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Can the Russian World Cup Sponsors Call Themselves LGBTQ-Friendly?

Brands are, as ever, happy to pose as allies when it suits them, but some marketing opportunities are too rewarding to refuse.
Image via; CC 4.0

It's that time again: Tom from HR keeps pestering you to enter a sweepstake, your elderly neighbours are dusting off their Eng-er-land flags and your local pub is inexplicably playing that one good Ant & Dec song on loop.

As I type, football fans from around the world are boarding crap budget flights to bundle themselves into stadiums and watch the action unfold in real-time. But the country they're travelling to, Russia, has a notorious reputation for human rights violations, as well as a headline-grabbing anti-gay "propaganda" law, which sounds too absurd to be true, but sadly very much is.


At the 2018 World Cup, fans are pumping cash into the economy of one of the world's most repressive countries. Meanwhile, a handful of official "partners" and sponsors are funding the spectacle.

Many of the companies involved have escaped criticism for getting into bed with a country whose attitude towards the LGBT+ community is archaic, so I wonder how they've justified this business decision. Unsurprisingly, it was basically impossible to discern. Every sponsor I called refused to give quotes on record, while some declined to even give press centre phone numbers. Companies like Visa and McDonalds evaded press requests, and those who did respond – Adidas, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Hyundai – gave remarkably similar responses. Hisense UK refused to comment, and then declined a request to provide contact details for its global team. Wanda Group also declined to comment.

There were plenty of predictable commonalities among the responses I was sent; the majority stated their belief that football has the power to unite communities, while Adidas and Coca-Cola reiterated their focus on "diversity". Budweiser also explained that its sponsorship is "not an endorsement of any government or policy", while Hyundai underlined that it places the "highest priority on ethical standards and transparency".

This is all well and good, but sponsorship is an endorsement. FIFA clearly knew this and anticipated a backlash, as did the companies which last year promised they’d reconsider their partnerships – but, of course, ultimately backed down.


So what can we do about the situation? Basically, not very much. Russia’s track record on censorship is legendary: headlines this year have already confirmed that computer folders full of dank memes, and even inflatable ducks, are enough to get you arrested for protesting. President Putin has also ramped up his crackdown, signing decrees banning one-man protests. This didn’t stop activist Peter Tatchell – who was famously beaten on camera by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's bodyguards – from staging a peaceful protest in Red Square. He was quickly arrested.

Not only was he protesting the competition, he was sending a vital reminder: there is still no justice for the victims of Chechnya's reported "gay purge". Stimul, a Russian non-profit organisation, is more aware of this fact than most; as the world’s media tired of writing about human rights violations, Stimul was one of the only organisations actively fundraising and fighting for the resettlement of Chechen refugees.

Activist Anton Petrunin is unconvinced that any protest of the World Cup will result in genuine progress. He states that the hate crimes reported so far are "no worse than usual", and explains that his internal communications with other Russian NGOs reveal a reluctance to protest in any noisy, visible way. "It's a very strange situation of politeness and silencing – the Russian government will say there's no human rights violations, but will then remove Peter Tatchell and his banner about gays in Chechnya from the Red Square."


As for the corporate sponsors? "Obviously the human rights violations in Russia aren't as important as they claim them to be in their public statements," he states emphatically. "Even if we just look at LGBT+ rights – this year the World Cup is being held in Russia, where discrimination laws are enforced. In 2022, it will be in Qatar, where same-sex relationships are punished by death. So, as activists, we feel pessimistic – but awake. We just keep doing our everyday work."

Sound depressing? Well, it is. Plenty of the companies sponsoring the event have been more than happy to profit from statements of solidarity in the past, whether it be through half-arsed rainbow graphics or Pride capsule collections. Sure, these statements are absolutely better than nothing, and many of the companies do give back to LGBT+ charities, but how can we trust their ally-ship when they’re also happy to bankroll events which directly put LGBT+ people in harm's way?

For Matt Beard, Executive Director of non-profit organisation All Out, the answer is simple: "Unfortunately, the attention and excitement that major sporting events generate make it easier for corporate sponsors to turn a blind eye to the realities of host countries."

His organisation has already done more than most, running campaigns asking fans to pose with "gay propaganda" and tag themselves in Moscow to raise awareness and create visibility for LGBT+ people. He states his fears that the World Cup will undeniably put LGBT+ fans in danger: "Numerous governments have instructed fans to avoid same-sex public displays of affection, and with good reason: violently homophobic Russian anti-gay groups have been vocal about their intention to 'hunt down' and attack LGBT+ visitors to Russia."

The gravity of the situation cannot be ignored, nor can the widespread reluctance of sponsors to justify buoying the economy of a country whose human rights violations routinely make headline news. Something needs to change. But the answer might not be so simple as calling for sponsors to boycott; Ryan Atkin, the UK's first openly gay football referee, argues that corporate sponsors need to use their platform to advocate for change. "They can be so powerful, and they have the power to drive change and influence sports at an international level," he says. "They can impact the decisions that the sporting governing bodies make."

This might be true, but the recent announcement that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup seems to suggest this is unlikely to happen. Ultimately, brands are more than happy to posture as LGBT+ friendly when it suits them, but the fact is that some marketing opportunities are just too "tremendous" to turn down – even if it means haemorrhaging cash into a country whose homophobic laws are literally worldwide news.