LGBTQ soccer fans stare down threats from Russian soccer thugs ahead of World Cup 2018
The British Foreign Office has issued a warning for LGBTQ fans to avoid public displays of affection in Russia
Vladimir Putin is ready to welcome the world to Russia this month as the World Cup opens under the shadow of corruption and bribery.
Russia is struggling under sanctions and is increasingly seen as a pariah state, but the competition is a major boost to Putin's legacy. Hundreds of thousands of football fans will stream into the country, and some will come despite warnings that they are not welcome.
"If two men are kissing each other at the World Cup, we will tip off the police," says Oleg Barannikov, speaking for the conservative Cossack volunteers providing security at one of the venues. For LGBTQ football fans in the U.K. the threat is more specific. Some have received direct emails telling them that if they come to Russia they'll be rooted out and stabbed.
The emails were sent to Pride In Football, an LGBTQ group that advocates for gay fans, and their campaign leader, Joe White, says those emails have made some LGBTQ fans uneasy.
"I think for some it definitely does make the reality of the potential for violence really hit home," White told Day 6. They're reconsidering attending the Cup.
But not White.
Threats from Russian thugs have convinced him that travelling to Russia is the best action he can take.
"It's almost given us a second energy and passion and desire to really go out there and be visible and to not give them what they want," White says.
A chance to show support
Joe White sees an opportunity in the World Cup, a chance for LGBTQ people like him to show support for their oppressed Russian counterparts.
"I think there's always a potential for violence, but the larger picture here is being able to stand in solidarity with LGBT Russian family and to really show visibility that otherwise wouldn't be possible," he says.
White sees visibility as a powerful agent of change. He says his group and others have brought a new profile to the world of English football.
"The massive growth we've had of LGBT-plus fan groups in the U.K. in the last four years has been huge."
But their decision to raise that profile in Russia was something White and his group discussed with Russian LGBT fans before the Cup.
"The conversations we've been having with them started a long time ago, before we even knew whether we'd got tickets or not, because we wanted to know whether we should boycott or whether we should go out there and show visibility and solidarity in person," White says.
"A lot of them were saying that they wouldn't have this opportunity to be visible in Russia."
FIFA offers a respite from Russian homophobia with their official anti-discrimination policy. White says it's crucial to use that opportunity to reach out to LGBT Russian fans.
"We will have the additional protection of the World Cup and the Russian authorities not wanting any trouble, so it's definitely something that they've said: 'Please do come. [We] would love to meet up with you.'"
White says it's not just the fans he wants to reach. He says it's important to impress on Russian authorities that LGBTQ people are not cowed by threats.
"If we don't show that we are out and proud, the Russian authorities can say, 'Well, we had all this fuss about LGBT inclusion and potentially waving rainbow flags and no one came. There aren't any LGBT people.'"
It sounds absurd to deny the existence of LGBT people, but the mayor of Sochi did it in advance of the 2014 Olympic Games. Those Games tested the resolve of official Russian intolerance.
A year before the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia enacted a "gay propaganda" law that was widely considered an encouragement to homophobia. Activists — among them athletes from around the world — urged sponsors and the IOC to put pressure on the Russian government to repeal the law.
It didn't work. The law continues to be used to shut down speech, including information on gay men's health.
We are here. We are visible. We are loud and proud and we will support our team.- Joe White
Some critics questioned whether the Sochi protests helped Russian LGBTQ people or exposed them to an official backlash.
White says things have changed since 2014 for Russian gays — the repression has gotten worse.
"Last year we found out about the atrocities that happened in Chechnya," White says.
A year ago, reports from human rights organizations showed gay men were tortured, detained and perhaps killed in a purge in the Russian controlled republic. White says the purge has focused the world's attention on wider abuse.
"LGBT issues — inequality within Russia itself and more broadly in sport — are definitely being covered a lot more, so I think it's really time to put some scrutiny under what is actually happening and the day-to-day reality for LGBT Russians," White says.
Wave the flag
LGBT fans at the World Cup are being warned not to publicly display affection or fly the rainbow flag in Russia, but White doesn't seem ready for the Russian closet.
"I'm going to be taking a rainbow flag," he says.
"I'm single, so I'm not having to worry about whether I should hold my boyfriend's hand. But I'm definitely going to be out there."
He expects to be safe among other fans in the stadium.
"We are here. We are visible. We are loud and proud and we will support our team," he says.
"I'm going to be myself."
To hear the full interview with Joe White, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.