With the World Cup in full swing, former Star Observer journalist and football fanatic Serkan Ozturk looks at the state of LGBTI rights in Brazil, and LGBTI visibility in the sport.

[This article first appeared in the July edition of Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab your free copy, or here to read it in digital flip-book format.]

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WHETHER it’s football to you, soccer, or just a round ball kicked on a rectangular slab of grass, unless you’ve been living under a rock (with no wireless connectivity), you may very well have just realised over the past few days that the World Cup is well under way.

With the latest edition of the global sporting behemoth coming from Brazil, the tournament in its early stages has already lived up to the locals’ motto of “Jogo Bonito”, or “the beautiful game”.

Stars like Brazilian talisman Neymar, Argentinean wonder Lionel Messi, Dutch wizards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, Germany’s goal machine Thomas Muller and my personal favourite, Italian striker “Super” Mario Balotelli — who, after scoring the winner in his team’s first match against England, shared his World Cup Panini sticker album featuring only himself in every single position — have all lit up the early stages of the tournament. We faraway Aussies even got to experience truly nail-biting World Cup matches against Chile and The Netherlands that went down to the last minute and ended in heartbreak.

By the time you read this article, there will undoubtedly be more goals and more highlights to be repeated ad nauseum across the day and to keep SBS’s veteran football broadcaster Les Murray practicing late into the night his enunciation of names from every corner of the planet.

Yet despite the high quality on the pitch, there’s a nagging sense that the World Cup and transnational sporting events of its kind are at crossroads. Protests have swept across Brazil for the past 12 months and have continued despite the goals rattling the back of the net at stadiums around the country.

With a population of about 200 million people, over $11 billion of public money has been spent on creating the infrastructure and conditions for the event to take place.

In a nation that still suffers from appalling gaps in basic healthcare and education, and a widening economic stratification among its citizens, it is understandable that Brazilians — poverty-stricken or otherwise — would perhaps prefer a new book or a vaccine, let alone a new school or hospital, over a step-over, volley or scissor kick.

What, you may ask at this point, does this have to do with our gay, bi, trans* and intersex brothers and sisters?

Well, it’s very likely that poor access to education and healthcare among the wider public not only leads to poorer health and life outcomes for LGBTI people, but it also easily lends itself to bigotry and hatred.

Despite the stereotypical image of Brazilians as party animals wearing tiny G-bangers while juggling a couple of balls on Copacabana or Ipanema Beach, the South American nation in actual fact remains a bastion of Catholic guilt and sin.

Is it much of a surprise then that the World Cup is taking place in a country, which — according Brazil’s oldest LGBTI lobby group Grupo Gay da Bahia — accounts for 44 per cent of the world’s anti-LGBTI violence?

Last year alone, 292 LGBTI people were recorded to have been murdered in Brazil, while 2012 saw a 21 per cent increase in murders over 2011. Last December, the Catholic Church combined forces with conservative lawmakers to stifle a bill that would have seen the nation’s parliament prohibit discrimination or inciting violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The recent Winter Olympics Games in Sochi, Russia saw much noise made but sadly hardly any real action, apart from awareness raising, over president Vladimir Putin’s much-derided “gay propaganda” laws that prohibit the “positive promotion” of gay, lesbian or trans* lives to minors. Yet it’s difficult to think of one footballer who has spoken up about the entrenched violence that blights the lives of many LGBTI Brazilians.

One could have assumed there would have been some focus on the issue ever since former German and English Premier League ace Thomas Hitzlsperger publicly revealed he was gay in January only a few months after retiring. No one could accuse Hitzlsperger of conforming to any lingering stereotypes of gay people in sports, with the midfielder famed for his hammer of a left foot and tough tackling.

Yet just a couple of days after the World Cup started, the UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay urged more high-profile footballers (yes, there are more out there) to follow Hitzlsperger’s lead and publicly come out. It is debatable whether having one or two additional well-known players reveal they are gay would have much tangible effect on how LGBTI footballers are viewed and treated at the sport’s highest levels, but they are steps that would be welcome.

However, a move that could push the issue forward much quicker would be to have someone of the stature of the world’s reigning World Player of the Year, Portugal and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, stand side-by-side with Hitzlsperger and others to clearly state that not only is discrimination wrong, but that gay players and the wider LGBTI community are just as much a part of the football world as anyone else.

In April, leading footballers were quick to stand in solidarity with their non-Caucasian teammates or opponents after Brazil and Barcelona right back Dani Alves was targeted during a Spanish league match by racist hoons who threw a banana at him. Within hours, footballers across the globe were posting pictures of themselves on social media eating bananas with their black teammates. It is this forging of community that will likely create the beginnings of a much more inclusive environment for players still in the closet (or the dressing room, in this case).

And what of the other nations competing at the Cup?

Cameroon, Algeria, Iran, Ghana and Nigeria may play some good football but those nations also contain laws punishing homosexual acts. The website Erasing 76 Crimes, which tracks the total number of countries with anti-gay laws, reports that Nigeria is the world leader for imprisoning LGBTI people, simply for the crime of being themselves. A frontrunner for the World Cup of Bigotry then, with scores currently languishing in cells and fending off beatings from bigots in police uniform.

Even in the USA, where large parts of the country, unlike Australia, allow the freedom to hold same-sex marriages, there are still 13 states that have anti-sodomy laws on the books.

With Russia due to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2018, there are worrying reports in recent weeks that the nation’s so-called “gay propaganda” laws have escalated into an outright assault on civil and human rights with moves by government officials to pressure financial institutions and others to not have LGBTI groups as clients or offer them the use of services.

But if Russia’s censorship and blacklisting of its LGBTI citizens has possibly turned you off from attending in four years time, you could always wait until 2022 as the World Cup will finally return to that apparent hotbed of football action — Qatar. A country where you will not only melt if you were outside for a considerable time chasing a round piece of leather under a sun that barely dips under 40 degrees Celsius, but if you happen to be gay, bi or trans*, you could be sentenced to jail for up to three years as well as receive up to 90 lashes from a whip.

If the recent media reports from the UK are true, it only cost Qatari businessman and sports administrator Mohammed bin Hamman a lazy $5 million or so in kickbacks to the clowns that infest FIFA to secure the World Cup for the tiny oil producing country.

We now seemingly know how much the World Cup costs, but at what cost to the dignity of the world’s LGBTI community?

 

Serkan Ozturk is also a mad Arsenal fan and can be found on Sundays playing left wing for his local Coogee United pub side.

 

 

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