On Thursday, at the opening game of the 2018 World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia, Aleksandr Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, unfurled a rainbow flag.
This brave piece of symbol-led activism came in the wake of a vicious reported attack on a French gay soccer fan and his companion in St. Petersburg, general threats to LGBT soccer fans’ safety in Russia, and after veteran LGBT and human-rights activist Peter Tatchell was arrested and later released in Moscow after holding a banner that called out President Vladimir Putin’s lack of action over the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya.
“Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people,” Tatchell’s banner read.
The Daily Beast has now learned that more rainbow-flag activism will take place Monday, when England is set to play its first 2018 World Cup game against Tunisia in the Russian city of Volgograd.
There, in the stands, with the significant endorsement of the powerful English Football Association (FA), will be a one-by-two-meter banner showing the organization’s familiar Three Lions insignia made over in the rainbow colors of the LGBT Pride flag, pictured in our main image above. Designed by David Gwinnutt, it will be unfurled by Di Cunningham, organizer of Three Lions Pride, an English LGBT soccer-fan network.
“The FA definitely wants it to be seen and wants us to go,” Cunningham said. “They have endorsed it. To create the banner we had to clear the use of the image’s rights with them. We will also be wearing specially designed scarves with the same design. Both have the FA’s endorsement. It’s a very limited run. We are not allowed to sell them or make any more of them. The FA wants the visibility and association with LGBTQ+ inclusion.”
The small group of Three Lions Pride fans may hold the banner, or tie it to railings, Cunningham said. They will also take rainbow flags to wave.
An FA spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast the Football Association’s endorsement of Three Lions Pride’s rainbow-customized banner and scarves, as well as the FA’s support of the LGBTQ+ soccer fans traveling to Russia and their “important” presence at the World Cup supporting England.
The FA spokesperson said: “We have been building links with LGBT+ fan groups by using England home games as a focal point. We continue to support their good work, and back their use of a Three Lions rainbow crest at the England games at the FIFA 2018 World Cup.”
Cunningham said the special, FA-backed rainbow banners Monday are also intended to send a message to FIFA, the world governing body of soccer and organizers of the World Cup. “How can you disenfranchise this set of supporters by siting this prestigious tournament in a country that is hostile to the LGBT community?”
Cunningham revealed to The Daily Beast that “very few, a handful” of the group’s soccer fans were traveling to the World Cup in Russia because of fears over their safety and threats of anti-LGBT violence made in advance of the tournament by extremists.
“It’s an amazing image,” she said of Agapov’s flag-waving at the opening match. “Here is a Russian man holding a rainbow flag and not being penalized, among other Russian fans and stewards.”
“Aleksandr Agapov really tested the RFU today,” Cunningham told The Daily Beast. “So, it seems to be the case that it’s safe in stadiums, but LGBT fans don’t live in stadiums. They have to get to and from stadiums. They have to eat, take public transport, and travel in cabs like the French guy who was attacked.”
“Tiny numbers” of LGBT England-supporting fans were traveling to Moscow, Cunningham said. “I could find you hundreds of supporters who said they didn’t want to go. They were really nervous, massively so. That’s been terribly vindicated by the attack on that French guy. Peter Tatchell’s arrest was always going to happen, it had to. It’s good to know the British Embassy were there to help, and he was released reasonably quickly.”
About why he mounted the protest, Tatchell told The Daily Beast, “It’s tremendously important that President Putin doesn’t score an unchallenged public relations coup with the World Cup. He needs to be called out over the persecution of LGBT+ people, his suppression of the civil rights of Russian citizens, and his war crimes in Syria.”
In 2013, Russia infamously passed an anti-gay “propaganda” law, which made it illegal to spread information about LGBT rights or suggest a parity between LGBT and straight relationships, or distribute “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors.
Tatchell added, “Understandably, Russian LGBT+ people are very fearful of staging protests, particularly during this sensitive time. They’d be risking their liberty and possibly even their lives given the violent, homophobic threats being made by far-right extremists. I’m here to stand in solidarity with Russian and Chechen LGBT people. I’m supporting their freedom struggles. International solidarity is so important.”
After being released, charged with violating two laws, Tatchell told The Daily Beast he was “exhausted” after the events of Thursday.
He said he would not attend the court date set for him on June 26. He planned to stay in Moscow until this Monday, he added, and wasn’t sure if he would mount further protests before then. “I don’t know at this stage. I haven’t decided.”
“The senior officers were quite stern but the apprehending officer and his junior comrades were very helpful and friendly,” Tatchell said.
“I’m facing charges of violating Federal Law 54, which prohibits protests near the Kremlin, and Presidential Decree 202, which bans all protests during the World Cup,” Tatchell said. (The law, signed in May 2017, bans all public assemblies unrelated to official events like that year’s FIFA Confederations Cup.)
“My argument is that articles 29 and 31 of the Russian Constitution take precedence,” said Tatchell. “They guarantee freedom of expression and the right to protest.”
Andrei Petrov, head of Russian LGBT advocacy group Stimul, told The Daily Beast that Tatchell’s arrest had not been surprising, as he had made clear his intention to protest LGBT oppression and suppression in Russia. “The Russian authorities will now do everything possible to ensure that there are as few scandals as possible during the World Cup.”
Tanya Lokshina, program director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told The Daily Beast that Presidential Decree 202 did not place specific restrictions on single-person pickets. “Obviously, some police officer on the local level made a decision to implement it differently and target Tatchell,” she said.
Tatchell was the first foreign protester to get in trouble over this restriction, Lokshina said.
