July 13, 2018 at 10:56 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
World Cup draws attention to Russia’s anti-LGBT policies
2018 World Cup, gay news, Washington Blade

Russian LGBT Sports Federation President Alexander Agapov holds a rainbow flag during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the World Cup. (Photo courtesy Agapov)

Russian LGBT Sports Federation President Alexander Agapov was at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14 for the first game of the 2018 World Cup.

A picture that Agapov sent to the Washington Blade shows him holding a rainbow flag during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech. Apagov on July 2 said during a Facebook Messenger interview that a group of men from the North Caucasus region were the only people who “weren’t happy with the flag.”

“At the stadium everything was quite fine,” said Apagov.

Russia is hosting the World Cup against lingering criticism over a host of issues that include its LGBT rights record, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Moscow Times last month reported Cossacks — paramilitary groups that have previously targeted LGBTI and feminist groups — were planning to report to the police same-sex couples who are kissing during the World Cup in Rostov-on-Don.

Russian police on June 14 arrested Peter Tatchell, a prominent British LGBTI rights advocate, as he protested against Russia’s human rights record outside the Kremlin. Media reports also indicate a gay couple from France who traveled to St. Petersburg for the World Cup was attacked.

Apagov told the Blade he questions whether the couple’s sexual orientation motivated the attack.

“I tend to think this was fake news,” he said.

The Fare Network — an organization that fights against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, disability and other factors in soccer — has opened two Diversity Houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg for World Cup fans with FIFA’s support. These Diversity Houses have also hosted meetings, presentations and other events with Russian human rights organizations.

Fare Network Eastern Europe Development Officer Pavel Klymenko on July 2 confirmed to the Blade during a telephone interview from Moscow the landlord of the building in which the St. Petersburg Diversity House was located told his organization the night before it was scheduled to open that it had to move. Klymenko added the Fare Network has not “had any issues” in their new location in the city.

Andrea Ayala, executive director of Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad, a Salvadoran advocacy group known by the acronym ESMULES, visited the FARE Network’s Diversity House in Moscow while she was in Russia for the World Cup.

Ayala told the Blade during a WhatsApp interview from Nizhny Novgorod that she met a transgender Russian woman, a Russian woman with HIV, a pansexual woman and a woman from Chechnya. She added she did not feel “safe openly showing her diverse sexuality” outside the Diversity House.

“It was very shocking for me,” said Ayala, referring to the Russians she met. “The bravery of these people is really admirable.”

Putin in 2013 sparked worldwide outrage when he signed a law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors in Russia. The Kremlin has also faced criticism over its response to the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya that Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, broke in 2017.

Elena Kostyuchenko, who is a Novaya Gazeta reporter, is among the 10 LGBTI activists who were arrested in Moscow’s Red Square as they sang the Russian national anthem before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics that took place in Sochi. A bomb threat, a smoke bomb that was detonated during a basketball tournament and venues that abruptly cancelled events are among the disruptions the Russian LGBT Sports Federation faced when it held the Russian Open Games in Moscow a few weeks later.

The Russian government did not respond to the Blade’s requests for comment for this story.

A FIFA spokesperson in response to the Blade’s question about Cossacks in Rostov-on-Dan said the organization has “a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination.” The spokesperson specifically pointed to Article 4 of the FIFA Statute.

“Non-discrimination, gender equality and stance against racism discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion,” it reads.

FIFA on June 20 fined Mexico $10,000 after its fans used an anti-gay chant during a match against Germany. FIFA in recent years has also fined Chile, Honduras and other countries for similar fan conduct.

“FIFA is committed to fighting all forms of discrimination in football, including homophobia,” a FIFA spokesperson told the Blade in 2017.

Ayala defended FIFA’s efforts combat discrimination.

“I think FIFA is beginning to focus more on diversity,” she told the Blade.

The Russian LGBT Sports Federation and the Fare Network are also hoping to work with the Russian Football Union to address homophobia and other forms of discrimination in Russian soccer.

“We’re trying to influence them to work more seriously on the issues of discrimination,” said Klymenko.

Agapov told the Blade he met with Russian Football Union representatives a few months ago. Agapov said he “had a very good impression and expected a lot of support from them.”

“But when I asked for support…they said not this time because this topic is too specific in Russia to support our football festival,” he added.

The Russian Football Union did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

Klymenko said the World Cup “feels like a bit of a bubble, a breath of freedom” for Russians. He expressed concern the Kremlin will once again target LGBTI activists, among others, once the World Cup ends.

“Obviously our biggest worry is when the World Cup is over, the situation will go back to normal,” said Klymenko.

Apagov agreed, noting his organization’s events are “now supervised” by Russia’s Federal Security Services. He pointed out to the Blade they “caused problems for us” during the Russian Open Games.

“They are interested in the high-profile guests’ security,” said Apagov. “That’s normal and true, but remembering all the troubles we had in the past with the police and so-on, I don’t think we can feel safe when the World Cup is over.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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