational Conchita Wurst, who took the win in 2014 for Austria. Conchita immediately became an icon for the community – not only for her incredible performance, talent and voice but also for what she stood for as a person.
While Conchita Wurst is primarily a drag artist, she was often labelled as a trans woman across media platforms in Europe – despite the singer, who is the alter-ego of Tom Neuwirth, explaining in interviews that he is not transgender and only uses female pronouns when performing as Conchita.
While these nuances of identity do matter, there is no denying that her win was a seismic event and an iconic moment for the entire queer community.
On the night that she won I had dressed up as her – beard and everything – and cried with joy as she was announced as the winner and accepted her award. She gracefully took the microphone and sent a powerful message to the world:
“This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable!”
And she was right.
A competition that was built upon the foundation to create unity and foster peace across Europe is a great platform to spread a message of peace and freedom, which is what the queer community strives for every day.
As she sang her winning performance, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dana International, and what her victory meant for people like me.
Our unity and solidarity with each other is what makes us strong, and queer people continue to have a visible presence in Eurovision and hold an undeniable place in queer culture across Europe.
As a result, we see LGBTQ+ people competing in Eurovision every year, and this year there were at least four countries that sent artists who were openly queer – as well as there being a same-sex kiss on stage when San Marino’s singer Achille Lauro embraced his guitarist Boss Doms.
The entry from Iceland, where I’m from, had three sisters competing this year under the name Systur. One of the sisters is an openly queer woman and another is the mum of a trans teenager. They used the opportunity to raise awareness of trans rights during their time in the competition and proudly waved and wore the trans flag on screen.
Seeing that visibility was another big reminder of how precious and important Eurovision is to me and how it can foster understanding and raise awareness of issues that we still need to fight for.
I’m always proud of Iceland’s entry, and while there is always something special about seeing your own country perform, this year felt particularly special to me because of their visible and vocal support of trans rights.
It doesn’t matter whether I’m seven years old or 31 – seeing myself reflected during such a large cultural event always means the world to me. Whether it’s Dana International, Conchita Wurst or Systur – their messages of unity and freedom transcended far beyond the TV screen and filled me with hope.
Even though the seven-year-old me didn’t quite understand why Dana International winning was so important at the time, I look back with happiness and joy, knowing that things were going to turn out just fine.
Images: Getty; courtesy of author