“His pro-LGBT stance possibly gave the police an additional motivation—but he is not being charged with ‘gay propaganda,’ rather with violations of the regulations on public gatherings,” Lokshina explained. “His detention may serve to open many eyes to the plight of Russian peaceful protesters, who get arbitrarily detained and sanctioned on a regular basis.”
Tatchell told The Daily Beast that he had written a letter to Moscow’s chief of police asking for his court appearance to be voided on the grounds that he needs to return to the U.K.
“The situation is stable and bad for LGBT Chechens,” said Petrov. “The Russian authorities have not yet conducted a thorough investigation into information about torture in Chechnya.”
The World Cup and attention on Russia would not lead to significant change for LGBT Russians, Petrov said. “I think that nothing has changed significantly. The level of homophobia in society was high even before the championship, and it has not decreased in recent years. And it is constantly heated up by politicians and journalists.
“I think that nothing will change. The Russian authorities will say one more time that there is no violation of rights. And the situation will remain the same. Most of the population of Russia will not notice this at all. Others will condemn and say that there is no need to arrange gay parades and propaganda.”
Anton Krasovsky, a Russian TV star who was fired after he came out as gay on air, told The Daily Beast that he could not understand why Tatchell chose the World Cup as the backdrop for his protest.
Krasovsky, who has announced that he will run for mayor of Moscow in elections in September, said he did not believe that the activist had managed to influence opinions about Chechnya, especially its leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. “Tatchell managed to make news and spoil the mood of World Cup organizers,” Krasovsky told The Daily Beast.
Agapov disagreed. “In my eyes, Peter Tatchell is a brave man and deserves our respect,” he told The Daily Beast. “Very few LGBT foreigners dare to come to Russia—not to mention make a one-man protest claiming freedoms and equality for everyone, not just solely for LGBTI persons.”
“By the end of the first day of the World Cup, we see that homophobia in Russia is widespread,” Agapov told The Daily Beast. But he said he thought LGBT people traveling into the country would not be targeted by police or homophobes at the stadiums hosting World Cup games. Away from those areas, LGBT visitors should take care, Agapov cautioned.
Before the tournament, the U.K. Football Supporters’ Federation had advised LGBT fans traveling to the World Cup to be careful and discreet and not engage in same-sex displays of affection while in Russia. Fans have also been advised to be respectful of different attitudes and cultures depending on where they find themselves during the tournament.
“But then you have the attack on the French guys in St. Petersburg, which is supposed to be one of most liberal and inclusive Russian cities,” said Cunningham. “I haven’t encouraged anyone else to go to the World Cup. I’m going because I feel it’s very important for LGBT fans not to be alienated by the decisions of the game’s governors to site the greatest football tournament in the world in countries which alienate LGBTQ+ communities.
“I want to support my team, but I am not traveling with a partner. I will be respectful and discreet, but I will also acknowledge that FIFA [the governing global soccer body, and organizer of the World Cup] has spoken to Three Lions Pride about how to make the tournament work and be inclusive.”
“They may face the same risks as other LGBT activists,” Petrov said of the kind of violence LGBT soccer fans could face in Russia over the next few weeks.
In advance of the tournament, FIFA spoke to the Russian Football Union (RFU) about that principle, said Cunningham. The RFU said it supported the waving of rainbow flags within soccer stadiums.
During the World Cup, Agapov’s Russian LGBT Sport Federation, reported Outsports, “will host a football festival, which will include amateur matches in several cities, film screenings, and an international conference slated to include LGBT football fan clubs, stories from gay footballers, and a discussion of the legacy of the World Cup when it comes to LGBTQ issues.”
“I believe we still have a chance to give a positive legacy of the World Cup to LGBTI Russians,” Agapov told The Daily Beast. “LGBTI football fans should be visible, where it is safe to be visible. The Russian Football Union should present their program on fighting homophobia in football and sign a kind of memorandum with civil society for that.”
More than 1,700 people follow the Russian LGBT Sport Federation via social media, Agapov said, but only one in 10 visits a sporting event organized by the group.
“We have to deal with several facts,” said Agapov. “The ‘gay propaganda’ law leads to various risks, and we have to provide security, both physical and digital. There is the privacy of attendees who live in the closet. We cannot expect support from sporting institutions, or the police to protect us. People also may live far away from the cities where we have activists.”
Even with the FA’s support behind her, Cunningham told The Daily Beast she felt “a massive degree of caution and awareness” as she prepared to travel to Russia alongside other Three Lions Pride fans.
“I’ve already started to feel it. I plan to enjoy the football, but not be able to relax any time. But I also think Aleksandr holding the rainbow flag was a fantastically brave declaration—and he was with Russian fans. We will be with English fans. There is always that anxiety about nationalism and hooliganism with English fans, but we hope they will be supportive if they see the rainbow flags.”
There are now around 40 LGBTQ+ soccer fan groups for different English soccer teams, said Cunningham. “The reason is to improve visibility. There still isn’t any out elite player in the English game. Just by being there in the stands we hope people realize that those people who might have chanted homophobic slurs realize there is an LGBTQ+ person next to them, and that may change their language and behavior. Moving that to international games, we hope they see us in Russia, just like them, supporting their home nation.”
LGBT soccer fans plan to continue their protests to FIFA over Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022. Homosexuality is illegal in that country.
However, many gay male soccer supporters Cunningham spoke to—who said they were too nervous to travel to Russia for this World Cup but who have visited Dubai many times—seemed more comfortable with that choice than Russia, she said.
—Additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova