Wed, Jul 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Hosting the World Cup makes Russia more gay-friendly — for now

In a nation that outlaws gay ‘propaganda’ and where anti-LGBT violence is common, activists have been given rare allowances, but the real test comes after the tournament ends

By Angela Charlton  /  AP, Saint PETERSBURG, Russia

Illustration: Mountain People

While FIFA World Cup fans pack Saint Petersburg Stadium fantasizing of soccer victory, Pyotr Voskresensky and fellow gay rights activists follow the matches in a quiet gallery across town decorated with beanbags and astroturf. They relish a different dream.

Voskresensky, an anesthesiologist who lost one job because of his homosexuality and fears losing another because he refuses to keep it secret, hopes that hosting the global tournament proves to Russians “that openness and tolerance can be a positive experience” and forces them to rethink hard-line attitudes toward the LGBT community.

As long as the tournament is under way, Russia is looking almost gay-friendly. The international scrutiny that comes with hosting the World Cup has forced Russian authorities to put their crackdown on LGBT activism on hold.

A hotline for victims of anti-LGBT acts during the tournament has not received a single call so far.

Russian authorities did not bother prosecuting a British gay rights activist for protesting near the Kremlin and have allowed rainbow banners at multiple World Cup matches.

This little resembles the Russia that outlaws gay “propaganda” and shrugs off reports of gay people tortured in Chechnya. The Russia where anti-gay bullying at school is often condoned and anti-gay violence rarely punished. The Russia where waving a rainbow flag can lead to an arrest.

During the World Cup, “I can show myself even more publicly, because our city is hosting so many people — there is more information, more encounters, more possibilities,” said Andrei, who performs as “Star Vasha” in the Fame nightclub in Yekaterinburg, a tournament host city 1,400km east of Moscow.

He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, fearing repercussions for those around him.

The big test comes after July 15, when the tournament ends and the crowds fly home. Will the World Cup leave a changed nation in its wake?

Some fear Russian police and militant groups will unleash pent-up frustration on the LGBT community as soon as the cameras turn away.

However, Voskresensky sees glimmers of hope and disagrees with those who favored boycotting Russia’s World Cup.

“It’s better to hold such events than to keep Russia ... cut off” from other cultures and ideas, he said.

He leads unofficial tours of Russia’s “gay history,” a 5km walk through Saint Petersburg that references gay figures such as composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and traces centuries of czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet policy toward same-sex relations.

Russia’s 2013 law against gay “propaganda” toward minors makes it impossible to advertise his tours, because children might hear him talk. The law has been used to block gay rallies, limit funding and send a message to the larger public that it is all right to discriminate.

Voskresensky is a regular visitor to Saint Petersburg’s Diversity House, set up for the World Cup by a prominent group that campaigns against racism and anti-gay abuse in sports, the Fare Network.

Diversity House was evicted from its original facility just as the tournament started, but the group complained — and within 24 hours a new site had been found.

Russian authorities seem to be playing a careful game.

British activist Peter Tatchell was arrested while protesting near Red Square on the opening day of the World Cup, but was quickly released as images of the arrest spread online. A planned court hearing was quietly abandoned.

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