Russia’s Football Union is insisting that gay fans will not face prosecution for holding hands or carrying rainbow flags, despite the country’s gay propaganda law.
It was reported earlier this week that fans travelling to Russia for the 2018 World Cup would be warned by rights groups to avoid holding hands or bringing rainbow flags.
The country has a law that outlaws “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships”, which has been used to stifle any public display of homosexuality or display of support for LGBT rights.
However, football officials in the country have insisted that fans attending the World Cup will not be targeted.
Russian Football Union official Alexei Smertin said: “There will definitely be no ban on wearing rainbow symbols in Russia. It’s clear you can come here and not be fined for expressing feelings.
“The law is about propaganda to minors… I can’t imagine that anyone is going to go into a school and speak.”
Despite his claims, the impact of the gay propaganda law has been felt well beyond schools.
The legislation has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, for a chilling effect that stifles all dissent on LGBT issues.
Speaking to the Guardian, Piara Powar of football equality group Fare welcomed the reassurance.
Powar said: “He’s giving some reassurances and I think in the end that’s all that people want.
“People want to know that they can come here safely, that they will be protected, that they are wanted.”
It would not be the first time that foreign visitors are exempted from the gay propaganda law.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave assurances ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when gay athletes and fans launched a boycott of the events.
Putin insisted gay fans would not get in trouble – “if they leave kids alone”.
He said at the time: “We have no ban on the non-traditional forms of sexual intercourse among people.
“We have the ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia. I want to stress this: propaganda among minors. These are two absolutely different things: a ban on certain relations or the propaganda of such relations.”
“We have our own traditions, our own culture, we treat all our partners with respect and ask for our traditions and our culture to be treated with respect as well.”
The idea that the law will selectively apply to Russia’s LGBT community but not to outside visitors is hardly surprising.
It was recently revealed that Russian government-run internet troll factories were churning out their own literal ‘gay propaganda’, in violation of their own law.
Facebook recently named a string of accounts aimed at the West that are believed to have been propaganda pages set up by the Russian government.
Many of the pages appeared to be geared towards stoking divisions in US society.
The troll farm running pages targeting minority groups – LGBT United, Blacktivists, and United Muslims of America – as well as right-wing and nationalist pages Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas and Secured Borders.
LGBT United primarily dedicated itself to promoting supportive pro-LGBT content – and yet everyday Russians running similar pages themselves have faced criminal action.
Hate crimes against LGBT people have doubled since Russia created a law banning gay “propaganda”.
The 2013 legislation, which prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” towards minors, has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
And authorities in Chechnya – a region of Russia – have detained more than 100 men in a gay purge this year, torturing and killing them while encouraging families to do the same.
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Football already has problems regarding homophobia, with FIFA having repeatedly fined countries such as Mexico and Argentina after their fans were caught singing anti-gay chants.
Before the Confederations Cup this summer in Russia, the organisation gave referees the power to call off matches if they heard fans use discriminatory language.
But FIFA’s actions do not seem to have dispelled fears of activists.
Powar said that chants including the word “puto” have become “a big thing in football” since the last World Cup in 2014.
In March, Atlanta United supporters in the US were heard repeatedly chanting the word – which in this context means ‘male prostitute’ – at opposition players.
“There is no offence of homophobia in FIFA’s rules, and we have made clear that there should be,” Powar said.
“It is critical there is a clear message about Fifa’s ability to act in these cases against the fans that are responsible.”
Russia came second-bottom in Europe’s latest LGBT rights rankings – to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is guilty of instituting its own LGBT purge, detaining and torturing at least 100 gay and trans people to force them to give up other LGBT people.