Mohamed is beacon of hope for LGBTQ Qataris

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
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Gay Qatari Dr. Nasser Mohamed wore traditional Qatari garb with a rainbow sash as he walked through the Castro District in San Francisco. Photo: Dan Nicoletta
Gay Qatari Dr. Nasser Mohamed wore traditional Qatari garb with a rainbow sash as he walked through the Castro District in San Francisco. Photo: Dan Nicoletta

Dr. Nasser "Nas" Mohamed could no longer stay silent as the FIFA Men's World Cup ramped up for last year's games in Qatar.

The Middle Eastern country continued to deny allegations of human rights abuses, especially against Qatari LGBTQ citizens. Qatar's government refused to have a conversation about LGBTQ rights on the global stage with FIFA, some governments (even those participating in the global soccer tournament), and numerous human rights organizations.

Mohamed, who lives in San Francisco, is believed to be the first Qatari to publicly come out as gay, which he did last year when he spoke out about the abuses against LGBTQ Qataris in his former homeland in an interview with the BBC. In doing so, it thrust him into the global spotlight and strained his relationship with his family and the place of his birth and youth.

The 36-year-old primary care physician, who runs the LGBTQ-affirming Osra Medical in the city, can never return to Qatar, he said. If he did, he could face up to seven years in prison or even death, not only for publicly stating he is gay but also for speaking out against Qatar's authoritarian government ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Living in the U.S. doesn't guarantee safety, Mohamed, who received death threats after coming out, told the Bay Area Reporter.

Coming out is only one of the reasons why Mohamed is a San Francisco Pride community grand marshal at this year's parade and celebration themed, "Looking Back and Moving Forward."

SF Pride board President Nguyen Pham told the B.A.R. in a statement that the organization was "honored to count Dr. Nas Mohamed among our ranks of queer luminaries" this year. Recalling last year when Mohamed marched in the parade for the first time, Pham called it a "watershed moment to uplift queer activism from the Gulf region" in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We at San Francisco Pride are honored to provide a platform for Dr. Nas to spread his message of inclusion and liberation," Pham wrote, stating the community elected him as one of the community grand marshals "for a good reason."

"He's doing something that no one else in the history of this world has ever done, not to mention at great risk to himself," Pham wrote. "We are elated that he is so firmly embedded in this year's events and in the SF Pride family."

Mohamed didn't simply say, "I'm a gay Qatari," when he took his story to the media. Since coming out, he has actively worked toward building a community for queer and gender-diverse Qataris in the diaspora and back in the Gulf state, where the community is so repressed it is isolated and fragmented.

He started two virtual support groups, one for LGBTQ Qataris and the other for Qatari women (including queer Qatari women), to connect and break down the isolation so many queer and gender-diverse Qataris feel.

"I always felt like I was alone," Mohamed said, stating his feelings were echoed by other queer Qataris he has met. "Now I know hundreds of people like me from home.

"Being in that group, honestly, has been really helpful for all of us, me included, to just feel like we're part of the community and share our moments," he added. "We're just sharing the moments with each other and celebrating the milestones."

Mohamed grew up in a conservative family in a rural part of Qatar. He came to the U.S. to go to medical school in New York in 2015. In America, he was finally able to live openly as a gay man. He moved to San Francisco and found a thriving LGBTQ Middle Eastern community created by gay Iraqi American Ghazwan Alsharif's ASHEq SF, a queer Middle Eastern community. He opened his medical practice in 2019.

Mohamed became a U.S. citizen March 20.

"San Francisco is the one right spot for me," he said. "It just has this magic about it. It has this really strong, amazing community."

Last year, when he was still seeking asylum in the U.S., he spearheaded a global petition campaign, "Love is Not a Crime" that received nearly 100,500 signatures ahead of the World Cup in Qatar. With $30,000 he raised through a social media campaign, he launched the Alwan Foundation with fiscal sponsor the LGBT Asylum Project to provide support, advocacy, and research to queer Qataris in the U.S., United Kingdom, Europe, and Qatar.

The LGBT Asylum Project's co-founder and Executive Director Okan Sengun did not respond to a request for comment from the B.A.R.

This spring, the foundation granted its first $3,000 scholarship and raised an additional $3,000 for an anonymous transgender Qatari recipient in the U.K. to cover legal fees for their asylum case, he said.

Mohamed also assisted Human Rights Watch with its report, "Qatar: Security Forces Arrest, Abuse LGBT People: Discrimination, Ill-Treatment in Detention, Privacy Violations, Conversion Practices."

