Challenging our notions of sexuality
RESPLENDENT in glittering gown, dark glossy hair, smiling eyes adorned by remarkable lashes — and a dark beard — she stands on the stage among thunderous applause. Conchita Wurst, the alter- ego of Thomas ( Tom) Neuwirth, winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest with Rise Like a Phoenix.
Is it a girl, is it a boy? Does it matter? I don’t give a sausage!
Wurst means sausage, but Thomas says his choice of name relates to the German expression “Das ist mir doch alles wurst” roughly translated as “It’s all the same to me”.
He’s a strikingly beautiful Austrian man of 26, extremely articulate and attractive when interviewed, and very willing to talk about his relationship to Conchita. An openly gay adult, he has dressed as a girl from an early age, speaking about the difficulty in dealing with discrimination, initially thinking something was wrong with him because of his difference from other boys.
He feels he has “two hearts beating in my chest”, that he, Thomas, is the private person, and Conchita the public, fictional character, each respecting the other. He uses male pronouns when referring to Thomas, and female pronouns for Conchita, but does not regard himself as transgendered, describing himself as a “recording artist and a drag queen”.
Asked why he identifies with the persona of Conchita, whom he assumed in 2011, he claims the figure of the bearded woman is a symbol for freedom and tolerance, challenging social and sexual assumptions, stimulating discussion on “difference” and “normality”.
Her high- profile win in the Eurovision contest established Conchita as a popular gay idol, but, not unexpectedly, has provoked controversy in many countries, particularly Eastern Europe, Russia and Belarus, where social conservatives and right- wingers have condemned it as the unacceptable promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Petitions calling for the banning of the Eurovision song, refer to the contest as “a hotbed of sodomy”, calling Conchita “the pervert from Austria”.
The New Statesman defended Wurst, saying: “a vote for Wurst is another vote against Russian homophobia ...”
Thomas Neuwirth is not a new phenomenon, simply the latest, high- profile example of a long line of cross- dressers extending back centuries in most cultures. Many fairly recent pop groups have featured cross- dressers, such as Boy George, Queen, Prince and Annie Lennox in suit and tie in the music video of Sweet Dreams.
In the early theatre, for example in Shakespeare’s plays, men played women’s parts, as women were forbidden to appear on stage. Twelfth Night features double cross- dressing — male actors playing female characters who disguise themselves as males.
Numerous modern plays, movies and stage shows have depended on cross- dressing for their dramatic effect: Victor Victoria, Albert Nobbs, the 1975 gay blockbuster Rocky Horror Picture Show, Australian drag- queen Dame Edna Everage, Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain.
And in South Africa we have our own cross- dressing icon Pieter- Dirk Uys and his much- loved alter- ego Evita Bezuidenhout.
History records innumerable instances of women assuming male personas, passing as men their entire lives, to be accepted in occupations forbidden to them. Many men have dressed as women to escape danger or avoid being conscripted.
French Dadaist painter Marcel Duchamp posed for portraits as his alter- ego, Rrose Selavy, attributing several of his works to her. George Sand, 19th- century French novelist, regularly dressed in male clothing. Dorothy Lawrence, an English war reporter during World War 1, disguised herself as a man to be admitted into the armed forces. Dr James Barry, a doctor in the Cape from 1817, was not discovered to be a woman until after her death. All challenging social conventions.
The Hindu tradition offers an interesting dimension on sexuality in the ancient androgynous image Ardhanarishvara, the deity Shiva as half male/ half female, symbolising the synthesis of male and female energies as the universal creative force. Male and female principles ( Purusha and Prakriti) are inseparable, constituting the unity of opposites, and the ultimate non- duality of the Supreme Being. Hermaphrodite figures are particularly associated with auspiciousness and fertility, promoting the flourishing of creation.
This belief is exemplified by the Hijra, communities of male cross- dressers and transsexuals, frequently called to dance at births and weddings, bringing their auspicious auras.
This provides a powerfully variant perspective of the combination of male and female depicted in one person, a fascinating and provocative image through the ages — challenging stereotypes, and enriching our notions of sexuality.
Each of us could probably benefit from discovering creative ways of integrating the female and male facets of our psyche into a harmonious whole.
Human sexuality is far more complex and multifaceted than usually envisaged, certainly not confined to two clearly defined and distinguishable male and female categories determined by X and Y chromosomes.