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For LGBTQ fans, World Cup in Russia filled with fear and uncertainty

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‘Our main goal is not to be denied football simply because we’re LGBT,’ says one fan.

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LGBTQ fans have been told rainbow flags will be allowed at the World Cup.
Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

There’s no other sporting event that unites the world like a World Cup.

For a few weeks every four years, everyday life grinds to a halt as soccer fans around the world gather before the altar of this universal obsession. Actually traveling to a World Cup can be a once in a lifetime event, something football fans everywhere dream of.

But for fans in the LGBTQ community, this year’s World Cup, set to kick off in Russia this Thursday, is fraught with fear and uncertainty.

Soccer, like so many sports, has historically been a hostile environment for LGBTQ people, and still is, in many parts of the world. Even in relatively tolerant countries like Britain, homophobia is still an issue within the hypermasculine culture of football, where the casual use of gay slurs among fans has only recently come under widespread scrutiny.

With this World Cup taking place in Russia — infamous both for pervasive homophobic attitudes in society as a whole and for incidents of hooliganism and violence among soccer supporters — fears are multiplied several times.

”The immediate thought was just, ‘I’m not going to be safe in that country,’” said Ella Barreiro, a gay soccer fan from Australia.

After FIFA announced in 2010 that the 2018 World Cup would be held in Russia, she and her partner opted to head to Brazil 2014 instead. “As soon as they announced Russia and Qatar [the 2022 host], it was like, well, we’re not going to either of those countries. We wouldn’t feel safe there. So Brazil has to happen.”

”You just hear a lot of stuff,” says Barreiro. “It just seems like, not just for gay people, but for women too, a much more oppressive environment, with the rise of the Orthodox church over there and that sort of stuff.”

Since the 2010 announcement, fears have only intensified. The so-called gay propaganda law, which passed in 2013, criminalizes the distribution of “propaganda” portraying same-sex relationships in a positive light — a law whose intentionally vague wording effectively allows authorities to apply it as they see fit. Gay Russians have been subject to violence both from the state and from anti-gay mobs.

Soccer in Russia, meanwhile, has long been plagued by violence. The 2016 European Championship in France was famously marred by brawling in Marseilles where 150-odd Russian hooligans attacked England fans, leaving two people in comas.

In Russia, soccer-related mob violence has reached new, brutal levels among gangs of young people who train specifically for battles with opposing “fans.” For these gangs, football has long been “just another reason to cause a fight,” said Alexandr Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation. “Belonging to one of the football clubs was no more than a way to identify your group of fighters.”

Football hooliganism in Russia is closely linked with far-right and neo-Nazi ideology, and young people are often radicalized as members of these groups — and some right-wing politicians have sanctioned and even worked with them in the past. Since Marseilles, officials have made an effort at least to stop sanctioning violence, if not quite to crack down on it, but a recent report by the Fare (Football Against Racism in Europe) Network noted that both racist and homophobic chants in football stadiums have been on the rise in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Even in the face of safety concerns, however, some LGBTQ fans will still travel to the World Cup, determined not to be scared away by people whose aim is to do just that. Di Cunningham and Joe White, chair and campaign lead, respectively, of Britain’s Pride in Football, will travel to Russia together to support England.

”We’ve had our fair bit of hate mail,” said Cunningham. “We had an email from a Russian email address which had a picture of a guy holding a knife and saying, ‘faggots welcome, we’ll be waiting for you.’”

Despite widespread media coverage of hooliganism, it’s not mob violence, but the possibility of random attacks that worries White. “I think as a country, they don’t want any problems, so I think they’re going to be cracking down on [hooliganism],” he said. “I think it’s going to be an individual, not a group, that will be an issue.”

Indeed, officials both at FIFA and in Russia seem intent on preventing large-scale violence and cracking down on homophobia and racism in stadiums.

Anti-discrimination monitors at each match will have the power to stop games to issue warnings, and even to abandon games altogether if any racist or homophobic behavior by spectators doesn’t stop. For the 2017 Confederations Cup, which took place in four Russian cities, officials implemented tighter security measures, and that tournament — something of a dress rehearsal for the World Cup — was unmarred by violence.

