"I know quite a few people that, if the World Cup wasn't in Russia, would have gone this year," said Joe White, co-founder of Three Lions Pride, an LGBT group cheering for England's team at the World Cup.
He and his co-founder, Di Cunningham, have been in Russia for the competition, showing up to games with a rainbow-striped Three Lions Pride flag, despite Russia's five-year-old ban on what has been nicknamed "gay propaganda."
Russia's World Cup organizing committee has said in a statement that all visitors, regardless of sexual orientation (or race, gender, religion, ability, or other typical motivations for discrimination) are welcome at the World Cup, which runs through July 15.
The committee has even specifically promised to allow the display of rainbow pride flags at matches — a promise that has been tested by gay activists. So far, the government has kept its word.
The "gay propaganda" law, passed in 2013, makes it illegal for Russian citizens to present homosexual behavior as a norm in the presence of minors. But the law has been criticized for being open to interpretation, which makes it a potential tool for persecuting LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — people.
In addition to Russian citizens, businesses, organizations and foreign visitors in Russia are subject to the law. Anti-gay violence has risen since the law was passed.
Vitaly Milonov, a member of the State Duma and one of the authors of the gay propaganda law, told The Associated Press before the World Cup opened that he wanted tighter, not looser, restrictions on LGBT fans during the international competition.
"I want to remind them that no matter how much they try lobbying, their hideous way of life is condemned all over the world," he said in a story published June 1. "They do not have the right to propagandize their hideousness."
Despite Moscow's pledge to allow the display of the pride flag, Cunningham was briefly delayed June 18 at a security gate in Volgograd when she tried to enter the stadium with a pride flag. While she was eventually allowed to enter and display her flag at the England-Tunisia match that day, that hesitance is why White said it's important for LGBT fans to show up in a country that is not seen as gay-friendly.
"I think the visibility of fans in the stadium is really making a big difference," White said. "People are coming to terms with the fact that homophobia isn't acceptable as part of the game, whether they're being abusive toward players or toward fans."
The group FARE, Football Against Racism in Europe, set up "diversity houses" in Moscow and St. Petersburg to give LGBT fans, as well as members of ethnic minorities, a safe place to gather and socialize.
On June 14, the owner of the St. Petersburg venue changed his mind just 12 hours before the house was set to open, forcing the group to find a new headquarters. They eventually landed in a St. Petersburg arts and cultural center because for some, fellowship with other LGBT fans is an essential part of the World Cup experience.
But White said outreach is also a component of the trip. He said it was important to him to socialize not only among his own crowd, but also to mingle with "people from other countries that may never have even thought about LGBT fans."
It is a different style of activism for Peter Tatchell, a British gay-rights advocate who was briefly arrested June 14 in Moscow's Red Square for protesting brutality toward gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Chechnya serves as home base for Egypt's national team during the World Cup competition. White said people should give Tatchell "a huge amount of credit" for standing up for the rights of LGBT Russians. And he counts it as a win that Tatchell was charged with breaking a protest law and not the gay propaganda law.
Beyond World Cup
But the social diplomacy of pride groups attending football matches is a more subtle art than a protest in Red Square. For White, Cunningham and other gay fans, just showing up for the matches, flying the flag, and mingling with fellow football fans can be powerful.
White and his colleagues recognize that the relaxed policing of the gay propaganda law may go away once the World Cup concludes July 15. And the 2022 World Cup is scheduled for Qatar, where homosexuality is a criminal offense.
"The one thing [we] really would count as a success is making sure that when the World Cup finishes, we don't just forget about the plight of LGBT Russians, that we continue supporting them," White said. "We can support, from our privileged position in the U.K., the LGBT community in Russia or communities that aren't as lucky as we are with the rights afforded to them. We can show that we stand in solidarity not just during World Cup but throughout the year, as well."