Jock Talk: FIFA to LGBT fans: Be yourself, but be careful

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday June 13, 2018
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I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that even though the U.S. men's soccer team did not qualify for it, FIFA nonetheless has decided to hold its men's World Cup soccer tournament in Russia, starting this week.

You remember Russia, don't you? Long before it was pulling the chad on presidential ballots across the country, it was passing anti-gay legislation shortly before hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics - laws forbidding any positive communications about gays and lesbians and which the Center for Independent Social Research now tells us is the reason for hate crimes in Russia doubling.

FIFA, soccer's governing body, has declared to bring its acceptance index into the 21st century and be inclusive of all fans and athletes regardless of sexual orientation or expression. In the same breath, it is warning LGBT fans to watch out for homophobic hooligans bent on violence and more or less put a lid on being expressively gay for the duration of the World Cup.

"Since 2012, the government has unleashed the worst human rights crackdown in Russia's contemporary history," Human Rights Watch reports. "Russian police consistently fail to prevent harassment and attacks and to investigate anti-LGBT crimes."

The Football Against Racism in Europe Network, or FARE, is encouraging LGBT fans to go to the World Cup but is warning those same fans not to be affectionately demonstrative or outspoken about gay issues, publishing a guide of "do's and don'ts" for gay soccer fans.

"Wearing a rainbow pin, rainbow flag, or holding hands is not an offense unless police treat it as a demonstration," the guide warns. "According to assurances from the local organizers and FIFA, you can wear rainbow symbols in the stadiums and official FIFA Fan Fests. Nevertheless, be aware of the possibility of negative reaction from people nearby. You CAN: Wear rainbow symbols on clothes or as accessories, hold hands, discuss the topic of protecting the rights of LGBT people. You CANNOT: Participate in protest action in defense of LGBT rights, even if you are just standing alone with a rainbow flag in the middle of a square."

The guide goes on to warn people about booking one hotel room for two men, the risk of blackmailers on dating apps, and the care needed with "LGBT+ symbolism or expressions away from city centers or when the environment seems less welcoming."

Want to order a cake to celebrate your same-sex marriage while you are at the World Cup? Probably not a good idea.

Apparently, not being obviously gay but being part of an ethnic or racial minority can also put you at risk.

"Ethnic profiling and ID checks are very common on the metro in Moscow and St. Petersburg," the diversity guide warns. "You can be asked to go through a metal detector and have the contents of your bags searched. Russians can be less sensitive to racist language and often lack tact when communicating with black or Asian people. The word historically used to refer to black people as 'negr' which might sound close to the 'N-word' but is still widely used and considered neutral by Russians. If your religious dress sets you apart, take extra care."

FARE has also created an app with which individuals can report instances of violence or discrimination; and will run a Diversity House similar to the Pride Houses that have been run at other major sports events.

In 2014, conservative Cossacks grabbed headlines when they attacked performing members of Pussy Riot, using pepper spray and whips on the protesting performers. This go round, Cossacks will be used to reinforce crowd control in Ristov, one of the sites for World Cup matches, and the leader of the Cossack group said his men will report any same-sex kisses to police.

Even before this year's World Cup got started, there was serious concern about possible sites for future World Cups.

The United States, Canada, and Mexico have teamed up for a bid to host the 2026 World Cup, and FIFA announced Wednesday that it received the bid. The team was competing against a bid from Morocco. Before the winning bid was announced, Athlete Ally was quick to criticize the fact that although Morocco's law forbids homosexual conduct and people have been imprisoned in recent years for being gay, soccer's governing body recently assessed the risk for human rights violations is equal between the two bids.

"Morocco has an explicitly anti-LGBTQ law on the books that would allow LGBTQ athletes and fans to be imprisoned for who they love," Athlete Ally said in a statement. "FIFA has promised to respect, protect, and remedy human rights abuses when it developed its new human rights framework, yet assigning the same level of risk to hypothetical laws as to actual laws is incredibly troubling - and undermines the integrity of the new bid process. The World Cup brings a global, diverse fan base - and to discount the experience of LGBTQ fans and athletes is to deny their existence."

Remember: this is the same FIFA that has been plagued by allegations of corruption and bribery and decided to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar: a country with no soccer traditions whose biggest human rights advance in recent years has been to reduce the punishment for gay sex from five years to three.

Track transphobia

In general, sports organizations have made wonderful strides in making their policies more accepting and inclusive, with many now thinking to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

USA Track and Field spelled out acceptance of transgender athletes in 2005. Think that means all track and field officials are cool with that?

Guess again. A glance at the USATF officials public Facebook page shows it is loaded with loathsome, ignorant, and hostile transphobic comments about transgender runners. The comments are largely based on the scientifically disproven prejudice that transgender women have innate biological advantages over their rivals.

Hey, I know what they could do. They could include information about track and field's transgender participation policies in the officials' training materials, they could remind the officials that they are supposed to be inclusive and supportive of all track and field athletes, not just those who conform to their cisgender perceptions, and if they can't conduct their jobs in that context, they are free to drop out.