“I received an email with a picture of a man, covered in tattoos, wielding a knife, saying ‘Sodomites, sons of sluts, welcome – we will find you and we will kill you.’”
It wasn’t an easy decision for most England fans to come to the World Cup in Russia – threats of violence, terrorism and ongoing geo-political issues hung heavy over much of the pre-tournament conversation.
But for LGBT+ football fans, the decision was even harder.
“We had some threatening emails, Facebook posts and tweets from Russians before we came out here,” says Di Cunningham, the co-founder of Three Lions Pride, a group for LGBT+ England fans.
“We were aware of the situation in this country, with the anti-gay propaganda laws and the lack of attention to safeguard the LGBT+ community by the authorities here,” she continues.
“There is vigilantism and law enforcers don’t necessarily respect the rights of the LGBT+ community, so we were aware that those things could impact us when we came here.”
According to Rainbow Europe, Russia currently stands as the 45th worst out of 49 countries in terms of LGBT+ rights.
Whilst being gay isn’t illegal in the country, those from the LGBT+ community are often discriminated against.
In 2013, the ‘anti-gay’ law was passed, Amnesty International reported last year dozens of gay people in Chechnya were tortured and even killed, and on the first day of the World Cup, prominent British LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell was arrested after a one-man protest against the treatment of LGBT+ Russians.
“I knew if I came to the World Cup, I would regret it if I wasn’t visible because it is that important to me,” says Joe White, a 25-year-old student and fellow co-founder of Three Lions Pride.
He continues: “There are still 70 countries where it’s illegal to be LGBT+ – including some of the countries at the World Cup, where you can be killed for being LGBT+.
“So it’s not just coming over and saying ‘Russia’s doing this wrong’, it’s about having the conversation and raising the issue through the power of football, and making sure football is for everyone, as FIFA promise.”
Despite all this, White says the experience has been a pleasantly surprising one. Helped by England’s unexpected run to the semi-finals, he says his time in Russia has been a positive one.
“I’ve been really enjoying it, a lot more than I thought I would,” he adds.
“Everyone’s been friendly, it’s been clean, and had a really good atmosphere.
“The reaction and the response from the LGBT community was huge, and they were grateful that we were putting ourselves out there, having these conversations.
“People inside the stadium were coming up to us and having selfies with the flag and asking about it.”
Cunningham and White have travelled around the country following England with a flag and scarves emblazoned with the rainbow insignia.
Inevitably, however, their trip has had the occasional blip along the way.
During England’s game against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, their Three Lions Pride flag was removed by a steward, despite having been allowed into the ground by security staff.
A frantic half-hour ensued, with Cunningham and White trying to locate their flag that had been erroneously taken down by overzealous staff.
Eventually the flag was found and put up in a ‘prime spot’ – right behind the goal as England ran riot in the first half.
“It was brilliant to see all the pictures afterwards of the banner behind the goal,” says Cunningham.
“Given what happened in the game it will go down in history – it’s in all the images of Harry Kane scoring a hat-trick.
“Even people who didn’t know we were doing this started messaging us saying they’d seen the banner at the game.”
Both White and Cunningham acknowledge the phenomenon of the ‘World Cup bubble’, with Russia seemingly more open and welcoming than it has been seen to be outside of the tournament.
And while the pair may be seen as brave from back home, they are at pains to highlight who the truly inspiring people in Russia are.
“It’s actually one of the things that has been almost annoying since being out here, people will say ‘Oh you’re so brave what you’re doing!’” says White.
“For me, it’s not. It’s something that should be done. We are standing in solidarity with the Russian LGBT+ community – they are the brave ones.
“We met a few in Nizhny, and it’s the people who are out here fighting for their rights without the protection of the World Cup bubble – they’re the ones who are brave and inspirational to both of us.”
Whilst back home football stadiums are becoming more inclusive for LGBT+ football fans, what comes next in Russia remains to be seen.
But for both Cunningham and White, the experience of the World Cup has been overwhelmingly positive, with stories to tell for the rest of their lives.
Three Lions Pride has only been going for over two years, and their presence has been a hit amongst English fans in Russia.
Last year, over 100 LGBT+ fans went to watch England’s friendly against Germany together at Wembley, and Cunningham says the decision to be ‘out’ in Russia has paid off.
“The support on social media, and from all media here has been quite incredible,” she adds.
However, looking ahead raises its own problems – the 2022 World Cup is being held in Qatar, where it is illegal to be homosexual and was last year ranked the fifth worst country in the world for LGBT+ rights.
Currently, it is too far away for White and Cunningham to consider their options ahead of that tournament.
“I think that we will hope to be there in Qatar,” says Cunningham.
“That’s if we qualify, of course…” adds White.