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While World Cup fans pack the St. 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 this 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 gay activism on hold.
A hotline for victims of anti-LGBT acts during the tournament hasn’t received a single call so far. Russian authorities didn’t 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 gays 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 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 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Moscow. He spoke on condition his last name not be used, fearing repercussions for those around him.
The big test comes after July 15, when the tournament ends and 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.
Voskresensky sees glimmers of hope, though, 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 five-kilometer (three-mile) walk through St. Petersburg that references homosexual figures like 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’s ok to discriminate.
Voskresensky is a regular visitor to St. 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. St. Petersburg’s 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 quickly released as images of the arrest spread online. A planned court hearing was quietly abandoned.
In Nizhny Novgorod’s stadium, stewards removed a rainbow banner put up by Di Cunningham and other members of British activist group 3LionsPride for Sunday’s England-Panama match. But after a call to FIFA, those same stewards put it back up.
Cunningham has found Russian fans friendlier and more curious than she expected, and she says even the banner incident could raise awareness.
Perhaps those stewards “will start to wonder why it’s OK to put the banner inside the stadium but it’s not OK to put it outside the stadium,” she said.
When her group unfurled the banner at the England-Tunisia match in Volgograd last week, a Russian fan “saw the banner from afar and came to us,” she said. “He suddenly realized it’s OK to be gay and a football fan. … Maybe it’s raised his expectations of change.”
Vitaly Milonov, a lawmaker who played a key role in passing the gay “propaganda” law, said “sodomites” flying the rainbow flag had no place at the tournament. While he’s an extreme case, many ordinary Russians feel threatened by LGBT activism, seeing it as a form of Western depravity targeted at corrupting Russian youth.
Such anti-gay attitudes aren’t unique to Russia. Yet things are changing. For the first time, FIFA is using anti-discrimination experts to monitor World Cup games, and the Mexican and Argentinian soccer federations have been fined for offensive behavior by fans including anti-gay chants and slurs.
What happens to Russia’s LGBT community after the tournament will offer a lesson to FIFA as it looks ahead to the next World Cup in 2022 in Qatar, a country where gay sex is illegal.
In today’s Russia, being gay is legal, but admitting it is fraught with professional and personal risk.
The 2013 law encourages rhetoric that has made “the LGBT community be afraid, be silent,” said Jonny Dzhibladze, coordinator at St. Petersburg LGBT group Coming Out, which has tracked more than 300 incidents of anti-gay violence or abuse in the city in recent years. “The most dangerous part of this law is that it practically gives free rein to those who commit crimes, murders and physical violence motivated by homophobia and transphobia.”
“On the one hand, it’s strange that the World Cup is taking place in Russia,” Dzhibladze said. “At the same time … it gives an opportunity for the society to get in contact, to get informed.”
A boycott, he said, “would only contribute to isolation.”
Irina Titova in St. Petersburg and Vadim Ghirda in Yekaterinburg contributed.