The ugly game: Russia, homophobia and the World Cup


One of the great joys of the World Cup (aside from the football) is the way it brings nations together. But will Russia’s largely intolerant attitudes towards gay people divide communities?

When Michelle Heyman started playing in the W League nine years ago, she was called a “dirty lesbian” by a spectator in the crowd.

Heyman, who has become a prominent advocate for equality in the game, said she was shocked, but brushed it off.

“I kind of laughed at it,” the Matildas and Canberra United striker told SBS News.

“I’ve never seen it in a game, and I’ve never heard another player say anything bad to another player. The women’s side of things is incredible,” she said.

It’s a different story in the men’s game. 

Michelle Heyman
Matildas and Canberra United star Michelle Heyman.

There are dozens of elite women footballers internationally who are openly gay, including Sweden’s Lisa Dahlkvist, the US’s Megan Rapinoe and England’s Lianne Sanderson.

But 18 years after Norway’s Thomas Berling quit men’s football  - later coming out as gay and blaming widespread homophobia for his early retirement - there’s still a long way to go.

Why are there no 'out' male footballers?

Even in 2018, there are no openly gay players in the 32 teams playing in the World Cup - which kicks off this week.  

“It is clear to see that homophobia, to some extent, still exists in the game,” said Tom Taylor, an anti-discrimination advocate from the UK football diversity organisation Kick it Out.

“With the lack of any high-profile male professional footballers that have revealed their sexuality in football … there is still a long way to go to ensure LGBT+ inclusion is truly reached within the game, however progress is being made.”

It is clear to see that homophobia still exists in the game.

You can count on one hand the elite international male footballers who came out during their professional careers - the late English player Justin Fashanu in 1990, was the first, followed over two decades later by Robert Hampton Rogers who went on to play for LA Galaxy. A few players, including Norway’s Berling, the US’s David Testo, and Germany's Marcus Urban, came out after retiring.

Justin Fashanu
Justin Fashanu, right, who died in 1998, was the first international footballer to come out as gay while still playing.
Bob Thomas Sports Photography / Getty

Heyman told SBS News she believed the lack of progress was based on archaic attitudes.

“That goes across every code. [The idea that] men are there to be macho, men have this big stereotype about them. Which is kind of sad because they shouldn't have any pressure. I think it would be 100 times harder to come out as a male athlete, to be gay in the industry.”

It’s an issue that can affect players and fans alike, and one that has resurfaced this year with the World Cup being held in Russia.

Russia’s 'gay hate'

The host country is ranked among the worst European countries to be gay on the ILGA’s 2018 Rainbow Index (after Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia and Monaco) and LGBT sporting groups have warned fans to think carefully about their safety if travelling to the tournament.

They appear to have good reason to.

LGBT activists take part in a rally in St Petersburg, Russia, on 1 May 2018.
LGBT activists take part in a rally in St Petersburg, Russia, on 1 May 2018.
AFP / Getty Images

In a survey of Russian citizens’ attitudes to the World Cup released in April, UK research consultancy Wanta Group found four in ten Russians thought attacks on gay foreigners - “even if they didn’t demonstrate their sexual orientation” - were likely or highly likely during the 2018 tournament.

4 in 10 Russians thought attacks on gay foreigners were likely during the World Cup.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, but it is widely frowned upon. Gay male sex was a criminal offence until 1993 and classed as a mental illness until 1999. Pew Research found in 2017 that 85 per cent of the country’s population considers homosexuality “morally wrong” and same-sex marriage there remains illegal.

The Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg last year blamed a steep increase in gay hate crimes - particularly murders of gay men - on a 2013 law that criminalised the promotion of homosexuality to minors. The law is not just cosmetic - it has been used to shut down gay pride marches and detain gay rights activists.

Australian fans warned

DFAT formally warns Australian travellers that intolerance of homosexuality is common in Russia, and homophobic violence has been reported. Canberra expressed formal diplomatic concern to the Kremlin over a murderous gay “purge” in the Russian republic of Chechnya last year. (Chechnya will not host any World Cup matches, but will be the Egyptian team’s base.)

Sydney’s gay football teams
Members of Sydney’s gay football teams at an A-League match ahead of the city’s 2017 Mardi Gras parade.

Football Federation of Australia spokesman John Kent said the organisation's view was that "discrimination of any kind is unacceptable." Fans, players and staff face sanctions if they breach the Code of Behaviour or standards, which covers homophobic language, he said, adding that LGBT fans travelling to Russia should carefully note DFAT's advice.

Those who do make the tournament may witness a World Cup first should discriminatory crowd behaviour get out of hand, as referees have this time been given the power to abandon a match.

Gay slurs could stop a match

After criticism for being slow to defend the right of gay fans to wave rainbow flags during the World Cup in Russia, football’s international governing body FIFA says it has taken a string of actions in the past three years to promote diversity and inclusion.

A FIFA spokesman told SBS News that World Cup referees will have the power to abandon matches if abusive, racist or homophobic language is used by fans. The three-step procedure empowers referees to stop the match and request a public announcement “to insist that the discriminatory behaviour cease”, to suspend the match until the behaviour stops, and if the behaviour still persists after another warning, to decide to call off the match.

The spokesman also confirmed that rainbow flags will be permitted in the stadiums - at least on a case-by-case basis (accompanying words or slogans that could be deemed “political” are banned).

For the first time at the World Cup, the independent, London-based anti-discrimination body the FARE Network will monitor, record and report incidents of discrimination or abuse during the games. This system has been run on all the qualifying matches and the 2017 Federations Cup, reporting to FIFA any homophobic abuse or language by fans.

Last year the football associations of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil and were fined for their fans' homophobic chants, but there are questions over whether this has been effective, given the quantum of the fines (about $48,000 at most) was less than England was fined in 2016 ($63,000) when its players wore Armistice Day poppies in defiance of the rule banning “political, religious or commercial messages”. That rule was toned down last year.

Attitude shift

Recent studies have suggested things might be improving for the LGBTIQ+ community in Russia.

A survey of 50,000 football fans from 38 countries conducted by the Forza Football app showed 47 per cent of Russians would be comfortable if a member of their men’s national team came out as gay or bisexual. (Australia wasn’t polled, but the nation’s most comfortable with a gay player were Iceland and Ireland, at 87 per cent). 

That’s a steep increase on the country's result of 26 per cent in a 2014 poll on the same issue.

Russian embassy  in Berlin
Activists and members of the Queer Football Fanclubs demonstrate in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, on 10 June 2018.
Getty Images

And while the majority may still disapprove, media reports suggest there are thriving (if mostly underground) gay scenes in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Furthermore, following concerns aired in the media about the safety of gay foreign visitors in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, it appeared to go by without incident. Research by the UK’s Wanta Group reports Sochi is these days the least homophobic of Russian cities.

And while 4 in 10 Russians surveyed thought violence against LGBT travellers was likely or highly likely, 5 in 10 thought it would not happen at all.

The Matilda’s Heyman said the risk of homophobic attitudes escalating would be “in the back of your mind” as a gay player warming up for Russia, but “you’d hope people wouldn’t be doing anything like that.”

The World Cup begins 14 June with all the biggest games covered live on SBS.

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