Europe's Michael Sam moment?

At the same time that the NFL draftee's kiss of his boyfriend stirred a backlash in the US, drag queen Conchita Wurst was sparking similar anger in Europe, which is fighting similar culture wars.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
Austria's Conchita Wurst poses with her trophy after a news conference in Vienna on Sunday. Ms. Wurst, popularly known as 'the bearded lady,' won the 59th annual Eurovision Song Contest on May 10, spurring reaction in some corners of Europe that compares to the US's own 'culture wars' over topics like LGBT rights, abortion, and the like.

The kiss last weekend on national television between Michael Sam, the first openly gay draftee in the history of football, and his boyfriend set off another cultural war that was uniquely American in its divisiveness and vitriol.

But across the Atlantic, at roughly the same time, a bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst captured the top prize at the annual Eurovision competition in Copenhagen.

Many media outlets hailed a new dawn of tolerance. But many viewers – like their American counterparts – raged at the “vulgar” act and a “world gone mad,” and suspected the event was hijacked by “activists promoting ‘diversity,’ ” as some of the Internet commentators at the website of the BBC, which airs the contest in Britain, put it.

Indeed, many Americans understand Europe as a stronghold of social liberalism where gender equality, gay marriage rights, living together outside of marriage, and abortion advocacy reign, and where even children can request euthanasia, at least in the Netherlands and Belgium.

But there are many signs that the issues that have sparked the culture wars in the US are just as unsettling in Europe. And it’s not just in conservative countries like Poland or Ireland, where the Catholic Church still has a strong grip. In highly secular France, young activists are fighting against everything from gay marriage to gender theory, and in Spain, lawmakers are considering one of the toughest abortion laws in the European Union.

Abortion battles in Spain

“We thought these issues were more than closed,” says May Serrano, a Spanish feminist who runs the group “Imperfect Women” from her plant-filled balcony that looks onto the verdant hills around the city of Bilbao in northern Spain.

It was a case in this industrial city that spurred feminist groups to seek an abortion law in post-Franco Spain, after the “11 of Bilbao" – 10 women and one man – faced lengthy prison sentences for abortion.

So when Ms. Serrano woke up to hear on the radio that the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, with the backing of the Catholic Church, was seeking to roll back access to abortion, she thought it was a “sick joke,” she says. In 2010, women and girls gained expanded rights, allowing the termination of pregnancy on demand through 14 weeks.

The new law would make abortion illegal unless a woman’s physical or mental health is endangered, or if the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence. Two doctors would need to verify that those criteria are met. It does not have broad support in the country but the government has promised to push forward with it.

In February, Ms. Serrano led a group of 50 women to the local property registry in Bilbao – one of several protests staged across the country – to “register” their bodies with local authorities in a bid to convey their view that the government is laying claim to their bodies with the proposed law.

They filled out paperwork and the description boxes – “two legs and two arms, one head, and two scars on my knees,” read one – confusing bureaucrats who had to confer with their higher-ups. Their requests were taken and stamped – some female bureaucrats joined the movement –  but ultimately rejected. Their point was made though, across national and international media.

French fights over gay marriage

In France, street protests have come from the other side of the cultural divide. A potent social movement came to life last year as the Socialist government of President François Hollande moved to legalize gay marriage. While the group, spearheaded by Manif Pour Tous ("march for all"), was not able to stop the law from getting signed, it has become a political force that is pushing for family values within the mainstream agenda in the country.

Madeleine Bazin de Jessey, a university student studying literature, is one of the activists fighting a law she said claimed to be one of equality for all but didn’t take into account equality for children. She co-founded a political party called Common Sense, which works within the mainstream right to push for traditional family values, protesting everything from in vitro fertilization for same-sex couples to gender theory in classrooms.

In January, parents protested gender equality laws they said amounted to inappropriate gender theory by keeping students out of school for a day, leading then Interior Minister Manuel Valls, now prime minister, to warn: “We are witnessing the rise of a French tea party.”

Just this week, a school in Nantes, in western France, organized an equality event that invited boys to wear skirts to school. In response, Frigide Barjot, the former head of Manif Pour Tous, tweeted “And will the girls be wearing beards?” in apparent reference to Conchita Wurst’s appearance at Eurovision.

Ms. Bazin de Jessey says she believes there has been an awakening in society that turns back the “progress” that began with famed student protests here in 1968. “There is a sense we went too far,” she says. “Progress,” she says, “doesn’t mean happiness."

Shifting tides

There have been flashpoints across Europe, from abortion and gay marriage debates in Ireland to civil unions for same-sex marriage in Poland. Russia has been the most overtly anti-gay, and vocal in its protest of the Eurovision contest this year. 

Some of it has seemed contradictory. In Spain the abortion debate is playing out even as other social hot-button issues, like gay marriage, have widespread support. Gillian Kane, a senior policy adviser at Ipas, an international reproductive-rights group, says gay marriage and abortion are lumped together by the opposition as part of a liberal movement to undermine family values, she says.

But while abortion has remained stubbornly contentious, gay marriage has received steadily more backing, both in the US and Europe. She believes it’s because it’s a gender issue, and because gay marriage, even if among two men or two women, still “appeals to family values.”

Even in Britain, where there is less of a conservative religious constituency than in the US or some nations of Europe, the passage of gay marriage laws last year led some to ponder the arrival of American culture wars. So far there’s been nothing like the protests in France or the US, but that doesn’t mean conversation is closed.

“There are certainly very deep feelings over such issues in Britain” says Nick Spencer, research director of Theos, a British think tank on religion and society. "There isn’t this liberal consensus as some Americans perceive there to be.”

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