Before the football World Cup kicked off in Russia last week, concerns had been raised about whether LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) fans attending the tournament could be victimised.
In 2013, Russia introduced a law that made it an offence to distribute “propaganda” related to homosexuality to people under the age of 18. Critics say this has been used instead to prevent public displays of gay identity and the legislation attracted global criticism during the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
However, after the opening week of the World Cup, a picture of the host country’s contradictory stance on the issue has emerged.
At this year’s World Cup, however, Russian officials have allowed the rainbow flag - a symbol of gay rights - to be displayed at venues.
And on the very first day (Jun 14), one was unfurled by Alexander Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, inside the Luzhniki Stadium as President Vladimir Putin spoke ahead of the Russia-Saudi Arabia opener. Agapov tweeted that he passed through stadium security with no problems but overheard a Russian saying: “We don't need such a world".
An LGBT fan from England also displayed a rainbow flag during her country’s game against Tunisia on Jun 18, with backing from England’s Football Association.
“WELCOMING” OR “IGNORANT”?
On opening day, British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell was detained in central Moscow for holding up a banner critical of Putin. He was released two hours later and has since left Russia.
Two days later, a “Diversity House” in St Petersburg - planned as a safe space to celebrate minority representation in football - was blocked from opening, after building owners U-turned on permission given earlier.
One of its organisers, the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network, said it was a “political attack of the kind that shows how debates about human rights are curtailed by powerful conservative political forces in Russia”.
The House has since been set up in a new location.
World football governing body FIFA has thrown its support behind the two Diversity Houses, with the other successfully launched in Moscow.
“It is one of the priorities of FIFA and the Local Organising Committee to promote a welcoming environment for all attendees of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and we consider the diversity houses of FARE to be an important complement to our own activities in that respect,” a spokesman told Channel NewsAsia.
FIFA has also opened disciplinary procedures against Mexico after its fans allegedly chanted the homophobic slur “puto” during a stunning 1-0 upset of holders Germany.
FIFA said it had in place an Anti-Discrimination Monitoring System to look into such incidents in stadiums. The spokesman also said LGBT fans in distress could tap into dedicated hotlines set up by partner organisations such as FARE, or access FIFA’s online complaints mechanism.
Svetlana Zakharova, a board member of the activist Russian LGBT Network, told Channel NewsAsia she remained hopeful the World Cup would achieve, in the long-term, a positive social impact on Russia.
“We would really like to believe in that,” she said. “But our experience with the Olympic Games in Sochi shows that the Russian authorities can be truly ignorant when it comes to human rights.”