Regardless of how safe the games themselves will be, however, traveling fans won’t be confined to stadiums. Groups like Fare and Britian’s Football Supporters Federation have released guides for LGBTQ supporters, essentially advising queer fans that while discretion is in order, bigger cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, are relatively safe for LGBTQ people.

Official attitudes — when it comes to the gay propaganda law, for instance — are also expected to adjust when it comes to traveling fans. “Whilst we can’t guarantee safety,” FSF’s guide says, “circumstances could be different during this time when the world’s media will be focused upon the country.”

That’s ultimately the crux of the whole issue: the enforcement of anti-gay legislation in Russia is always up to local officials. When it comes to the World Cup, organizers have been forced to give FIFA their assurances that the rights of traveling fans will be protected. The Russian Football Union has stated, for instance, that the gay propaganda law will not be an issue for traveling fans who want to display rainbow flags at games.

There is, however, a stark divide between those traveling fans and their LGBTQ Russian counterparts.

In Russia, “propaganda portrays LGBT people as a Western issue,” says Agapov. “So when journalists ask the organizing committee about security for LGBT football fans traveling to the World Cup, it is interpreted by Russian citizens as a matter of hospitality, rather than a matter of human rights.” Because foreign fans’ tickets also serve as their visas, it will be easy for officials to single out who can be treated with more leniency when it comes to the propaganda law.

”But of course, when the World Cup is over,” Agapov adds, “the antigay law is still there. The persecution of LGBT people, for instance, in such regions as Chechnya will still be there. And we are still, among the LGBT community, face to face with this reality.”

But despite that reality, Agapov still sees the World Cup as an opportunity. “Talking about the LGBT community and [our] interests, we can benefit from the World Cup and this platform,” he says.

Fare will host “Diversity Houses” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, following Pride House International’s model, which will celebrate racial and ethnic diversity and the LGBTQ community, as well as providing safe spaces for members of those groups.

In addition, the Russian LGBT Sports Federation will host a football festival, which will include amateur matches in several cities, film screenings, and an international conference slated to include LGBT football fan clubs, stories from gay footballers, and a discussion of the legacy of the World Cup when it comes to LGBTQ issues.

In Britain, Pride in Football will co-host (with Soho FC, an LGBTQ-friendly football club) viewings of England matches to raise money to support LGBTQ Russians. “I think there’s a lot the international community can be doing,” said White, “to help support and highlight the reality for LGBT Russians after the World Cup, and make sure we continue to support them — that it’s not just an issue that’s highlighted for the one month of the World Cup.”

For the time being, though, Agapov emphasizes the importance of LGBTQ visibility during the World Cup itself.

“There are also LGBT football fans among Russians,” he says. “Of course, I expect that they will not be so open, they will not show rainbow flags, and so on.

“From this point of view, it’s very important that LGBT football fans from [abroad] come and raise a rainbow flag, because if they do not, as people from free countries, it will give an opportunity for Russian propaganda to blame the Western media ... in creating troubles for the Russian government, when there are no LGBT fans, in reality.”

On the other hand, “if there are a lot of football fans from different corners of the world, it will work as a cultural exchange,” he says. “As a way to inform Russians about the real world... if Russians are in the stadium only with other Russians, they will not ask themselves about the LGBT community and its issues.”

”I’ll be taking [rainbow flags] out there,” says White. “Then it’s just whether it’s safe to do so, and I think it’s more likely to be done inside the stadium ... I definitely want to fly a rainbow flag and a Three Lions Pride banner, for the England LGBT supporters network.”

”Our main goal, really, is to watch football,” says Cunningham. “Not to be denied football simply because we’re LGBT.”

That sounds like an apolitical stance, but it’s not. For LGBTQ football fans, who cannot simply shed their identities when they walk through the gates of a Russian stadium, that simple decision — to refuse to be denied the world’s game because of who they are — is a political act.

The world’s eyes will be fixed on Russia over the coming month, not just on the fields, but on the stands as well. The real test, though, will be the legacy of the World Cup after the crowds go home — and that’s a question whose answer depends, in part, on the visibility of LGBTQ fans at the tournament.

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon, and an Outsports contributor. She covers the Portland Thorns for Stumptown Footy, and her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Excelle Sports, ESPNW, and elsewhere. She can be reached via her website: kabest.me or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BestKabes