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Russia 2018 – Room in the Stands for LGBT Fans?

Published: 19 June 2018 Tags: LGBT, Russia 2018 By James Harris

Though progress is slowly being made in the world of football regarding attitudes towards LGBT people, the words 'Russia' and 'football' are unlikely to bring to mind a parade of rainbows and glitter weaving its way through enthusiastic crowds of flag-waving onlookers. But with 2018’s World Cup the two combine – what does this mean for LGBT football fans across the world planning on visiting Russia for the competition this summer? James Harris looks at things that LGBT fans who are going out to Russia should be aware of.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, but there are no laws prohibiting discrimination of LGBT people, and threats of violence have been made towards LGBT fans from the country’s homophobic ultra-nationalist factions. Plus, recent anti-propaganda laws have banned the spreading of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors (which could easily be interpreted as: 'don't be gay anywhere even remotely public'!)

You might think the law is more lenient on tourists, but while some claim that LGBT foreigners are more likely to be tolerated by ordinary citizens (because they’re perceived as outsiders with different cultural norms), foreign nationals have been detained for breaking this law. According to the Human Dignity Trust the penalty for a foreigner is:

“4,000 – 5,000 RUB (81 – 101 EUR) fine; plus detention for up to 50 days or deportation from the Russian Federation.”

That said, there’s only been a few recorded cases of foreigners being affected by this law, and even then often only because they were openly protesting for LGBT rights. Plus it’s in the interest of the Russian authorities to be on their best behaviour while the world’s gaze is focused on them. For selfish reasons alone it’s reasonable to assume they'd rather avoid any negative press.

Precautions

(Note: this advice may be useful for anyone travelling to Russia at any time, or those travelling to other countries with similarly homophobic laws and attitudes.)

  • Discretion is recommended: Homophobia is deeply ingrained in the conservative values of Russian culture. Consequently, anyone travelling there should be wary of how their behaviour might be perceived, not just by the authorities, but the general public. Even the most innocent, harmless gesture could provoke a potentially hostile response in the wrong circumstances. In some situations it might be sensible to refrain from overt displays of affection, and instead save them for a more private moment.
  • Research your particular destination: Russia is a vast country and attitudes vary across it; it’s reported that some areas – such as the North Caucasus where football matches are taking place – are particularly intolerant. Yet by contrast cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg have thriving gay scenes.
  • Stick with friends/use dating apps with caution: Stick together with people you know, and be wary of meeting new people on dating apps. Several sources reported cases of anti-gay Russian vigilante groups luring users out to be attacked. Or in rare, extreme cases killed.
  • Know who to contact in an emergency: The police or stewards may not be on your side if you are assaulted/attacked, as homophobic hate crimes are not recognised under Russian law. But if you are a victim of homophobic abuse at a match, report it to Fifa officials; Fifa has sent out a clear message that homophobic abuse at matches will not be tolerated, and their disciplinary code gives referees the power to halt or even abandon games completely if discriminatory behaviour persists. You can also contact British embassy consular officers by telephone 24/7 by calling +7 495 956 7200 (in Russia) or 020 7008 1500 (from the UK).

Being discreet about your sexuality to avoid becoming a target for abuse and discrimination is discomfortingly close to suppressing who you are out of shame, so it's understandable if some LGBT fans were tempted to rebel against such advice. But take care, and be mindful of the potentially negative responses you might receive.

However, please note the word 'might'; most LGBT visitors to Russia return home with only pleasant memories of their experiences. The risks are real, but as long as appropriate precautions are taken they are relatively small.

There’s no reason why LGBT fans cannot have a great time as long as they are conscientious of their behaviour. The World Cup is a massive event, and can be an intensely enjoyable experience, even amongst those who lack interest in the game itself; many fans from all over the world will be present, so it’s a chance to revel in the atmosphere and make new friends. Football needn’t be divisive; as gay, football-mad Joe White comments:

“Passion runs through the blood of the game. You can meet someone you’ve never met before and be united through the passion. Football can bring people together.”

Ultimately, it's at the discretion of the individual. Feel free to show defiance in the face of oppression if you encounter it – it’s important to be ourselves uninhibitedly without shame, to portray a positive image of LGBT people, to support LGBT businesses abroad and stand in solidarity with the Russian LGBT community.

Just remain vigilant while having fun, and above all stay safe.

Useful Links

UK Foreign Office Advice for UK Citizens going to Russia for the World Cup 2018

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