On the weekend of November 16/17 representatives from international and national sports organizations, grassroots organizations, NGOs and LGBT fan groups came together in Ljubljana for a two-day-conference hosted by SPOLINT and VIDC/Fairplay on how to address homophobia at Mega-Sport Events. In anticipation of the Football World Cup 2018, the conference focused on concerns voiced by LGBT communities about safety and discrimination surrounding the event in light of discriminatory anti-gay-legislation in Russia.
A panel discussion on the first day raised the question whether the FIFA World Cup in Russia could be an opportunity to create international awareness of the situation of LGBT rights in Russia, and thus apply pressure on authorities to recognize fundamental human rights. A major concern throughout the entire conference was how it could be ensured that everyone involved was safe during the World Cup; from athletes and supporters, local fan groups and especially LGBT fan groups who travel to Russia.
Pessimism after Sochi
Similar concerns – and hopes – had been voiced around the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014. The panelists expressed their pessimistic view on what impact the FIFA World Cup 2018 could have on the situation for LGBT communities in Russia. The experience from Sochi has shown that the human rights situation does not automatically change for the better with international attention, as Alexandr Agapov from the Russian LGBT sport federation expressed his limited expectations. Little has changed since the Olympic Games, he said, the only positive development he could see was that there were no new anti-gay-laws in recent years.
Yet the LGBT community in Russia is facing anti-gay-legislation. The so-called “anti-propaganda-law” from 2013 prohibits any public expression of “non-traditional” relationships, thus one of the questions raised was: what does this mean for the freedom of expression for LGBT fan groups, for example, if it is possible to bring and unfold rainbow banners to the stadium.
The general assessment from the panelists was that it is going to be relatively safe for LGBT fans to go to and from the stadium and that any discriminatory incidents can be reported to UEFA observers who will offer support in these particular situations. However, there remain legitimate safety concerns regarding public spaces, particularly in the smaller cities. Alexandr Agapov believes there will likely be more problems with the police than with hooligans.
Former football player Alexey Smertin was recently appointed as Commissioner for Antidiscrimination of the Russian Football Association, but so far this position seems to be merely formal. It continues to be difficult for activists to reach representatives from FIFA and the Russian Football Association and engage them in joining roundtables and discussions on anti-discriminatory work.
Homosexuality dismissed as a “western influence”
Political authorities steadfastly deny the existence of gay athletes in Russia, and more so, the fights for fundamental human rights against discrimination based on homophobia are dismissed as “western values”. Pavel Klymenko from FARE network elaborated on the term, explaining that the common agenda in Russia is that homosexuality is brought in from outside and any international criticism of Russian policies can therefore be dismissed as “western values”. This should not be a reason to abandon alliances, on the contrary rather to strengthen them.
Klymenko pointed out that representatives of minorities, NGOs and grassroots movements have been excluded from meetings from government and football authorities. Therefore FARE network (together with the Russian Center for Interethnic Co-operation) will host a conference in Moscow, focusing on what the World Cup will bring for ethnic and other minorities and to discuss what can still be done to create a safe space for the LGBT community at the upcoming World Cup. The conference aims at confronting these authorities face to face and emphasizing the legitimacy of their concerns.
Due to the difficult situation of LGBT communities in Russia it was suggested to organize a LGBT fans embassy, similar to the fans’ embassies of the national teams, where everybody can meet, celebrate football and a space free from discrimination can be offered.
International pressure can open doors
Ronan Evain, director of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), brought up the upsetting situation concerning the LGBT community in Chechnya and recent violent attacks on gay men. While FIFA does not have the power to change legislation in Russia, Alexandr Agapov said, we can claim from FIFA that the Football Clubs from Chechnya speak out and make clear that LGBT people are welcome in Football (“Can you imagine what impact this would have in Chechnya?”).
As Agapov explained further, the presence of representatives from international organizations can make a big difference, and the acknowledgement of LGBT groups by the Football Association. Something as simple as a greeting note to LGBT organizations from the Commissioner for Antidiscrimination, can open doors. Visibility of LGBT people at the World Cup is crucial, he pointed out: “If we are not there, then there is no problem. And there will be a report on how Russia was an example for tolerance and a discrimination-free place.”
With the World Cup in Moscow only months away, the immediate focus now is on Russia and Qatar. But in the future, governments need to be held accountable; they need to change their discriminatory policies if they are to host a major sporting event such as the FIFA World Cup. Sporting organizations, such as FIFA and UEFA, have a big responsibility in that.