FIFA return to anti-gay policy wouldn’t be a surprise
This Wednesday, March 1, 2017 file photo shows an inside view of the Fisht Olympic stadium in Sochi, Russia. Sochi's World Cup stadium is a spectacular, sweeping structure on the Black Sea coast, but few locals have seen inside. In fact, the First Olympic Stadium hasn't hosted a game in nearly a year. | AP Photo/Artur Lebedev

The FIFA world cup is just two days away. Soccer—futbol—fans across the globe are tapping their kegs, getting their call-into work sick excuses ready, going through pre-match rituals, and adjusting their daily lives around match schedules.

And just like fans, this year’s FIFA host country is also scrambling to finish last minute preparations.

Yet, as vividly penned in my colleague Chauncey Robinson’s latest film review, behind the lights, splendor, and glory of the tournament, there is a dark side no human would willingly accept.

Welcome to Sochi, Russia, home of the 2018 World Cup and a nation that tolerates brazen hostility to their LGBTQ community.

While official statements have gone from “traditional values” to tolerance and acceptance—at least for now—and assurances that there would be no bans on rainbow flags or same-sex partners showing affection, what happens when the watchful—fairly corrupt—eye of FIFA looks away towards Qatar 2022?

Given the Federation’s recent past record, it would not be surprising to see a swift return to its anti-gay positions.

It’s easy to temporarily abide by FIFA’s  Code of Ethics and “not offend the dignity or integrity of a private person or group of people through contemptuous and discriminatory words or actions on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason.”

As long as the PR looks good to the rest of the world who cares about what happens behind the scenes, right?

(Makes this sportswriter wonder if FIFA will take a hard stance on the slave labor being used to build massive arenas for World Cup 2022—probably not…slave labor would be harder to gloss over temporarily.)

It’s almost too fitting then that this month also marks the fifth anniversary of the Federation’s anti-gay “propaganda” law “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development”—which penalizes LGBTQ advocacy, creating a climate of violence and fear for the LGBTQ community—adopted mere months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Within those five years, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community in Russia have doubled and account for almost 200 of the 250 hate crimes analyzed, according to the Center for Independent Social Research.

“(Offenders) have become more aggressive and less fearful,” said Svetlana Zakharova, a board member with Russian LGBT Network in a 2017 interview. “It seems to them that, to some extent, the government supports their actions. Many perpetrators openly talk about their crimes as noble deeds.”

The Russian republic of Chechnya is an example of how horrifying life can be for the gay community. In 2017 Chechen security forces arrested suspected gay and bisexual men, kidnapping and torturing some.

“We don’t have any gays,” said  Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, to HBO last year. “To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin also turns a blind eye to the rising tide of hate crimes. Speaking with filmmaker Oliver Stone, Putin suggested that his expert knowledge of judo would be useful if ever a gay man were to make a move on him.

For members of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation this year’s World Cup brings as much fear as it does joy.

Alexander Agapov, 35, head of the Sport Federation, explained that the government has not always been enthusiastic about defending LGBTQ rights. Speaking to press, he recounted being brutally beaten by soccer fans at a bus stop—no criminal investigation followed, and the daily constant fear he lives with continued.

Agapov has no illusions that this new “welcome with open arms” approach will last. “The rare positive steps we see usually end with the most ordinary of homophobia,” he said.

There is also no illusion that this move by the federation will play into the hands of anti-gay propagandists.

“By emphasizing the safety of foreign LGBTQ fans, authorities have managed to present homosexuality as something foreign, un-Russian,” said Agapov. “Clearly, they will do everything to make sure the World Cup passes trouble-free, but when it does the discrimination, the homophobia, and the laws will remain.”

So as you throw on your soccer kits—Netherlands didn’t qualify so I’m not sure who I’ll be rooting for—and head to your favorite bar at 6:00 a.m., remember to raise a pint glass in solidarity for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Once this World Cup month is over, it will be on all of us to keep up the public pressure against the Russian Federation’s homophobic laws and violent tendencies.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.