Welcome to the 2018 World Cup, a World Cup you may not be watching. Many Americans will undoubtedly be choosing to tune out this year’s soccer extravaganza, absent the nationalist pull of seeing the US team, not to mention flushing away the rancid memories of the the United States being dumped out in the qualifiers by the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. But for those preparing to make the trek to Russia this July, the specter of violence looms large, especially for LGBTQ fans.
Travel advisories for American soccer tourists on the State Department website warn of Russia’s 2013 laws against “gay propaganda,” which have spiked homophobic attacks, arrests, and killings over the past five years—while the Fare network, a soccer advocacy group, was more direct with its advice to gay couples: Don’t hold hands. This isn’t just US State Department fearmongering. One poll found that 39 percent of Russians think it’s likely that someone will attack a foreign LGBTQ person during the competition. Expecting the Russian state police to assure safety against homophobia seems like a pipe dream. As Piara Powar, executive director of the Fare network, said in an e-mail to The Nation, “Russia is a homophobic state, and although homosexuality is not illegal, it is clear that laws brought in over the past few years have encouraged the marginalisation of the LGBT+ community and created an environment where they are under attack.”
At the center of these concerns is the country’s anti–gay propaganda law. Unanimously passed in Russian parliament, the law banned the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children, effectively forbidding any mention or public display of homosexuality. Relatively few people have been convicted and fined under the federal law, but it’s what it represents that’s more lethal: the tacit endorsement of homophobia by authorities. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people have doubled in the five years since the law was enacted. In particular areas of Russia, such as the federal republic of Chechnya, where the Egyptian national team is based, the threat to LGBT folk is even more brutal—gay people are rounded up, tortured, and “purged.”
Di Cunningham is the chair of Pride in Football, an alliance for LGBTQ fans of teams in England’s soccer leagues. She’s also an organizer with 3 Lions Pride, a group for LGBTQ fans of the England national team, and for her the propaganda law makes clear that homophobic violence is state-sanctioned. “It’s a question of the authorities looking the other way when there’s a vigilante-type assault,” she told us. “You can’t trust the institutions and you can’t trust law enforcement.”