The World Cup in Russia kicks off on 14 June - but will it be a safe tournament for LGBT+ football fans?
It’s no secret that Russia has problems with homophobia. Vladimir Putin’s government has brought in ‘gay propaganda laws’, viral videos have shown queer people being attacked in the street, while over 100 men have been detained in ‘gay concentration camps’ in Chechnya.
So you might think it’s a little surprising to hold the world’s biggest football competition, watched by billions, there. But, nevertheless, here we are.
If you’re an LGBT+ football fan hoping to enjoy the World Cup first-hand, should you be worried about travelling to Russia and booking a place to stay, especially if you’re going with your partner?
I (a gay man who isn’t actually going to the World Cup) wanted to find out – so I contacted dozens of hotels and Airbnb hosts in the tournament cities across Russia.
“In Russia, it’s not good to show that you are gay,” one Airbnb host in Moscow, the site of the final on 15 July at the Luzhniki Stadium, tells me. “If you’re walking around and holding hands it may [cause] some problems.”
I’ll be honest: this wasn’t the reaction what I was expecting.
I thought the people I was contacting would totally reject the idea of two gay men sharing a bed and then send me back nasty, homophobic emails.
But, instead, they gave me honest – and chilling – warnings about my own safety, especially if I showed my gayness in public.
A host in Volgograd, which will see England’s first match against Tunisia on 18 June, said: “In the street, it’s better not to advertise. This is Russia.”
What touched me the most was the genuinely heartfelt advice, as well as the hosts’ personal embarrassment at the homophobia that exists in their country.
“If you don’t show emotion… then everything will be fine,” one Airbnb host, in quarter-final host city Kazan, told me.
“In Russia people mostly tend to treat gay people bad. It’s ranging from speechless judgement to aggressive words and things of this kind,” another Airbnb host in Volgograd said. Like the other hosts, he recommended not to “openly express gay relationships on the streets”, adding that it would especially cause trouble in the suburbs.
These warnings about the personal safety of queer people have been echoed by activists at the Russia LGBT Network.
“The law enforcement agencies will do their best, but I’m not that sure they can really control the situation,” I was told.
“The level of hatred towards LGBT people is huge in Russia; our research shows that the number of hate crimes is growing constantly. The authorities were promoting this hatred themselves, so now they will have to deal with the consequences.
“I think all LGBT tourists visiting the World Cup should be aware about the environment here. It’s very different from UK, and people really can be attacked if someone thinks they belong to the LGBT community or if they carry a rainbow flag.”
Last year, researchers at the Center for Independent Social Research reported that hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Russia have doubled in five years.
A final host in Volgograd, which is around 600 miles from Moscow and used to go by the old Soviet name Stalingrad, said: “I can’t say that my country is the perfect place for gay people, unfortunately. But this problem is bigger [than just] my city.
“As for me, [there is] no difference between my guests and I will be glad to host you and your boyfriend.”
This disjuncture between violent state-imposed homophobia and the relatively liberal reaction I received from Russian hoteliers and Airbnb hosts is, to put it mildly, curious. It could be that because these people are running a business, they simply put any personal prejudices aside.
But I think there’s more to it than that. It seems that while many in Russia tolerate or even embrace sexual minorities, the abuse of LGBT+ people has become a symbolic weapon of state power. As exiled Russian writer Masha Gessen wrote in The New York Review of Books: “In Russia queer people make an ideal target for government propaganda because the very idea of them serves as a convenient stand-in for an entire era of liberalization that is now shunned.”
In effect, Putin can go after queer communities as a way of publicly proving his conservative, reactionary status - especially in opposition to Western countries that are becoming increasingly liberal.
The Russian LGBT Network, which has been crucial in evacuating gay people from Chechnya over the past year, had another message for visiting footie fans.
“Before we only had information about men being detained and imprisoned but now women face the same things as men and also sexual violence in prisons.
“So we would like all the visitors of the World Cup to remember that in the country they are visiting it is possible to detain, torture and even kill people just because of sexual orientation or gender identity.” In 2013, four Dutch tourists were jailed under the ‘gay propaganda law’, and visitors to Russia can still be detained for up to 14 days for breaking this law.
If you are visiting, the Foreign Office have their own advice for Brits on how to stay safe during the World Cup and the Russian authorities are promising to do everything they can.
Alexey Motorny, from the Russian National Tourist Office, said: “There has been cooperation between British and Russian police to ensure that highest safety standards will be put in place during the World Cup.”
While there are still lingering questions about whether Russia is a suitable World Cup host country, we’re all now honestly hoping that it comes and goes without a hitch. A low-key, safe tournament is all we’re asking for.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One Muscovite Airbnb operator told me about a cheeky gay bar around the corner from his flat called ‘BOYZ’.