A safe space for LGBTQ people attending this year’s World Cup games was shut down by authorities in St. Petersburg just 12 hours before it was set to open.
On the opening day of the international quadrennial tournament, officials with Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) say that the Diversity House was abruptly evicted by its landlord on Thursday—the same day as the Russian and Saudi Arabian teams were set to compete in the World Cup’s opening match.
A spokesperson for FARE, which attempts to combat racism and homophobia in sporting associations, told the BBC that the advocacy group was not given a reason for the center’s closure.
“They asked us to leave the place very rudely, switched off the electricity and they explained nothing to us,” the organization said.
A joint undertaking between an association of community groups, the Diversity House was planned as a spot where members of the LGBTQ community—whether tourists or Russian locals—could safely gather in St. Petersburg to enjoy World Cup matches. Its programming was scheduled to include discussions on furthering human rights amid the spotlight the sporting match shined on the Kremlin’s virulently anti-gay record.
Five years before the 2018 World Cup, the State Duma passed a propaganda law criminalizing the spread of information on “nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors, which has led to a twofold increase in hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community.
FARE claimed the Diversity House’s shutdown was characteristic of the government’s increasingly hostile relationship toward queer and trans people.
In a press release, the organization’s executive director, Piara Powar, called the incident a “political attack,” adding that it illustrates “how debates about human rights are curtailed by powerful conservative political forces in Russia.”
But despite the eviction, World Cup Diversity House Project Coordinator Alfred Miniakhmetov assured LGBTQ people that the program would continue to operate. He told the Moscow Times that community organizations had “already found a new space and will just open in a different address,” although he did not discuss its location.
“We are quick to adapt,” Miniakhmetov said, citing previous examples of anti-LGBTQ opposition by local leaders. “We know where to find space. We will undoubtedly be open.”
FIFA claimed in a statement the organization “regrets” that FARE had been forced to reopen in a new location in St. Petersburg following the standoff with property owners. The World Cup’s governing body claimed it “intervened… in an attempt to help finding a solution” but was unable to resolve the situation.
A Moscow Diversity House has reportedly operated since the World Cup commencement without incident. Its opening was “attended by Russian government representatives,” as the Moscow Times first reported.
Although FARE attempted to keep news of the St. Petersburg Diversity House’s closure under wraps while resolution was sought, news of the eviction broke days after Peter Tatchell, a U.K.-based LGBTQ rights activist, was arrested for protesting the ongoing violence against LGBTQ Chechens. More than 100 people have been detained or tortured in a deadly purge of queer life in the Russian republic.
Meanwhile, a Frenchman and his partner were reportedly attacked by a group of hooligans. After being robbed, the Frenchman identified as O. Davrius suffered a severe head injury which may leave him permanently disabled.
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