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This World Cup, let’s talk about Russia’s LGBTIQ rights record

First Russia, next Qatar. FIFA is showing their true colors on standing for LGBTIQ rights.

The hashtag #ToRussiaWithLove pictured during a gathering to remember the current situation of LGBTQ people in Russia at the Russian Embassy on June 10, 2018, in Berlin.
Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

The World Cup started this week. Potentially thousands of fans and athletes who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer have arrived in Russia. As a gay woman and activist, I’m worried sick about what might happen.

I left the Soviet Union 29 years ago because of its discrimination against Jews. Ten years ago, I founded RUSA LGBT, a network for Russian-speaking LGBTIQ immigrants living in the US. I work all the time with people whose lives have been threatened because of their sexual orientation. So despite FIFA’s promise that they stand against “non-discrimination, gender equality and racism,” I’m very concerned that the World Cup-governing organization has failed to explicitly call for protection of LGBTIQ attending the World Cup. As if this wasn’t bad enough, FIFA awarded the following World Cup to Qatar, where homosexuality is prohibited by law.

In 2013, when Putin first made illegal the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors, commonly called the “anti-gay” law, there were calls for the boycotts of Russian vodka, Russian gasoline, Russian artists visiting the US, and attendance of the Sochi Olympics. As Soviet immigrants, we knew that our calls for boycott were unlikely to succeed. But we also knew it was our best chance to shine a spotlight on human rights violations happening in the shadows in Russia.

Now, as the world gathers to watch the FIFA World Cup hosted by Russia, I’m both angered and resigned to the fact that commentators, athletes, and politicians are paying so much less attention to these LGBTIQ abuses. It’s not because these issues have gone away. It’s because so many other human rights abuses have festered under Russia in the years following the Sochi Olympics that we’re fighting for attention. But that does not make the relative silence on Russia’s abysmal track record on LGBTIQ rights okay.

In the absence of laws protecting LGBTIQ people, fans and players are vulnerable to intolerance or violence at the hands of other fans, paramilitary organizations, and police. The government plans to deploy Cossacks, an ultraconservative paramilitary group openly hostile to LGBTIQ rights, to guard World Cup games in the city of Rostov-on-Don. A Cossack spokesperson told Radio Free Europe affiliate Current Time that they would report gay men kissing in public to police. “To us, values mean the (Christian) Orthodox faith and the family come first,” he said.

As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, these kinds of statements fill me with fear. Since the passage of the “anti-gay” law, life has become difficult and dangerous for gay Russians. Putin’s regime barely stopped short of enacting legislatures that would have allowed the state to remove kids from LGBTIQ families, impose fines for public displays of “homosexual behavior” and detain young people for “coming out.”

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were often subject to discrimination in their everyday life before Putin’s law, but afterward, the legitimization of anti-gay attitudes spurred a wave of violence and even murder of LGBTIQ people in Russia. Several post-Soviet countries, including Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, followed in Russia’s footsteps and enacted similar laws. Last year, in Chechnya, dozens of gay men were captured, tortured, and even killed by police. We’ve also heard reports of family “honor” killings of gay women. It is heartbreaking that this is happening in this day and age.

Russia has changed since the Sochi Olympics. It’s gotten worse.

During the Sochi Olympics, Soviet immigrants and activists like myself aimed to bring the ensuing anti-gay treatment to the forefront of the Western media attention.

The visibility campaign succeeded — now the world at large is aware of “anti-gay” law in Russia. But the cries of our community did not produce meaningful protection. A number of LGBTIQ Russians subjected to continued violence and discrimination left and continue to leave Russia seeking refuge. Our fears that the crackdown on gay rights was merely a trial balloon aimed to see how far Putin could go without meaningful opposition from the West have proven to be true.

In 2014, Russia violated international agreements by annexing Crimea with barely a slap on the wrist from the West. Russia continues to support separatists in Ukraine where thousands of people already lost their lives and almost 2 million were displaced. Putin’s suppression of the opposition resulted in the murders of prominent journalists and politicians and the jailing of the vocal opponents.

With everything that’s going on, it’s no surprise that we’re hearing less about LGBTIQ rights in Russia. We should remember that in light of Chechen gay purges and government’s denials of it, an entire LGBTIQ community feels even more vulnerable than they did before the Sochi Olympics.

Organizations and corporations who pay lip service to gay rights need to step up

International sport bodies like FIFA and IOC should not award their major events to the countries with major human rights violations. Unfortunately, these organizations are allegedly corrupt, and the end of one scandal is usually followed by another scandal. At the end of the day, hosting choices, according to some reports, are usually granted to the highest bidder.

Likewise, there has been little willingness to support and protect LGBTIQ people by the World Cup’s corporate sponsors like Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Adidas, and others. These brands have no problem marching in Pride events all over the world, but they will not stand up for LGBTIQ rights in the countries hosting their sponsored events, where it actually matters. These corporate sponsors must not just look out for their commercial interests.

When Vox reached out to these brands, Budweiser said in a statement: “Our Dream is to bring people together for a better world and we believe in the power of football as one way to unite us. Integrity and ethics are part of our core values and we have zero tolerance for hate and discrimination of any kind.”

A spokesperson for Coca-Cola said: “We believe that through our partnership and continued involvement with FIFA we can help foster optimism and unity, while making a positive difference in the communities we serve. The Coca-Cola Company strives for diversity, inclusion and equality in our business, and we support these rights throughout society as well.”

Finally, Adidas said in a statement, “We condemn laws that could lead to discrimination toward our employees, business partners, athletes and anybody in adidas LGBTQ family.”

But without real actions, such as threatening to pull sponsorship unless Russia makes unequivocal nondiscrimination statements to protect LGBTIQ fans, their words ring hollow to me.

FIFA has recently announced a reporting mechanism that enables fans to complain directly and anonymously to FIFA about inappropriate behaviors, including the violations of LGBTIQ rights. Those that feel discrimination is taking place can go here to file a complaint.

We know from history that appeasement never works. It does not work in business, it does not work in politics, it does not work in the arts, and it does not work in sports. We have to increase the pressure on Putin’s regime, and we have to continue to highlight these grave human rights offenses. Every person, corporation, and government should do what they can. Let us all say “nyet” to Putin and to dictators everywhere.

LGBTIQ soccer fans who think they were subject to discrimination, violence, or accused of “homosexual propaganda” during the World Cup should call the hotline set up by the “Coming Out” LGBT group at +7 (953) 170 97 71 or email There are lawyers and psychologists ready to help.

Yelena Goltsman is a Kiev, Ukraine-born human rights and LGBTIQ activist. She is the founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, an organization she formed in 2008 to establish a social network for the Russian-speaking LGBTIQ community in the United States and to increase acceptance and inclusion of LGBTIQ people in the world’s Russian-speaking community.

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