Abandoning LGBTI rights, FIFA shows its only allies are corporate

July 9, 2018

World Cup organisers FIFA and its corporate sponsors market their products to the members of the LGBTI community by presenting themselves as allies and advocates for their struggles. But this is questioned by its holding of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and giving the rights to the 2022 event to Qatar.

At the very least, support for LGBTI rights should mean demanding legal reforms to make these countries’ laws compatible with FIFA’s statutes, which prohibit discrimination of any kind.

After all, such demands of a host nation would not be unprecedented.

In more recent examples, FIFA forced Brazil to overturn the ban on selling beers in stadiums on behalf of Budweiser ahead of the 2014 World Cup. It also pushed South Africa to set up dozens of “instant courts” ahead of the 2010 World Cup to prosecute petty crime.

Such pressure could have been used in Russia and Qatar to push for LGBTI rights. However, FIFA has refrained from doing so.

Ahead of the World Cup, there was discussion about whether it was safe for LGBTI football fans to go to Russia for the competition.

Those wary point to Russia’s 2013 law, which prohibits “homosexual propaganda” aimed at children, as a source of concern, as it sets fines, prison terms and deportation for anyone who breaks it. LGBTI activists say the law is so broad that holding hands in public could be considered propaganda if a child witnesses it.

Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), which partnered with FIFA to implement a monitoring system in World Cup matches, has issued warnings to LGBTI fans, urging them to refrain from public displays of affection.

Perhaps it is not the “homosexual propaganda” law that raises concerns among World Cup tourists but pervasive homophobia in Russia. One poll reported that 90% of Russians supported the law in 2013, and since it was approved LGBTI rights organisations have reported a surge in homophobic attacks.

Despite state policies that encourage homophobia year round Joe White, who runs campaigns for Pride in Football, told PinkNews the World Cup is providing the LGBTI community a rare chance to promote their visibility in the country.

So far, it is debatable whether that is true since the footballing world could have this conversation without placing the World Cup tourist at the centre.

In 2017 there were several reports of an anti-gay purge in the Chechen Republic, in Russia. The purge was condemned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International. Despite this, FIFA accepted Russia as host of this tournament.

Discrimination against LGBTI people in Russia also did not deter FIFA from making Grozny, the Chechen capital, one of the World Cup training sites. FIFA has also said nothing about the conservative Cossack militias, who are openly hostile to LGBTI people, helping Russian police control the crowds at the World Cup. 

Local LGBTI activist Jonny Dzhibladze of the Coming Out organisation in St Petersburg suggested foreign LGBTI fans at the cup would be treated well, “but as soon as they leave, we return to our traditional Russian values”.

However, tourists haven’t left, and hostile actions have already taken place.

A Diversity House, a safe space for LGBTI football fans to watch the matches, in Moscow was shut down after the building’s owners terminated their contract.

On opening day, Peter Tatchell, a British LGBTI activist was detained in central Moscow for criticising the laws and was later released. He has since left the country.

An ad in Argentina poked fun directly at the Russian leader. “Mr. Russian president, we have learned that your country doesn’t allow expression of love between men. We are in trouble!” The ad affirms that football is all about expressions of love between men.

The ad states that in football, seeing two men rolling in the grass or a man crying for another is normal. It says: “Mr Putin, for you love between men is an illness. We are very ill. And you know what? It is very contagious.”     

The ad was never aired, but it was shared through social media.

The head of Russia’s LGBTI Sports Federation Alexander Agapov recently told the AFP the World Cup might have made the homophobia worse by playing into anti-gay propaganda. “By emphasising the safety of foreign LGBT fans, authorities have managed to present homosexuality as something foreign, un-Russian,” Agapov said.  

LGBTI football fans will also have to face hostilities if they decide to go to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which has laws punishing LGBTI people with one-to-three years in jail.

Ultimately, holding the World Cup in Russia and Qatar helps to normalise these countries’ policies against the LGBTI community.

FIFA and its sponsor are sending a worrying message: you can persecute minorities with no accountability as long as the tourists are safe.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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