by William Dean
The country with L-O-V-E in the middle, Slovenia, is sending a transvestite trio to Estonia for one of the world's longest-running and largest song contests. Is that news? Well, in the 46-year history of the Eurovision Song Contest, it's certainly a first for a Middle European nation, but not quite so startling for the contest. In fact, Sestre follows in the hopeful high-heel prints of Israel's winning entry in 1998, transsexual Dana International.
Sestre (Sister), wearing crimson stewardess uniforms, matching caps, high heels, and bright red lipstick, stunned their native country with a top-scoring Euro-camp love song "Samo Ljubezen" (Only Love).
As it did for Dana International, criticism came from both the left and the right. Religious groups and conservative elements made their immediate displeasure public and very vocal. To counter the protests, gay activists marched through the streets of the capital Ljubljana. At one point, even the national parliament, the Drzavni Zbor, got involved and hotly debated over who has the right to represent Slovenian culture abroad.
But, despite a slim voting majority, Sestre did win the national competition and are headed for Tallin, Estonia, in late May, where the contest will be held.
There's nothing new about transvestite entertainers, of course. The practice goes deep into history when physically-gendered women were forbidden to trod the stage. Men who were dressed, made up, and acting like women danced, sang, and orated in Ancient Grecian amphitheatres, and similarly attired priests often participated in rites to propitiate this or that god or goddess accordingly.
In the ensuing centuries between "that was then and this is now," of course, we've been strangely trained to think transvestite entertainment has been hidden in backrooms and underground clubs, like those in Cabaret, but the reality is that there have always been elements in plain sight. Anyone who's ever giggled at a Looney Toon has some memory of watching Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Porky, and even the terribly butch Yosemite Sam put on a dress and warble a tune or two. The late Uncle Miltie Berle was well known for wearing female clothes, lipstick, and other finery. So, the Sestre act isn't just about media visibility. It's about validity. It's not about a male donning gown and wig to get a laugh, but as an acceptable choice to publicly appear in the clothing and with the attributes of a gender you weren't physically born with. And it's about international organizations supporting such a choice despite protests.
Who's Your Sestre?
Starting their career together as the "Štrumpant'l Sisters" (The Suspender Sisters), Sestre has appeared successfully at various festivals and in TV shows in Slovenia for over two years. The members of the trio are Daphne (Srecko Blas), a 27-year-old student of agronomy and performer for the Ljubljana Dance Theatre; Emperatrizz (Damjan Levec), a 22-year-old make-up artist and holder of the honourable title of the second runner-up at the European Miss Transvestite 1997 pageant; and Marlena (Tomaz Mihelic), a 22-year-old work therapy graduate from a medical college, who also studies folk singing and yodeling.
A predominantly Catholic country, Slovenia, at first, officially, seemed to want to revoke the voters' choice of Sestre as the winner. The national sing-off is televised and voting is done by viewers through an interactive system. RTV Slovenia, the national broadcasting entity which hosts the competition, announced they would veto the votes and disqualify Sestre, which prompted immediate and very public protest. Gay activist groups unfurled a massive rainbow flag in front of RTV headquarters; others marched in the streets, passed out flyers, and called their political representatives.
The controversy escalated and percolated. One afternoon, NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations affiliated with the United Nations) representatives held a makeshift press conference in front of the RTV Slovenia building. Journalists were given a 36-page press release of examples of homophobic statements compiled from various Internet forums in the days following the song contest.
These included statements such as: "Fuck the damn transvestites, their balls should be cut off!" "These faggots should all be killed." "Faggots can't represent us in Europe." "Equality for all, except for...transvestites, homosexuals, and other low-lifes." The NGO representatives gave a statement warning the public about the level of intolerance manifested in Slovenia. They condemned the smokescreen complications around the song competition results and highlighted the fact that the reason behind the complications is not the way the song was chosen, but rather the performers of the song. They appealed to the media to read the evidence of general intolerance and confront it instead of going along with it. They pointed out that under the circumstances, any second decision on the winning song would only mean a vote, a sort of referendum, for or against intolerance.
Through the media coverage across Europe, the European Parliament was brought into the controversy over Sestre. Following the protest against a possible re-vote of the Slovene national song contest, the European Parliament voiced their concern in early March that the rights of sexual minorities might be violated in Slovenia.
"If it turns out that the controversy...has a homophobic background, the equal treatment of sexual minorities in the country will become questionable," said Dutch MEP Lousewies van der Laan, chair of the European Parliament's committee on citizens' freedoms and rights, justice, and home affairs, to the Slovene press agency STA. She was not satisfied with the explanation by Slovene officials that the controversy was not connected to homophobia, after talking to Alja Brglez, director of the Slovene Government Public Relations and Media Office, and Marko Kranjec, head of the Slovene mission to the EU. Another reason for Parliament's concern were results of a survey, published in Slovenvia's newspaper Nedelo, showing that 51.4 percent of Slovenes feel that a group of transvestites should not represent them at the Eurovision contest.
"This is a clear sign of homophobia," said van der Laan, and assured the international media that the European Parliament would continue to monitor the respect for sexual minorities' rights in Slovenia. The rights of sexual minorities are an unalienable part of human rights, the respect for which is a prerequisite for entry into the EU, she said, adding that Slovenia had its reputation in European Parliament marred last year, after the referendum to allow single women access to in-vitro fertilisation failed.
"In the European Parliament, we understood the failed referendum as a conspiracy of the church and an attempt to discriminate against lesbians, which did not create a positive image of Slovenia. The respect for people, regardless of what their way of life is like, is an integral part of democratic values of the European society," she said. "The situation in many countries is worrisome, however we do not wish that Slovenia would be one of these countries."
RTV Slovenia, not long after, announced there would be no disqualification and that Sestre would, indeed, go to the Eurovision song contest as Slovenia's official representatives. Another late development is that Vega, Slovenia's third largest mobile phone company, has signed up Sestre for a series of unconventional advertisements for their telecommunication services under the banner heading of "At Your Choice." Sing out, Sestre, you go, gurls!
To check out Sestre, visit their Web site.