When the Dutch Football Association launched “One Love” two years ago, the campaign was given an international slogan adapted from a Nelson Mandela quote: “Football has the power to unite people.” That a symbol so simple – a heart filled with colour stripes designed to represent the gamut of diversity in the game – could now prove so divisive on the global stage suggests sport might not be such a common language after all.
Thoughts of despondency arrive as regularly as goalless draws in the early days of this World Cup. The Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s head-scratching attempt at a show of allyship in his pre-tournament press conference (“Today, I feel gay… Today, I feel disabled”) has been followed not just by an almighty row over One Love armbands but by various incidents of heavy-handed security removing rainbow items from fans. Having been told ad nauseam in advance how “everyone is welcome”, it’s felt like a frosty reception for those wanting to lift the spirits of absent LGBTQ+ friends.
Because back home is where we are. England and Wales both have LGBTQ+ fan groups, supported by their national FAs, but neither felt they had safety guarantees sufficient to travel to Qatar, where Human Rights Watch has documented arrests, abuse and ill-treatment of LGBTQ+ people. This oppressed minority has no visibility whatsoever in a country where freedom of expression is highly curtailed. Some are now sharing their stories via San Francisco, where one of the only publicly out gay Qataris, Dr Nasser Mohamed, has lived since claiming political asylum in the US five years ago.
I’ve been working with Mohamed on media and campaigning since the summer. It’s been harrowing to hear testimonies like those of trans women who have been beaten and imprisoned, while other LGBTQ+ Qataris talk of severe mental health problems caused by repression or state-sponsored attempts at “conversion therapy”. Mohamed has called out the “gaslighting” communications strategy of the Supreme Committee, the hosts’ organising body for the World Cup, which began by denying LGBTQ+ people even exist in Qatar, then ignored the topic, then tried to present the country as some sort of haven of tolerance, just in time for the ticket sales.
All along, the over-arching desire from the community has been to amplify voices from the region. Qataris who are gay, bi and trans are certainly not a monolith, and the often imperialist Western media lens rarely picks up the nuances of their experiences, such as holding conflicting identities. Instead, too frequently we see people picking over armbands and attitudes – John Fashanu called for “respect” to be shown towards the rules and regulations of Qatar, where gay men 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 Preventive Security Department.
Infantino has talked up a mental health project at this World Cup of 32 friendship benches, which he says will put “football at the service of society”. Instead, Fifa has done a disservice to millions of LGBTQ+ people worldwide, turning us into a 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’ time. The slogan for Qatar 2022 is “Now is All” – next year will be too late for the football family to talk about LGBTQ+ Qataris.