Dana International was everywhere, and everyone was asking essentially the same question: "Tell us about your penis."
It's that time of year again: winter is retreating, spring is upon us, and once again it's time to stock up on wine, get out your score cards, invite your friends over and get trollied watching a parade of talentless nobodies vomit their dignity on stage in a show watched by millions - the Eurovision Song Contest! Love it or hate it, Eurovision has been around for over fifty years, and has truly earned its place as one of the premier events in the gay calendar. The show launched the careers of such musical heavyweights as ABBA, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Celine Dion, yet despite these crimes against humanity, it goes from strength to strength. But for me, every time Eurovision is mentioned I'm transported back in time to 1998, when the most controversial Jew since Jesus took the trophy in one of the closest votes ever.
The contest in 1998 was special for a number of reasons: for a start, it was held in the UK, home of the reigning champions; it was the first time that a phone vote would be used across Europe, instead of the traditional judging panels; the UK entry was actually a decent song (I'm lying of course - it was some utterly forgettable dancefloor disaster by no-hit wonder Imaani. I have it on CD, natch...); but most importantly of all, it was the year that Dana International, an Israeli transexual, took to the stage.
It's easy to dismiss Dana as just another aspect of Eurovision silliness, another pink piece in the big gay jigsaw, but to me, and to kids like me, looking for answers to questions we knew we shouldn't be asking, she was an inspiration. Dana's notoriety spread across Europe long before the night of the contest, and she challenged people's preconceptions of what a transexual should be. She was beautiful, overtly sexual, talented; she was open and honest about her sexuality, she had a career, and despite occsionally dressing like a drag queen, she didn't look like one. Dana International was my first transexual role model, and for that I will always be grateful.
After her nail-biting victory in one of the closest votes in the history of the contest, Dana exploded out of Israel and onto a world stage. Her single, Diva, went straight into the UK charts at number 11, making it the most successful non-British Eurovision hit since ABBA, and she was the toast of every talk show in town: dinner with Ruby Wax, a little light flirting with Richard on This Morning, a performance on the National Lottery show (puns about balls will not be tolerated in these pages). Dana was everywhere, and everyone was asking essentially the same question: "Tell us about your penis."
To her credit, if she was tired with all the dick talk, she never showed it, and answered questions gracefully, but to me, cracks in my newfound idol's halo were beginning to show. In an interview in gay mag Attitude, Dana reportedly got quite upset by the mention of trans lesbians, remarking that she couldn't understand why anyone would go to all the trouble of being able to have sex with men, only to shun them in favour of the ladies. Speaking personally, sex reassignment surgery had very little to do with creating a nice little hidy hole for some guy's manhood, and I'm quite sure that most biological females would resent the implication that they exist solely as some sort of giant, animated wank sock. It was upsetting to discover that this self-proclaimed symbol of freedom and tolerance could be as blinkered as the orthodox Jews who sent her death threats.
Before Eurovision, Dana was already a big star in Israel, and when she grew tired of being quizzed on her sexuality and not her music, she went back there, where she is currently working on various projects and is between record labels. In October 2005, she performed in Denmark for Eurovision's 50th anniversary show, and the internet is littered with crazed fan sites dedicated to her. On one of them, I learned that the most feminine thing she can think of is a petticoat, which if nothing else tells me that she and I have very different attitudes on womanhood.
Dana may not have been perfect, but she certainly made an impact, and I for one will be raising a glass to her as I insert my earplugs and tune in to this year's competition. She flew the transgendered flag on an international stage, and she will always have a place in the history of the Gayest Show On Earth.