Efforts are being made to take advantage of what has been a more open and tolerant country this summer by a community seeking equality and fairness
Our interview with Aleksandr Agapov – president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation – takes place in two parts.
We’re chatting well but his attention is called away. “Police,” he tells us. And, just like that, Aleksandr – Sasha for short – disappears for 10 minutes.
When he comes back he says he’s been to answer some questions from a local police officer, who has turned up at the Football For All event organised by Sasha’s group in an otherwise empty, unremarkable college in the north west of Moscow.
He has given the police officer his name and date of birth, his address and his contact details, and even the payment details for the booking on the pitch.
He has had to tell the police officer that he is the organiser of the event and also has to confirm the number of people present.
The police officer, Sasha says, has also asked who we were. He wanted to know where we came from and who we represented. He wanted to know what we had asked Sasha and what we still intended to ask.
Sasha told the police officer that we had asked what life was like for the LGBT+ community in Russia. And then he wanted to know how Sasha answered that question.
“The fact that you are here means life is not good for us.”
“We’re here to protect you.”
“In a good country there wouldn’t be need to protect us.”
This is a regular occurrence. Police have a habit of showing up at any event the Russian LGBT Sport Federation organises. To protect them.
“Maybe there is sense to what they say,” says Sasha. “Being open we are at risk.
“Every month we hear bad news concerning the LGBTI community; somebody is blackmailed or somebody is punched.”
But you can’t escape the sense that somebody, somewhere is keeping an eye on them.
The pitch is out of the view of the public and access is only granted once a security guard buzzes you onto the campus. It’s a sleepy Saturday morning. It wasn’t a widely promoted or particularly popular event. At a push there were 20 people present and simply no danger of anyone passing by and causing trouble.
As well as the surveillance, Sasha has another thing on his mind. He believes that the details he has just given to the police will be shared too.
“It can be used by the FSB,” he says referring to the Federal Security Service. A former member of the FSB is lingering by the gate; a red t-shirt is pulled over his belly and he is wearing reflective sunglasses.
“My phone number, my personal name, date of birth…”
Gatherings like this are not strictly illegal in Russia but state mechanisms work in such a way that makes them rare.
There is a federal law here – passed in 2013 – “for the purpose of protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values”. It is also known as the gay propaganda law.
“Restrictions are fixed in the law,” says Sasha. “Vaguely, but they are fixed. It puts limits on us for organising sports events. City authorities can ban the meeting and say: ‘We cannot guarantee children won’t be passing by’. Authorities can shut down visibility of LGBTI people.
“LGBTI people are marked as second-class citizens. The law clearly states that there is inequality between traditional and non-traditional sexual practice.”
Even for small-scale meetings like this one, there are roadblocks at most turns. A venue co-ordinator can say that no rainbow flag may be flown or no logo put up on the spurious assertion that children might be training on the next pitch.
“Every time it’s some special restriction. People are becoming nervous all the time. It’s very hard to get people together and play sport openly as LGBT.
“People know where they live… and the consequences that can happen.”
Sasha, first and foremost, is a football fan. He and his group are attempting to give visibility to Russia’s LGBT+ community through sport.
“The goal of this football festival is to become a platform for a Russian audience to get information about positive changes for the LGBTI community in football,” Sasha says.
“You cannot find information about the acceptance of LGBTI people in football on the website of the Russian Football Union.
“They do not keep this information – especially in the Russian language. Russian audiences have no access to this information in their language.
“Our public events are about sport but even organising sporting events we face difficulties. There could be calls from homophobes and then the police can appear at the venue. So, we have to hire security and that costs us extra money.”
June may have been Gay Pride month – with events taking place the world over – but you won’t have seen any marches in Moscow or any other Russian city for that matter.
“Every time anybody attempts to inform the city authorities about a march they use everything to decline it,” Sasha says. They may not give reasons that are overtly homophobic – such as the chosen venue being unsuitable or unavailable – but to Sasha the subtext is clear.
But, little by little, the community is fighting for recognition. During this World Cup there have been relaxations on certain restrictions on the Moscow streets. A blind eye is turned to drinking and smoking by police officers playing nice. There is more than a hint of suspicion on the part of the LGBT+ community that foreigners are being given more leeway than locals get because the world’s eyes are trained on their country.
“What you see in the streets of Moscow is the open Russia,” he says. “The Russia we want to have.
“The police do not interfere in parties in the street, they do not detain you for the rainbow signs.
“But you see it’s only because of the World Cup that the police are so polite and do not interfere in people’s business. The police treat foreigners differently than Russian citizens.”
On the opening day of the tournament, Russia played Saudi Arabia in Moscow. Sasha attended. And he brought his rainbow flag with him “to experience for myself what it means to be a gay football fan with the flag in the stadium”.
“A lot of journalists asked me is it safe to be in the stadium,” he says. “We had the assurances that everything would be fine and I believed it to be so.”
Before the game, a welcome speech was given by the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
The big screens in the stadium focused on the president as he spoke, providing English subtitles to fans inside the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium. With the words “…and that is what we call love at first sight…” Sasha took out his flag and waved it.
“I dared to try it,” he says. “I should follow what I preach and be responsible for what I’m saying. And it was to say to other LGBTI football fans that you can be visible during the World Cup.
“If there hadn’t have been any open LGBTI fans at the stadium, the media would use it against us. Fake news, there are no LGBT football fans. It would have been perverted in the media.
“This is a window of opportunity. I wanted to be as visible as possible. Only by being visible can we change things.”
Chinese tourists, two men from the northern Caucasus region, two locals and a couple of Saudi Arabian fans sat near Sasha as he rolled out the flag. He might have felt a couple of pairs of eyes on him, he admitted, but did not experience any hostility.
“At the stadium everything was fine,” he says. “I enjoyed it a lot.”
It was the way to the stadium that Sasha says he encountered a “homophobic opinion”. A fellow Russian spotted the flag, made a bit of chat, and Sasha told him he carried it because he wanted peace in the world.
“We do not need that kind of world,” he was told.
There is an active gay community in Moscow but its members have long got used to life on the margins and under surveillance – like we were at Football For All. Out and proud doesn’t appear to be a luxury the community has.
“If you are straight you can walk hand in hand in the street,” says Sasha.
“LGBTI people cannot afford to do it. Even inside of their head, they cannot afford to do it.
“When I had a relationship with a Dutch guy and I was in the Netherlands, I felt uncomfortable. It’s like a prisoner who is released from prison. For a very long time they don’t feel free.
“This is how we live here,” he says with the former FSB agent and the local police officer ambling about this small football field in a quiet corner of Moscow. For protection you see.
“We often can hear opinions from others, like we don’t need those rights or we can live a normal life here. But that is to calm yourself, to excuse the violation of your rights.”