Qatar World Cup lights up LGBTQ+ people

When the Dutch Football Association launched “One Love” two years ago, the campaign received an international slogan adapted from a quote by Nelson Mandela: “Football has the power to unite people”. That such a simple symbol – a heart filled with bands of color designed to represent the full range of diversity in the game – could now prove so divisive on the world stage suggests that the sport may not be a language so common after all.

Thoughts of discouragement come as regularly as goalless draws in the early days of this world Cup. Fifa President Gianni Infantino’s jaw-dropping attempt to show off his wedding ring during his pre-tournament press conference (“Today I feel gay…Today I feel disabled”) was followed no only from an almighty dispute over One Love armbands, but by various heavy security incidents removing rainbow items from fans. Having learned in advance to the nausea that “everyone is welcome”, it seems like a chilling welcome for those who want to cheer up absent LGBTQ+ friends.

Because home is where we are. England and Wales both have LGBTQ+ fan groups, supported by their national federations, but neither felt they had sufficient safety guarantees to travel to Qatar, where Human Rights Watch has documented arrests, abuse, and mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people. This oppressed minority has no visibility in a country where freedom of expression is severely restricted. Some are now sharing their stories via San Francisco, where one of the world’s only gay Qataris, Dr Nasser Mohamed, has lived since seeking political asylum in the United States five years ago.

I have been working with Mohammed on media and campaigning since the summer. It’s heartbreaking to hear testimonies like those from trans women who were beaten and imprisoned, while other LGBTQ+ Qataris speak of serious mental health issues caused by repression or attempts at “conversion therapy” sponsored by the state. Mohamed denounced the “gaslighting” communication strategy of the Supreme Committee, the organizing body of the World Cup, which started by denying that LGBTQ+ people even exist in Qatar, then ignored the subject, then tried to present the country as a sort of haven of tolerance, just in time for ticket sales.

From the beginning, the community’s overriding desire has been to amplify the voices of the region. Gay, bisexual and trans Qataris are certainly not a monolith, and the often imperialist Western media lens rarely captures the nuances of their experiences, such as holding conflicting identities. Instead, we too often see people choosing armbands and attitudes – John Fashanu called for ‘respect’ for Qatar’s rules and regulations, where gay people like his late brother Justin, the first professional footballer to come out publicly , risk solitary confinement and physical abuse if discovered by the country’s Department of Preventive Security.

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Infantino spoke of a mental health project at this 32-bench Friendship World Cup, which he says will put “football at the service of society”. Instead, Fifa has done a disservice to millions of LGBTQ+ people around the world, turning us into political football with mixed messages and weak leadership. You can already anticipate the about-face when the Women’s World Cup is held in Australia and New Zealand in eight months. The Qatar 2022 slogan is ‘It’s all now’ – next year it will be too late for the football family to talk about LGBTQ+ Qataris.

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[See also: The Qatar World Cup is a moral disaster – is it braver to step away, or step inside?]

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