Russia treats gay people horribly. So does Qatar.
Both countries have laws discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and in both countries, that legal code feeds a culture of violence against LGBT individuals.
But none of that stopped FIFA, world soccer's organizing body, from gifting Russia the 2018 World Cup and handing host-nation status to Qatar in 2022.
It's a baffling choice by FIFA, an organization that loves to bask in its self-proclaimed benevolence. The body sees itself as more than a sports organization, claiming that it wields the power of the world's most popular sport to promote peace, unity, and tolerance. Indeed, FIFA's bylaws ban discrimination in soccer on the basis of a long list of categories, including race, religion, nationality and—yes—"sexual orientation."
That's impossibly at odds with the current environment in either Russia or Qatar.
A quick review of Russian policies on homosexuality: Last summer, the country passed a law banning any sort of public advocacy for the rights of homosexuals. The "anti-propaganda" law claims to be a guard against "recruiting" children into homosexuality—part of a false but persistent campaign to link homosexuality and pedophilia—but its de facto result has been state persecution of those engaged in LGTB advocacy.
The state-sanctioned discrimination is backed by broad anti-gay sentiment among the Russian public. And the ban on public advocacy has tied the hands of advocates for tolerance at a time when brutal beatings of gay men—again under the bogus guise of a campaign against pedophilia—are increasingly common.
And then there's Qatar, a country whose legal code goes beyond Russia's to ban homosexual acts entirely.
The Gulf state's legal code allows for up to seven years of imprisonment for homosexual conduct. As a prison alternative, the state has turned to flogging—including of foreigners.
Here's what the U.S. State Department had to say about Qatar's treatment of homosexuals in its 2013 human rights report:
LGBT individuals largely hid their sexual preferences in public due to an underlying pattern of discrimination toward LGBT persons based on cultural and religious values prevalent in the society. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination nor are there antidiscrimination laws.
Due to social and religious conventions, there were no LGBT organizations nor were there gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events. Information was not available on official or private discrimination in employment, occupation, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Victims of such discrimination, however, were unlikely to come forth and complain because of the potential for further harassment or discrimination.
The fact that FIFA chose these nations to bestow its crown jewel upon is problematic for any number of reasons. Concretely, it means that LGBT soccer fans who want to attend the next two world tournaments do so at their own peril, risking both state persecution or threats from anti-gay vigilantes.
And on a macro level, FIFA's decision is even more disappointing. By rewarding countries that discriminate against LGBT individuals, FIFA is offering a de facto stamp of approval to those countries—affirming their right to benefit economically and culturally from a world tournament while discriminating against a sizable segment of the world's population.
The failure to stand up for LGBT rights is far from FIFA's only problem. The organization is already on defense over alleged bribery from Qatar, and Qatar is already on the defense about the lethal conditions for the foreign workers building its stadiums. And none of that scrapes at the broadest critique of the cup: that it's a net negative for host countries' citizens—a critique that is particularly salient as poor Brazilians take to the streets to aks, essentially, "What about us?"
But while FIFA will likely be living with these scandals for years to come, there are actions it could take right now to do better on gay rights.
The organization could leverage World Cup hosting privileges with conditions for LGBT tolerance—both before the selection process and after being chosen. At a bare minimum, that would mean requiring countries to make a credible guarantee of the safety of LGBT visitors in order to be able to host the tournament. And if FIFA really wanted to live up to its self-written standards, it could go well beyond that: leveraging hosting privileges to push for substantive, permanent changes in the way both countries treat homosexual citizens and visitors.
For now, some good news for gays and lesbian soccer fans: Brazil—where the 2014 tournament kicks off Thursday afternoon—is a pioneer in LGBT equality, and those laws come accompanied by an open, tolerant, and welcoming culture.
And it's possible that sometime between now and 2022, FIFA will drop its agnosticism on LGBT rights and start living up to its bylaws. If so, that will be cause for celebration. But if not, the LGBT community and its allies should enjoy this next month of soccer—because we won't get to enjoy another like it for a long, long time.