He said he did this voluntarily with minimal financial support.

Qatar and FIFA

The global men's soccer tournament shined a harsh spotlight on Qatar in 2022. The Gulf country received unrelenting criticism globally for its dismal human rights record from labor rights to LGBTQ rights to women's rights to the lack of freedom of expression, the press, information, and association.

Mohamed decided to seize the moment but said he found it challenging and disheartening to engage and try to bring key players from soccer teams and celebrities who were willing to step up and challenge FIFA and Qatar's government's record on LGBTQ rights. He said he met with nine countries' soccer teams who ended up not listening. Former U.K. soccer star David Beckham, who was a World Cup ambassador in Qatar, blocked him on social media. Brazilian queer singer Ludmilla, who performed in Qatar, ghosted him soon after he connected with her team, he said.

"They are one of the most powerful authoritarian dictatorships in the world," Mohamed said about Qatar's leadership. The country is "so tiny" yet it "can summon the entire world to go play soccer. It's insane how powerful they are."

It is estimated that FIFA's revenue from the games was $7.5 billion, and Qatar's revenue was $1.56 million, according to the Michigan Journal of Economics.

"Engaging with me publicly costs money and costs political relationships with our region," he said about the "disappointing" lack of response.

"I know you want to make money ... but not at the price of you being slaughtered," Mohamed said about Ludmilla. "I wouldn't do that."

Ludmilla did not respond to a request for comment.

At a news conference the day before the World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino dismissed concerns about Qatar's human rights record, compared himself to marginalized people and took aim at critics of the country's hosting of the tournament, the Washington Post reported.

"Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker," Infantino told journalists in Doha, the capital.

As criticism grew ahead of the games, Qatar's government sent conflicting messages, the B.A.R. previously reported. The government attempted to reassure the Western world that LGBTQ players and fans would be safe during the games in the country but was silent about its queer citizens. At the same time, government officials publicly made anti-LGBTQ comments in the media.

Things continued to heat up when Australian-British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell demonstrated outside the National Museum of Qatar in Doha, wearing a white T-shirt with the hashtag "#QatarAntiGay," last October, ahead of the start of the World Cup in November. Tatchell could have been arrested and jailed. Instead, he was deported.

Some teams had planned to wear "OneLove" rainbow armbands on the field, but none did after facing heat from FIFA, as Time reported.

Mohamed was critical of Tatchell's blatant disregard for his and other LGBTQ Qatari's requests not to protest in Qatar.

"It really didn't serve us at all," he said. "It just really shifted that attention to him. [Queer Qataris] all felt so betrayed when that happened."

Tatchell disagreed, pointing to the attention generated in more than 5,000 media outlets that reached an estimated 1 billion people. That led to some backlash but also conversation within Qatar, he said.

"Through that coverage, I was able to highlight the human rights abuses of LGBTs, women, and migrant workers in Qatar as I had been requested to do by the Qatari human rights defender group," he told the B.A.R. earlier this month.

Qatari human rights advocates who reported back to him since then have said the protests and Western attention on Qatar provoked conversations that hadn't previously taken place "especially, among the younger Qataris in particular."

"That is definitely a positive. I'm told those conversations are ongoing within quite strict parameters because of the very repressive regime," Tatchell added.

Mohamed dismissed Tatchell, stating his actions were "provocative for the sake of being provocative and getting attention" and that he "does not strategically think about influencing long-term change or even short-term change."

The two gay activists continue to disagree about how to handle LGBTQ rights when it comes to Qatar.

The other side of the rainbow

Mohamed, who has given hope to queer Qataris around the world that they are finally able to see themselves reflected, made a crack in Qatar's global public relations narrative around LGBTQ rights and made important relationships, he said.

There is no way LGBTQ Qatari's can organize in Qatar, Mohamed said. "That would be extremely dangerous," he explained, but he can be a beacon for them as an out gay Arab from the Gulf and an "immigrant/American."

He said his coming out has changed things.

"My life is just different now," he said. "I thought there was going to be this one campaign, but the work was just the momentum to start something and it just keeps growing.

"It was just really powerful to feel how the work we do here can really be global," he continued.

Mohamed is proud and grateful that there is international interest in his activist work at San Francisco Pride and that he was selected to serve as a community grand marshal.

"The essence of pride is about universal human rights," he said. "Looking back, if there wasn't a fight here, I wouldn't have a place ... to do what I'm doing now.

"Pride is something that belongs to all humans, everywhere," he said.

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