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In World Cup’s Shadow: Russian LGBT Community’s Fight for Rights

Russian officials have stressed that LGBT people will not be targeted during the FIFA World Cup, but activists say discrimination is everywhere.

The 21st FIFA World Cup kicks off in Moscow on June 14. For a month, 11 Russian cities will host not only 64 football matches but also millions of tourists from more than 30 countries around the world.

During the event, human rights watchers will keep their eyes open and monitor whether or not the environment in the country is hostile toward the LGBT community.

The Propaganda Law

On June 30, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” also known as the gay propaganda law. Since then, members of the LGBT community have not been able to openly express themselves in public.

The legislation was unanimously approved by the State Duma and allegedly aims to protect children from being exposed to content presenting homosexuality as a norm within the society, a behavior that contradicts “traditional” family values. The statue amended the country’s child protection law and the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences, to make the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors an offense punishable by fines.

“I wouldn’t say that I am concerned about discrimination, human rights or security, but obviously, we take this very, very seriously, and we’ve taken appropriate measures,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a video interview a few days before the World Cup opening ceremony.

He also added that referees would have the power to drop matches at the World Cup if there were incidents of racism. Concerned about racism and human rights came under the spotlight once again after England defender Danny Rose told his family not to travel to Russia to avoid being discriminated against.

In May, FIFA fined the Russian Football Union $38,500 for racist chants by fans directed at French players during a friendly match in the city of Saint Petersburg.

Support for LGBT Community

On June 13, in support of the LGBT community, a group the European Parliament members sent packs of rainbow shoelaces to all players of 14 European teams participating in the international football championship. They encouraged teams to wear the shoelaces during training sessions, outside or at home while watching football.

Rostov-on-Don, the biggest Russian southern city, is among the 11 cities hosting the World Cup. It may be not easy for a same-sex couple to show up in public there.

The city is the Cossacks capital. Since the first week of June, 330 agents of traditional paramilitary groups have been working together with local police squads to keep streets safe during the World Cup.

“We’ll tell the police to take note of [kissing same-sex couples], the rest is up to the police,” Oleg Barannikov, head of the Almighty Don Host patrol units, said in an interview.

Press officer of the Almighty Don Host patrol units Maksim Tishenko, told The Globe Post “the Russian society has always been linked to the traditional family values and thus some behaviors can be recognized as out of the box.”

“Traditional” family values still run strong in Rostov-on-Don, but the local LGBT community is quietly claiming its space within the society to feel less discriminated against.

Revers, an LGBT organization, was set up in 2015 in the southern city of Krasnodar, and in 2016, its small division (the only one of its kind) was established in Rostov-on-Don. The Rostov team does not have a permanent office and includes 15 people who organize events, lectures and even movie nights related to LGBT topics and issues.

Revers' volunteers
Viktor and Cam. Photo: Maria Michela D’alessandro

“We face discrimination everywhere, people here protect family values. Being an LGBT person in Russia is very dangerous, many people don’t want to tell about themselves, to be open about their sexual orientation because the level of aggression towards homosexuals is very high and especially in cities like Rostov. Here it is not like in Moscow or St. Petersburg, it’s more simple there,” Viktor, a volunteer, told The Globe Post.

Today Viktor, a 30-year-old trans man, openly shares his story. He sets an example for those who still feel discriminated against and do not want to express their sexuality.

“Not everyone can understand trans people, that is why I actively try to discuss with people and educate them on the topic,” Viktor explains.

Getting new documents after the surgery is only one among the many problems trans people can face in Russia. The Russian law allows to change documents, but there are different practices in civil offices around the country.

According to Viktor, some doctors refuse to conduct gender reassignment surgeries. That is why he and other volunteers created a database with friendly and tolerant doctors in Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar regions in order to advise people who can help them.

Cam, a 21-year-old queer university student, is shyer than Viktor. “I found Reverse on social media via different LGBT online communities,” she said. Three months ago, she also became a volunteer.

“We can create a safe community, that’s a starting point, and that’s already a change for me, I have a community now,” she told The Globe Post.

World Cup Environment

Russian officials have stressed that rainbow flags will be allowed at sports events during the World Cup, and LGBT people will not be targeted. But Cam said “discrimination is just everywhere.”

“You won’t be able to walk with your partner down the street and be openly affectionate, you cannot even hold hands on the street. You can try to kiss a same-sex person, but there might be problems – Cossacks or old men could attack you,” she said.

Both Viktor and Cam are fighting to make the country an open place for LGBT people:

“I want to stay here, and I want to change people’s minds,” said Viktor.

“Sometimes it is really hard for me: one part wants to be active and fight, another one would like to stay ‘safe,’ but I recently understood that I want to continue living here. This is my home country, and I am proud to be Russian. I’d like this country to accept people like me,” Cam added.

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