Russia’s top tennis player, Daria “Dasha” Kasatkina, did something no Russian athlete of her rank had done before: she walked out.
While seeing a professional athlete from Canada or the United States speak openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity has become more common, for Russian athletes it is virtually unheard of.
But in an interview posted this week, the 25-year-old opened up about being in a relationship with another woman. She also shared a picture on social media with a woman she called “my cute pie” – Olympic figure skater Natalia Zabiiako.
Kasatkina, who now lives and trains in Spain, was not explicit about his orientation, but described how difficult it is for anyone to be gay in Russia.
“Living at peace with yourself is the only thing that matters, and fk everyone else,” read an English translation of the world number 12’s Russian comments to freelance sports journalist Vitya Kravchenko.
His announcement followed another athlete’s reveal. Female soccer player Nadezhda “Nadya” Karpova spoke with the BBC in June about being a lesbian and feeling more free to live openly now that she also lives in Spain and plays for a Spanish team.
Athletes also criticize Russian invasion of Ukraine
Both women also criticized their home country’s invasion of Ukraine, with Karpova saying she “can’t just look at this inhumanity and remain silent”. Kasatkina said she wanted the war to end and not a day has gone by since she started without thinking about it.
“I can’t imagine what they’re going through, it’s a real nightmare,” she said during the interview.
“I wouldn’t imagine something like this would happen [with] an athlete who was residing in Russia because of the risks, you know, that come with those kinds of statements,” Elena Lipilina, president of the Russian Independent LGBT Sports Federation, told CBC News.
She applauded the athletes’ openness as “empowering”.
Condemning the war and speaking publicly about LGBTQ issues could cause a lot of problems for these athletes in Russia, where homophobic rhetoric – including recent attempts further criminalizing talking about LGBTQ issues in the media or in public – is closely linked to the Kremlin’s message about its war in Ukraine.
“I think in the minds of these very brave women, they went out [and] they kind of dealt two blows to the Russian government,” said Dilya Gafurova, head of Russian LGBTQ rights organization Sphere.
The crime of speaking
Since March, criticism of the military invasion of Ukraine has been a criminal offense in Russia, where it is labeled a “special operation”. Human Rights Watch called it a “ruthless effort to suppress all dissent” and dozens of activists, journalists and ordinary citizens now face charges.
A ban was also enacted in 2013 on the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors – in film and television, online and at public events – which is subject to fines and/or imprisonment. But new efforts are being made to extend this law to ban any discussion of sexual and gender identity in the media.
Lipilina said attacks on LGBTQ rights in Russia helped lay the groundwork for Russia’s offensive in Ukraine – and vice versa – explaining that crackdowns on civil liberties and human rights precede acts of assault.
Blame “Western influence”
The government, Gafurova said, considers speaking out on LGBTQ rights or providing “any kind of criticism of government actions” to be motivated by “Western influence”. His organization is among those the government considers a “foreign agent”.
Lisa Sundstrom, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who researches Russian politics and civil society activism, said the war, in President Vladimir Putin’s eyes, is as much about ” NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders than Western values. and influence reconciliation.
And with the conflict not going as well as the Kremlin had expected, Sundstrom said targeting LGBTQ people “is a good way to switch channels to look for an alternative enemy.”
The language used before the invasion five months ago this week bears similarities to narratives used against Russia’s LGBTQ community.
Putin and his cohort took aim at what are considered ‘non-traditional’ values in Russian society – which he pointed out in his speech of February 24 marking the start of the invasion.
“They sought to destroy our traditional values and impose their false values on us which would erode us,” Putin said, referring to the United States and its Western partners. “Attitudes that they have aggressively imposed on their countries, attitudes that lead directly to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church also justified the invasion. He suggested allowing LGBTQ Pride parades to serve as a ‘test of loyalty’ to Western nations and there is a ‘fundamental rejection’ of these Western values in the separatist territories of Ukraine’s Donbass region that Russia claims to protect .
Garufova said this reflected a decision over the past decade to center Russian policy-making on “traditional values, and that Russia presents itself as ‘one of the few countries that still has no recoiled from the propaganda of all that is not traditional.”
Although Sundstrom said the notion of “non-traditional” goes beyond LGBTQ people and includes anyone who challenges traditional family values and gender roles, including feminist activists.
“They have been among the most mobilized, organized, active and anti-war voices,” she said. A new crackdown on LGBTQ rights, by changing the non-traditional sex propaganda law, is also a way to try “to stifle their speech”, she added.
“People have been imprisoned for less”
Kasatkina has done something “inspiring” for many young Russians by “just coming out of the closet”, Lipilina said. “We need more people like Dasha to stand up and take a stand for the LGBTQ community.”
But she is well aware that there could be repercussions for the tennis player.
“People have been imprisoned for less,” she said.
Kasatkina, in her interview, admitted that she was worried about the repercussions of what she said, even the possibility of property being seized or her citizenship being revoked.
Gafurova told CBC News that Kasatkina may not yet face direct repercussions for her words, but she suggested the up-and-coming athlete likely has family and friends still living in Russia who may be negatively affected.
Sofya Tartakova, host of the public sports channel Match TV, would have been fired on Wednesday after criticizing how a show on the network handled a discussion about the tennis star. Tartakova would also be Kasatkina’s PR agent.