World Cup in Russia and LGBT+ rights

This article was originally published in Dutch in Charlie Magazine on June 14th 2018.

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World Cup in Russia: hypocritical mess or a chance to improve LGBT+ rights?

The FIFA World Cup is controversial this year. Just last year host Russia was in the spotlight for concentration camps were gay men were tortured and killed. There are people who want to boycott the tournament, because a World Cup in Russia will fund war, violence and discrimination. But can the World Cup also be a chance to create change?

After the downfall of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the nineties, life became relatively better for the LGBT+ community in Russia. There was a more developed LGBT+ community in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. ‘It’s still there by the way,’ says Rémy Bonny, specialist in LGBT+ politics in Eastern Europe. But when the conservative and religious president Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, a new internal enemy was born in Russia: everything that didn’t fit into the values of the traditional orthodox family.

Gay and women’s rights, for example, were reduced. Bonny: ‘The freedom of the LGBT+ community was reduced from a little bit to nothing when Putin came to power. The nationalistic discourse of Putin ensured that neo-Nazi groups felt approval and kept going.’ For feminism and LGBT+ rights is basically no room for in Russia.

Russia is a beautiful country but we are abandoned to our fate. I have the feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.

Nastya Mak, a gay woman from Moscow, also had to face discrimination. She was thrown on the street when her landlady found out that she isn’t straight. Furthermore she was also hit on the head with a bottle in a supermarket and basically nobody did anything. ‘People live in fear here. The police only does something when someone is stabbed or killed. Russia is a beautiful country but we are abandoned to our fate. I have the feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.’

“I also know a couple, two women. One of them has a black daughter. When she was walking home with her daughter, the road was blocked by big, strong men. They shouted: ‘You gave birth to a nigger! Russian men were not enough for you. Now we’ll show you.’ The woman immediately thought that they wanted to rape her and her daughter. She told her daughter to run home. The girl was able to escape but the mother was beat up. She doesn’t remember anything about what happened. The police did nothing. That is the price you pay if you’re open about your sexual orientation.”


Spartak Stadium in Moscow ready for the Cup.


The fact that a country which violates human rights on such a big scale, can be the host for the FIFA World Cup causes much frustration around the globe. What to think of Chechnya, a constituent republic of Russia, where gay men were put in concentration camps last year. According to Vladimir Putin an investigation took place and nothing was found. LGBT+ activists say that the evidence wasn’t taken seriously. “The capital is even the training base for the Egyptian team during the World Cup. By doing this, FIFA actually acknowledges Chechnya as an official WC-region,” Bonny adds.

 “And then the next World Cup will be held in Qatar, where you get imprisoned for being gay.”

Nationalistic groups and hooligans already sent threats to LGBT+ fans in which they clearly stated that they aren’t welcome at the cup in Russia. But this doesn’t stop Di Cunningham and Joe White, two English football fans. They will attend the World Cup in Russia. Di and Joe are a part of the LGBT+ community and fight against homophobia in the football world. They are both on the board of ‘Pride in Football’, an organization that fights for LGBT+ rights in the UK football community.

“It’s unacceptable what is happening in Russia. And then the next World Cup will be held in Qatar, where you get imprisoned for being gay. And maybe Morocco will follow in 2026. But on the other hand football has also the power to create change,” Cunningham says.

Alexander Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation agrees. “I understand that LGBT+ fans feel unsafe. During the cup they also have to trust their gut feeling and the information they receive through media. But it’s also important that they are visible. If they don’t do it, nobody will. The Russian LGBT+ community is completely in the closet. They don’t dare to be open despite of the protection that the authorities have assured. The police also makes a distinction between foreign and Russian LGBT+ fans. I definitely want to emphasize this. With foreign people they’ll handle faster to avoid a scandal. Russian hooligans will also be more careful. They know what happens if you’re put in handcuffs here.”

