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Back in the USSR

 Friday, 6th July, 2018

Words by Mark Heywood


Nearly 800 professional footballers started the 2018 World Cup in Russia. How many can you name who are openly gay?

None? Not a single one? 

This is the world's most popular sport, and the World Cup is its most important event. And we can't name a single gay player?

I was last in Russia over 5 years ago. A lot has changed. Last time it was Moscow in December. Cold. Brutally cold. Back then you needed a letter of invitation, and had to surrender your passport to get a visa. That visa got noticed at every check point I went through until the passport expired. And not in a good way.  “A vacation in Russia? Really, sir?”

Stepping off the plane in sunny St Petersburg a few weeks ago couldn't have been more different. For the duration of the tournament Russia has lifted its visa requirements. To clear immigration you need a ticket to a game and a Fan ID. The ID is linked to the ticket and it's a failsafe that has not only seen fans in record numbers, it has fixed touting. 

It has also done something incredible. It has given a warm welcome to people who would never normally get a chance to visit. It has given Iranian women the legal right to attend a football match, something denied to them in Tehran. It has given Russians the opportunity to ask well-informed questions about religion, culture, and freedom to several hundred thousand people from all over the world. Over 50,000 alone from Peru.  Nearly 40,000 from China, and they didn’t even qualify.

I saw Egyptians in Pharaoh hats, Mexicans in sombreros, and Moroccans sporting a fez. I saw people laughing and dancing with joy. I saw everything, except for one thing.

Despite what you might have read, homosexuality is not illegal in Russia. But same sex marriage is. Four years ago the rainbow flag was a common sight in Brazil. Not so in Russia.

Visiting fans will leave Russia with their opinion of the country enhanced. And that's a great thing. But it's easy to put on a show when the eyes of the world are on you. It's what you do when the lights are off that's important.

Which is why the news that domestic taxes are increasing, and the state pension age is rising is so telling.  The state released it during the opening ceremony. Burying bad news during a moment of national celebration is a cheap shot.

I asked a young local about this. And also about the country's attitudes to homosexuality. He was open and frank about both. He thinks the World Cup will help change attitudes, hopefully even make changes happen quicker. And then he asked me the question I asked at the top of this post.

It was a powerful reminder that we all need to work harder.  It might be possible that none of the 1500 players are actually gay. But I doubt it. To be playing for your country in the biggest tournament of the most popular sport in the world and not feel that you can be honest about who you are.

That's heart breaking. 

In last month's Writing Salon I explored the notion of unconscious bias as we are all conditioned by our experiences and the way we see things. It made me think of Russia and what I saw, or rather didn't see.

How can attitudes change about something you can't see?

I think about the female Iranians I witnessed in tears at being allowed into the stadium legally. The young Moroccans talking about Islam to Russian fans who wanted to ask sensible questions. I also think about the oddity of not seeing a single rainbow flag in the cultural capital of Russia. Or of not seeing a same sex couple openly walk hand in hand just as they have done at every single international sporting tournament I've ever been to.

And then I think about what that young Russian asked me.

Sure, Russia could do more. At lot more. But so could we all. What Pride stands for is important and it should be celebrated. But it's the things we do when nobody is watching that will change things.

Some of you will disagree that Russia should have been awarded the right to host the tournament.  I get that, I really do.  But think about it this way – if it helps change attitudes, and encourages people from different backgrounds to talk to each other, and allows people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do, isn’t that a force for good?

Let me ask you another question. Alex and Sam walk down the street holding hands. 

Without dwelling on it...what gender are they in your mind?

We are all conditioned to see the world differently. But by talking about it, and being aware of our unconscious bias, we can help to change things. 

If Pride has taught me anything it's that. And that's a very good thing.


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