Conchita Wurst, the drag queen who won Eurovision in 2014 / IBL/REX/Shutterstock

Eurovision is far more than a kitsch extravaganza. For LGBT travellers it's a safe space, a week of celebration and a much loved tradition. Kashmira Gander meets the regulars

It’s easy to dismiss the Eurovision Song Contest as a bizarre, trashy waste of money. But for some people who identify as LGBT, the annual contest is a chance to celebrate unity and to travel with less fear for their safety.

Although overt political statements are banned at the contest, it has long been associated with the LGBT community thanks to its message of acceptance. It has long been accommodating of openly gay and trans contestants – including drag queen and 2014 winner Conchita Wurst, and Dana International who represented Israel in 1998. Watched by 180 million people worldwide, Eurovision gives an important platform to such performers. And from a cold business perspective, host cities know that it would be foolish to let prejudice ruin their chances of cashing in on the 'pink pound' during the week that the competition is running.

Eurovision’s dedicated LGBT fan base is something that its organisers are certainly aware of. Sieste Bakker, a Eurovision event supervisor, told France 24 in an interview that while it aims to welcomes everyone, many of its “most dedicated contest fans are from the LGBT community”.

Jonathan Khoo, a 39-year-old programmer from San Francisco, is among the competition’s most committed fans. His favourite edition? Malmö in 2013.

“I will never forget walking up to the arena in Malmö and seeing what I hadn't really seen on all the broadcasts up to that point. There was such excitement in the air, people dressed up, flags waving and singing. I was immediately swept away in the moment, and that euphoria lasted the whole evening and remains with me to this day. It was also the first time I realised how gay it was! I had heard rumours but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of gay folks there. It was amazing,” he tells The Independent. 

This year’s final in Kiev will be the fourth he’s attended. He says he is curious to see how the LGBT community will be treated in the Ukrainian capital. While same-sex relationships are legal in Ukraine, the country has a chequered history with the queer community. In 2015, hooligans disrupted Kiev’s small gay pride rally, throwing flares. And the transformation of a Soviet-era monument in the Ukrainian capital into a giant rainbow to celebrate diversity in the run-up to Eurovision has caused uproar among far-right groups. 

“While they've been trying to promote themselves as a gay-friendly destination it remains to be seen how successful that will be. That said, there is safety in numbers or at least one would hope,” adds Khoo.

“I remember talk on the arena floor a couple years ago when Russia had a really strong contender, what would happen if it – with its infamously homophobic leader – won. I remember some people saying they definitely would not go, while others saying they would be there in force. I tend to be in the latter camp,” he says.

Jon Khoo has attended three Eurovision contests, and Kiev 2017 will be his fourth 

“Everyone by now knows Eurovision has turned into ‘gay Christmas’ and there's no reason for it to stop being such. I know I'm being naive but in my head I imagine a Footloose scenario where we convince the town to loosen up and have fun, but as is evident in Kiev with the controversy over the rainbow arch, that would probably never happen.”

Charles Gittins, a 36-year-old civil servant at the European Commission in Brussels, has been to five Eurovision finals, as well as the Junior event and Swedish competition to select the nation’s representative. Each year, he and a group of the same five or six friends head out the host city, where they will reunite with dozens of other devoted fans. He has been gripped by the competition since the age of 10, he told The Independent, when he was “mesmerised by the diversity and colour of the whole thing”.

Charles Gittins has spent thousands of euros attending Eurovision Song Contests 

He agrees with Khoo about the safety aspect, too. While he has never visited a Eurovision location traditionally regarded as unsafe for the LGBT community, he adds: “it is true to say that there is safety in numbers and host cities are generally keen to show their best side at international events such as this. I think this must improve things.”

Ryan Wilson, a 36-year-old from Canberra, Australia, who has attended eight Eurovision finals since his first in 2004, takes a more cynical view. “I wonder if it's more the contest forces the many LGBT fans to visit countries they otherwise wouldn't? Having many people around you who are also LGBT is a big help, and the impact and impressions - and tourist dollars - of a heavy LGBT Eurovision fan base is not lost on some countries with questionable attitudes to LGBT folk.”

And as Khoo travels from the US, Wilson from Australia, and Gittins - admittedly less far - from Brussels, the contest is a happy extravagance for its devotees.

Ryan Wilson, second left, poses with his friends at Eurovision 2015

Wilson says the most he’s spent on a contest is in the region of $5,000AUD (£2900) - owing to the expense of flying from Australia to Europe and often having to stay in expensive Scandinavian countries.

In 2006, Gittins spent thousands of euros to and stayed for the entirety of Eurovision week in Athens. 

“With flights, hotels, event tickets, meals, spending money and far too many drinks in pubs and clubs, I probably spent in the region of €2,500-3,000.” But he says it was worth every penny.

“It was my first time in the country and I had dreamt of going to Greece for many years. I was also my first live Eurovision final. The combination of attending my first ever Eurovision and visiting the cradle of so much of European culture simply bowled me over.” 

Khoo’s advice for anyone tempted to attend a future contest is to make a cancellable hotel reservation as soon as the host city is announced.

“You're not bound to what you've chosen but more than likely if you do it right after the announcement they won't have a chance to jack up their prices. If you find a better and or cheaper place later, or decide not to go, it’s no skin off your nose.”

Wilson, meanwhile, suggests buying tickets early, researching events around the city and buying country flags before you head off. “There’s nothing worse than traipsing around an unfamiliar city looking for Eurovision necessities!”

As for Gittins, he says the host cities make the experience so seamless he’s lost for advice. He does, however, have a message for the Eurovision sceptics who dismiss it as a waste of money. “Eurovision gives joy and entertainment to millions of people across the world. How on earth can that be a waste of time and money?”