Russian hooligans will also be more careful. They know what happens if you’re put in handcuffs here.”

“Those threats make us worry,” White says. “But after the initial shock disappeared, we realised how important it is to make a statement. LGBT+ fans are a part of the football community. They shouldn’t have to go through any kind of violence or threats for being visible. We have rainbow scarfs and banners. Hopefully it will be possible to show them clearly in the stadium.”

In the stadium and during official fan events it’s exceptionally allowed to show rainbow symbols. FIFA also opened a platform for journalists and human right activists where they can report any form of discrimination they face during the cup. White: “This shows how serious they are about it. But of course, the protection is only a respond to an incident. We will have to deal with the situation sensibly.”


Football fan Di Cunningham fights against homophobia in the football world.

The role of FIFA

“FIFA has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and took a few measurements for the World Cup in Russia, specifically for anti-discrimination.” a spokesperson of FIFA confirms. FIFA also contacted the Russian LGBT Sport Federation and Human Rights Watch to keep tabs on the situation. FIFA continues keeping the dialogue open with all its stakeholders to respond to possible risks. “For the security measurements FIFA trusts the Russian authorities and the LOC (Local Organizing Committee) completely. During last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup Russia already showed their high security standards.”

The thing that makes me angry is that organizations such as FIFA handle the current regime in a too diplomatic way.

According to Mikhail Tumasov, president of the Russian LGBT Network, the authorities are trying not to see the problems. “The elite pretends that there is no problem with the discrimination against LGBT+ people or any other minority groups. The thing that makes me angry is that big, international organizations such as FIFA handle the current regime in a too diplomatic way. The economic benefits they get from this, makes them kind of hypocritical.”

So the question is how much we can trust the authorities. On one hand, Putin and Russia don’t want to lose face. There’s also international pressure. On the other hand, institutional homophobia is deeply ingrained in Russian territory.

flag lgbt

3 Lions Pride with a rainbow flag at the England VS Nigeria game in Wembley.

Making a difference

Fare, an umbrella organization who fights against inequality in the football world, created the Diveristy Guide to Russia. Fare mainly advises fans to be careful outside of the stadium. “You have to be able to be who you are. Football evolves around diversity. Fans who show their true selves, are brave and have to be supported,” says Pavel Klymenko from Fare.

The organization will also open two diversity houses during the World Cup, one in Moscow and one in Saint Petersburg. There will be, for example, organised activities that evolve around minority groups. The football games will also be shown. Fans who don’t feel comfortable in the stadium, can follow everything here on the big screen.

Now that all the eyes are focused on us, we have the chance to demand change.

A football festival that evolves around diversity and is organized by the Russian LGBT Sport Network will also be held in these houses. This initiative is supported by FIFA and the Danish sports brand Hummel. The organization was in touch with the sponsors of the World Cup for a year, but this lead to nothing.

“Hopefully the support from FIFA will stay an ongoing process that will last long after the cup,” says president Agapov. “But I stay realistic; this probably won’t be the case. Now it’s important to ask the Russian football officials for their contribution in the fight against discrimination in the football world. Do they have a program? If not, why? The main focus shouldn’t be on the safety of the LGBT+ fans during this World Cup, but on the LGBT+ rights in this country in general. We have to change our goal from hospitality to human rights. After the World Cup the government doesn’t have to keep up their appearances and they definitely won’t listen to our demands then. It has to happen now.”

Or boycotting?

While some organizations and fans want to use the World Cup as a way to create change for human rights in Russia, others wouldn’t want anything else than the tournament to be boycotted. The Russian journalist Lydia Simakove, a bisexual woman and out to her friends and colleagues, is one of them. “It’s the first time that I won’t be watching the World Cup. In my opinion, a country that keeps two wars going, can’t be the organizer of the World Cup of football. Just like nobody saw anything bad in Nazi-Germany in 1933, Europe doesn’t realize now what kind of regime rules in Russia.”


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