Nemo's Eurovision win fires up Swiss advocates for nonbinary rights

Nemo's victory came a year-and-a-half after the Swiss government rejected proposals to create a third gender or non-specific option for official records

12 May 2024 - 20:41
By Reuters
Nemo representing Switzerland celebrates after winning the 2024 Eurovision song contest.
Image: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters Nemo representing Switzerland celebrates after winning the 2024 Eurovision song contest.

Swiss advocates for nonbinary rights hailed local star Nemo's victory in Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest, urging the country's authorities to enable official recognition of people who identify as neither male or female.

In a politically-charged night in the Swedish city of Malmo, Nemo, a 24-year-old Swiss musician who uses they/them pronouns, claimed the top spot after dominating the jury section of the vote to beat out the audience favourite, Croatia's Baby Lasagna.

The Eurovision's traditionally carefree tone was clouded by booing and demonstrations from protesters who wanted Israel excluded from the contest because of its government's military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Israel's contestant, Eden Golan, placed second in the popular vote and wound up fifth overall.

Nemo's victory came a year-and-a-half after the Swiss government rejected proposals to create a third gender or non-specific option for official records, arguing that a binary gender model was still “strongly anchored” in Swiss society.

Sibel Arslan, a Swiss Green Party legislator who launched a legislative proposal in 2017 to overhaul rules to enable nonbinary designations, hailed Nemo's victory.

“A nonbinary person who officially doesn't exist in Switzerland has won Eurovision 2024 for us all with #BreakTheCode,” Arslan wrote on X, referencing Nemo's winning song The Code at the musical extravaganza.

Her proposal, she said, is now “more relevant than ever”.

An Ipsos LGBT Pride online poll in 2023 stated that 6% of respondents in Switzerland identified as either transgender, nonbinary, gender-fluid or differently from male or female, the highest proportion among the 30 countries surveyed.

The Code, Nemo's drum-and-bass, opera, rap and rock song, describes their journey of self-discovery as a nonbinary person, which the artist brought to a crescendo in Malmo while balancing precariously on a large, tilting revolving disc.

The youth wing of the Green Liberal Party said Nemo's success was a triumph for Switzerland and nonbinary people.

“It's time that Switzerland broke with its binary gender designation,” the group said on X.

Still, a nationwide survey last year by polling firm LeeWas for media 20 Minuten and Tamedia showed 62% of the Swiss public were broadly opposed to the introduction of a “third gender” designation on official documents, with only 35% in favour.

“I hope this contest can live up to its promise and continue to stand for peace and dignity for every person in this world,” Nemo said, after receiving the Eurovision trophy on stage.

“To know that a song that has changed my life and a song where I just speak about my story has touched so many people and maybe inspired other people to stay true to their story is the most insane thing that has ever happened to me,” Nemo later said during a press conference.

Nemo's Eurovision triumph was the third for Switzerland, and the first since Canadian star Celine Dion won singing for the Alpine country in 1988 with Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi. Cheers of joy broke out in bars in central Zurich when the winner was announced, and Swiss revellers sang along as Nemo tore through a victory rendition of The Code.

“I think it's just great, Nemo is fantastic,” said Maha Nater, a 24-year-old kindergarten worker celebrating the win in the city after watching the marathon contest. One karaoke bar began blasting out Queen's We Are The Champions as patrons joined in.

Nemo's victory would blaze a trail for others who had had to cope with prejudice against nonbinary people, said Nater. “It sets an example to follow,” she said.

Croatia's Baby Lasagna, real name Marko Purisic, 28, came second with Rim Tim Tagi Dim, a song about a young man who leaves home aspiring to become a “city boy” with better opportunities.

Israel's Golan, 20, finished fifth in the contest despite demonstrators' calls for a boycott of the country. The female solo artist on Thursday emerged as one of the leading contenders to win after qualifying for the final.

Booing was heard during Golan's performance but also applause, a Reuters photographer in the auditorium said. The noise was partly audible in the broadcast viewed by tens of millions of people in Europe and around the world. There was also booing when the points of the Israeli jury were presented.

Several thousand protesters gathered in central Malmo ahead of Saturday's final, waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Eurovision united by genocide” — a twist on the contest's official slogan “United by music”. A few hundred people later also protested outside the venue, chanting “Eurovision, you can't hide, you're supporting genocide.”

Protesters have been pointing to double standards as the European Broadcasting Union banned Russia from Eurovision in 2022 because of its invasion of Ukraine. Police hauled away some protesters before surrounding and ushering them away, a Reuters reporter outside the arena said. Some protesters were seen lying on the ground after police used pepper spray to disband the demonstration.

Twenty-five countries competed in the final after Dutch artist Joost Klein was expelled on Saturday due to a complaint filed by a production crew member.

Viewer votes made up half of Saturday's final result, while juries of five music professionals in each participating country made up the other half.

The Eurovision winner is awarded the contest's official glass trophy, which is shaped like a classic, old-fashioned microphone, with sand blasted and painted details. The winner also gets to host the competition the following year.

Nemo broke the fragile prize shortly after receiving it, but was given a new one to replace it.

“I didn't just break the code, I also broke the trophy,” Nemo said, laughing, at the press conference after the win.