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Russia: Anti-gay bill’s progress increases concerns for Olympics, World Cup

BY NATASHA BARSOTTI — With the Russian State Duma's overwhelming approval of a nation-wide anti-gay bill, there has been an uptick in concerns about what queer athletes and fans can expect when that country hosts next year's Winter Olympics and the World Cup in 2018.

The legislation still has to have its day in the upper house and then make its way to president Vladimir Putin's desk for his signature — steps that are seen as mere formalities — but activists and other observers are wondering what, if any action, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA, soccer's international governing body, will take to ensure that spectators and athletes are protected from its sweeping measures. 

The current bill bans so-called propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors and in the media, as well as targets foreigners. It characterizes the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations as “spreading the information in order to form non-traditional sexual desires in children, describing such relations as attractive, promoting the distorted understanding of social equality of traditional and non-traditional relations and also unwanted solicitation of information that could provoke interest to such relations."  

Foreigners who flout it face the prospect of 15 days in prison and deportation.

There were at least 23 out athletes at London's 2012 Summer Olympics, which also boasted a Pride House for queer athletes, fans and supporters to view and participate in Games-related events. Vancouver established the first Pride House when it hosted the Winter Games in 2010. Russian officials, backed up court rulings, early on rejected the idea of a Pride House for the Sochi Olympics next year.  

Russian news source, RIA Novosti, reported last year that the Sochi appeals court upheld a lower court decision denying registration of such a space, ruling that it would “undermine public morals and are at odds with national policy on the family, motherhood and children.” 

Speed skater Blake Skjellerup is quoted in a February story on USA Today as saying he was concerned about the legislation that had at that point passed a first reading in the State Duma by a vote of 388 to 1. “I don’t want to have to tone myself down about who I am. That wasn’t very fun and there’s no way I’m going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble.”

Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who was on the gold-medal-winning US women's soccer team at the London Games, noted that her girlfriend was with her last summer. "If I was just a gay fan going to Sochi, I don't know. If the law passes, I would definitely be breaking the law. Hopefully it won't deter gay athletes from being who they are."

As for the World Cup, a ThinkProgress report points out that "it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t at least one gay player" in South Africa's edition of the event in 2010, or that there won't be any taking the field when Brazil hosts it next year.

In a June 12 piece, ThinkProgress says both the IOC and FIFA have yet to address the potential impact of the all-but-enacted bill head-on.

FIFA is taking steps to clamp down on racism, passing an anti-racism resolution with a 99 percent majority at a congress in Mauritius. Teams could face relegation or expulsion from competittions for serious incidents of that form of discrimination, the BBC reported at the end of last month.

But FIFA president Sepp Blatter appeared to be more than a bit reticent when asked about the issue of homophobia, specifically in relation to the staging of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar where homosexuality is criminalized.

"What you are speaking about, I do not think it is part of racism, perhaps this is going into ethics and morals," A June 1 BBC report quoted him as saying.

Blatter added: "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 2010, Blatter advised gay fans wishing to attend the World Cup that they "should refrain from any sexual activities," a stance for which he later apologized.

In comments to Gay Star News (GSN), the chair of the Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN) Chris Basiurski says he approached Blatter about homophobia concerns, noting that the FIFA president was adamant on the point that the football community is "for everybody."

Basiurski told GSN: "While the risks of Russia may not be quite as legally difficult as Qatar, where gay sex is outright illegal, the consequences could be quite tough. Anyone going there and raising a red flag could be subject to abuse, physically assaulted and not protected by authorities. It’s concerning FIFA has chosen these countries where it’s on the table." 

Basiurski added that the gay community needs to pay attention to future bids to stage the World Cup.  

Speaking to the UK's Morning Star,  campaign director for anti-homophobia group Football v Homophobia, Louise Englefield, called the Russian bill a “depressing” assault on the rights of queer people.

“Firstly, it’s terrible news for LGBT Russians and there are plenty of them who are active in sport. There are a number of LGBT sports groups in Russia and they are going to have to work in this environment,"she said.

Referring to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Englefield added: "How far will this legislation go? If you were a gay athlete and took part in Sochi, would you be in trouble if you draped yourself in a rainbow flag? What would come of fans who did the same thing? Is that propaganda that is promoting homosexuality according to this legislation?”