World

No gays please, we’re Russian. Or Qatari.

By Rebecca Davis 16 August 2013

The Winter Olympics will go ahead in Russia despite growing protests against the country’s increasingly homophobic policies, and individual athletes are finding novel ways of using their moment on the world’s stage to express their opposition to Putin’s laws. That part, at least, is heartening stuff. Now Fifa is expressing concern over the 2018 soccer World Cup, to be held in Moscow, because the football board has a “zero tolerance against discrimination” policy. But why not apply this same reckoning to Qatar, home of the 2022 World Cup? By REBECCA DAVIS.

It was British actor and writer Stephen Fry who first made the proposal that Russia should be punished for its homophobia by denying the country the right to host this year’s Winter Olympics. In an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and members of the International Olympic Committee, Fry compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler and said that an Olympic ban was necessary because “At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world”.

“It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village,” Fry wrote. “The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma.”

The controversial law Fry was referring to was unanimously adopted by the Russian parliament in June, and prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. The law imposes fines on those who give information about homosexuality to under 16-year-olds, which means that articles or media pieces about homosexuality have to carry an age warning.

But it also imposes fines for holding gay pride events, fines for speaking in defence of gay rights, and fines for equating gay and heterosexual relationships. Any demonstration of homosexuality in public – like holding hands – may also be punishable, given that children may be nearby.

In practice the vagueness of what constitutes “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” has, predictably, proved troublesome. This Tuesday, a high-profile drag queen comedian was fired by the state TV channel, reportedly due to concerns that his presence on a Saturday night comedy show amounted to a violation of the law. And last year, the Telegraph reported, a Pepsi-owned food and drink company was investigated for adopting a rainbow label on its milk cartons.

Not coincidentally, Russia has seen an upsurge of gay hate crimes this year, possibly fuelled by leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church who have publicly stated that homosexuality is one of Russia’s major threats. In May, a 23-year-old Russian man was brutally murdered after confessing he was gay during a drinking session. His attackers beat him, shoved beer bottles in his anus, tried to set him on fire and crushed his head in with a rock.

Before the Winter Olympics, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko indicated that Russia’s anti-gay laws would still very much apply to international athletes and spectators in the country for the Olympics, and that the laws should be respected. The international community, Mutko said, needed to “calm down” in this regard.

Stephen Fry didn’t get his way. The Winter Olympics will go ahead and the IOC has reminded Olympians that the Olympics’ own policies prohibit athletes from protesting against Russian laws at any Olympic sites, or risk dismissal. Individual athletes in Moscow for the World Athletics Championships this week, however, have chosen to express their displeasure with Putin’s laws in their own ways. Swedish track-and-field stars painted their nails in rainbow colours in protest. American sprinter Nick Symmonds, who took home silver in the 800m, dedicated his medal after his race to his LGBT friends back home.

Amidst all this trouble, soccer’s governing body suddenly woke up to the fact that Russia was hosting their 2018 World Cup and started making the appropriate noises. “Fifa has asked the Russian authorities for clarification and more details on this new law,” the body said in a statement on Tuesday, which is hardly what you would call “outright condemnation”.

But at least on this occasion Fifa hinted that the onus was on Russia to make sure World Cup- related visitors were kept safe, and not the other way round. “Russia has committed to provide all visitors and fans with a warm welcome and ensure their safety,” the statement read. “Fifa trusts that the 2018 Fifa World Cup hosts will deliver on this promise.”

I say “on this occasion” because when it comes to Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, Fifa has been even less firm about human rights.

After Qatar was announced as the winner of the bid, Fifa president Sepp Blatter was asked what he proposed to do about gay footballers, or gay football fans who might want to attend the World Cup in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

“I’d say they [gays] should refrain from any sexual activities,” Blatter responded.

The fall-out was instantaneous. Gay basketball star John Amaechi complained: “It’s not about people having sex in public and being sanctioned for it, it’s the fact that Qatar was one of 79 countries to sanction executing gays at the United Nations.”

That was in late 2010. Under pressure, Blatter had to issue a sort-of apology in which he said, “If somebody feels hurt, then I regret [it] and present apologies”. He also said that he didn’t foresee any difficulties: “If they [that’s gays] want to watch a match somewhere in Qatar 2022, I’m sure they [gays again] will be admitted to such matches”.

Fast forward to late May this year when Fifa introduced tough new anti-discriminatory rules on the back of a number of incidents of racist chanting at European soccer matches. There are now penalties in place for racist offences that apply to individuals, teams, or federations. The measures passed at Fifa’s congress in Mauritius by 99%, which obviously raises the worrying question, who were the 1% opposed it. (Tokyo Sexwale, who is a congress member, wanted Fifa to check the cameras to expose the votes.)

But given that the football body was finally taking a long overdue tough stance against racism, Sepp Blatter was asked whether the same kind of zero-tolerance approach to homophobia would apply in Qatar.

“What you are speaking about, I do not think it is part of racism, perhaps this is going into ethics and morals,” Blatter told journalists. “This, I think, is not the time being to bring it now. If you bring it to my attention then I should have a look on that. But I cannot give you a definite answer.”

In other words, while racism is a definite no-no for Fifa, the body kind of hasn’t quite made its mind up yet about homophobia. Little wonder that so few professional footballers take the chance of coming out. In January 2013, American Robbie Rogers left Leeds United, and later issued a statement describing it as virtually “impossible” to remain in football after declaring that you were gay.  Britain’s first £1-million black footballer, Nottingham Forest’s Justin Fashanu, was barred from training with his side after his coach discovered his homosexuality, and committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 37.

Fifa’s worried murmurings about Russia’s anti-gay laws are a positive sign. But let’s hope that these embryonic principles expand into actual anti-homophobic positions, and are applied evenly. In other words, when the time is right, let’s see Fifa red-card Qatar on homophobia too. DM

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Photo: A sign is displayed of a defaced picture of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during Vancouver’s 35th annual Pride Parade in Vancouver, British Columbia August 4, 2013. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

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