'Everyone welcome'? Qatar's legacy for LGBTQ+ fans

Published on: 22 June 2023

People found ways to protest against Qatar's laws on homosexuality - with a bear sporting rainbow laces placed on top of a television camera during one World Cup match

It was the summer of 2021, and I was talking to a senior Fifa official.

How, I asked, would the LGBTQ+ community be made to feel welcome at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, a country in which homosexuality is illegal?

There was a pause before Joyce Cook - herself a gay woman - answered.

"If you go to places, you open up and shine a spotlight," she said.

"We're very clear that for our hosts, our tournaments have to be all-inclusive. In regards to LGBTQ+ rights, we have a time to go yet until we host the tournament - and I believe we will leave a legacy."

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LGBTQ+ fans and allies stopped and confrontedLaura McAllister said it was important to confront a lack of tolerance

It's still too early to judge what mark this World Cup will leave on history.

But on one count, there can be no doubt.

Despite the repeated pledges of both Fifa and the Qatari authorities to make 'everyone welcome'external-link, those who were from - or supporting - the LGBTQ+ community have not felt that way.

There was the former Wales captain told to remove a hat in Pride colours. And the LGBTQ+ ally detained briefly by the authorities for trying to enter a stadium wearing a rainbow T-shirt.

A gay fan who took a greyscaled Pride flag to a gameexternal-link was made to throw it in the bin; another was forced to unfurl his Pride banners by guards who approached him on the metro.

A BBC cameraman who wore a Pride watch strap was initially barred from entering a stadiumexternal-link - and was only able to gain entry after a phone call to the authorities.

'Being gay should not stop me supporting England'

LGBTQ+ fans who chose not to travel to Qatar had to listen as Khalid Salman, one of the country's World Cup ambassadors, described homosexuality as "damage in the mind".

These were some of many stories of LGBTQ+ fans and allies being stopped or confronted.

Fifa and the Qatari authorities had given assurances that wouldn't be the case. But it happened anyway.

Flying a flag - but threatening captains with yellow cards

It's important to say that what has happened in Qatar is not the usual experience for many LGBTQ+ football fans, either in the UK or a number of other competing nations.

I've been covering the stories of LGBTQ+ people in sport for the best part of five years, and one of the most heartening changes I've seen is the way football has worked to make the community feel more welcome.

From the Premier League's participation in the Rainbow Laces campaignexternal-link to the rise of LGBTQ+ fan groups, the game has made huge strides in a relatively short period.

That progress has been warmly received at all levels of football - seen not only as a good thing, but an essential part of making the sport more inclusive.

Yet at this World Cup, the norms that LGBTQ+ people in football had come to rely on were put up for debate by some of the most powerful names in the game.

Those OneLove armbandsexternal-link that European fans had got used to seeing at the Nations League?

They were not, according to Qatar's World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi, a symbol of diversity and inclusion after all, but instead "an effort to leave a divisive message" in the Arab world.

The ability of football to "change the world" that Gianni Infantino spoke about in May?external-link

That didn't extend to players who wanted to draw attention to alleged human rights abuses in Qatar - who were instead urged by Fifa in early November to "focus on football" and not get dragged into ideological or political "battles".

And that "symbolic and proud moment" Fifa highlighted as it flew the Pride flagexternal-link outside its headquarters in June?

All well and good - yet captains could not wear a rainbow of their own at the tournament without risking a booking.

A right to exist becoming 'political' again

And then there was Infantino's press conference.

The day before the World Cup's opening match, the Fifa president accused critics of Qatar's human rights record of "hypocrisy" and of delivering a "one-sided moral lesson" - and claimed he knew how people facing discrimination felt because he'd been bullied for his freckles as a child.

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and can be punishable by fines, imprisonment and even death.external-link

And Infantino's comments were part of a wider pattern, in which significant football figures framed the conversation about the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the host nation as one of cultural and political differences, rather than basic human rights.

No matter that gay Qataris had spoken out about their desire to live free from harassment, such as Aziz, who told BBC News in November: "I would like reforms that would say I can be gay and not worry about being killed."

'We want visibility for LGBTQ+ fans after the World Cup'

No matter the country's LGBTQ+ supporters organisation, the Proud Maroons, couldn't openly watch their national team because, in the group's own words,external-link fans feared that "joining would send them to jail".

The conversation had changed. LGBTQ+ football fans assuming it was uncontroversial to say that no-one should be persecuted for their sexuality now stood accused of disrespecting the host nation's traditions.

"At Fifa, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world," wrote football's world governing body in early November. "No one people or culture or nation is 'better' than any other."

Yet senior Fifa official Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, suggested that teams who tried to draw attention to LGBTQ+ issues in Qatar had performed worse as a result.

The statement itself was debatable - with Australia's footballers defying expectations to reach the knockout stages, after releasing a videoexternal-link condemning human rights abuses in the country.

But that wasn't the point.

At this World Cup, all the norms that LGBTQ+ fans had come to know were being challenged.

To be authentic in football - to support the right of people to go to games with who they loved, wearing what they wanted, embracing every part of themselves - was no longer a given as a "good thing".

It had somehow become one side of a debate, to be balanced against the views of those who would rather the LGBTQ+ community did not have that right.

Remarkably, in 2022 and on a global stage, the rights of LGBTQ+ people to exist as themselves in football had become 'political' again.

So what now?

The curtain has fallen on Qatar, and the rhythms of football as we know it are beginning to stir.

The Premier League resumes next Monday, and fans of England's top men's teams will soon be back in the stands, bodies hunched against the cold weather, breath hanging in the air.

Pitches will freeze. Points will be dropped.

It will all feel very 'normal'.

But for many LGBTQ+ people in football, there's no easy return to the way things were before.

After a period where so many assumptions about their place in the game were challenged, too many questions remain.

Can players wear the Pride colours at next year's Women's World Cup in New Zealand?

Will countries that criminalise homosexuality be allowed to host future tournaments?

And after some of the comments by football's leading power-brokers, how are gay people in the game really seen by those in control?

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No community is a monolith - but the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ people I've spoken to during this tournament have told me the same thing.

They feel angry.

They feel let down.

They feel anything but "welcome".

And that, as much as anything, will be this World Cup's legacy.

Jack Murley is the presenter of the BBC's LGBT Sport Podcast. You can hear new episodes every Wednesday on BBC Sounds.

Source: bbc.com