Out in the World: Six months after World Cup, LGBTQ Qataris critical of West

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday June 30, 2023
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Soccer fans expressed concern about LGBTQ rights in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Photo: Courtesy Nick Potts/PA Wire/dpa
Soccer fans expressed concern about LGBTQ rights in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Photo: Courtesy Nick Potts/PA Wire/dpa

Six months after the FIFA World Cup ended in Qatar, LGBTQ Qataris say the realities of their lives have not changed, and in some cases have gotten worse.

Now that the noise has died down about Qatar's human rights abuses, especially against LGBTQ people, queer Qataris' assessment of the World Cup games and the media attention and global pressure it brought by highlighting the country's homophobia is that it has only made life worse for them.

But for some, it also left a sliver of hope.

The Bay Area Reporter spoke with Dr. Nasser Mohamed, Swad (a pseudonym to protect his identity), Rasha Younes, and Peter Tatchell about the realities of LGBTQ Qatari's lives and life after the World Cup.

Mohamed, 36, now lives in San Francisco and is believed to be the first Qatari to publicly come out as gay when he spoke to the BBC last year. He was a community grand marshal in this year's San Francisco Pride parade, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Swad, 30, is a gay Qatari activist. Younes, a lesbian who is from the Middle East, is Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights Program's senior researcher. She is an expert in investigating abuses against LGBTQ people in the Middle East and North Africa region. She authored "Qatar: Security Forces Arrest, Abuse LGBT People: Discrimination, Ill-Treatment in Detention, Privacy Violations, Conversion Practices," about the arbitrary arrests of some LGBTQ Qataris and abuses of LGBTQ rights in Qatar leading up to the World Cup.

Tatchell, who lives in London, is a global LGBTQ activist who has worked with Qatari human rights activists for more than a decade.

Harsh realities

According to HRW, Qatar's Penal Code Article 285 punishes extramarital sex, including same-sex relations. LGBTQ Qataris face up to seven years in prison if convicted, however, prison sentences could be longer if Qatari authorities find other laws have been broken.

"Nobody knew what they do to us at home," Mohamed said about the abuses — including conversion therapy — against LGBTQ Qataris in the conservative Gulf country.

Conversion therapy is the widely discredited practice of attempting to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity to fit into a heteronormative society. The practice can range from verbal and physical abuse to torture. It has been debunked by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, medical organizations, and many countries, states and provinces, and cities around the world.

It's unclear how widespread conversion therapy is in Qatar and the percentage of the centers or religious facilities that are government-sponsored as they are not explicitly advertised, Younes said. However, everyone who was detained by Qatar's Preventive Security Department between 2019 and 2022 who spoke to Younes said that they were required to participate in conversion therapy at a "government-sponsored" Behavioral Healthcare Center to be released. The main goal of the psychologist or medical professional was to "correct their sexual orientation" with the purpose "to revert them to being straight and practicing a heteronormative lifestyle." It wasn't clear if the intimidation of queer Qataris came from their families or security forces. Transgender Qataris said in the report they were mandated to attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored "behavioral healthcare" center by security forces. Younes told the B.A.R. that bisexual women especially mentioned the pressure by security forces or by their families. Some reported they were encouraged to continue treatment to "cease any immoral activity, especially in public," she said.

Australian-British gay rights activist Tatchell, 71, founder and director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, reported one of the alleged government-sponsored conversion therapy centers is the Wifaq Family Consulting Centre. The center is located a five-minute drive from one of the stadiums where World Cup matches were hosted.

Mohamed believes the Daam center is Qatar's "most thriving" of its government-sponsored conversion therapy centers. He has also spoken with several private therapists who told him, "They're stuck."

"They have families bring in their kids and they're like, 'Here's the payment. Make them straight.' And they're like, 'Well, I don't know what to do, because this doesn't work,'" he said.

Why they stay

Mohamed, Swad, and Younes said despite living deep in the closet and the abuse many LGBTQ Qataris experience, they don't leave Qatar for various reasons. Some for patriotic reasons, others for family, the privileges of being Qatari, not being able to afford to leave, or the inability to decide for themselves to leave. For example, under guardianship laws women aren't allowed to do anything without a male guardian's permission.

"A lot of people don't want to leave," said Younes. "There is a huge sense of allegiance to the nation."

She said that she didn't know how much of Qataris' loyalty to their country was caused by government messaging, maintaining the status quo, or "genuine patriotism." Those who do want to leave might not have access to the means, such as organizations (not even underground). They may not know others like themselves to share and document the abuses they've experienced that would enable them to claim asylum in safer countries.

"It's very difficult for people to even prove that they have been discriminated against or violated," due to a "complete lack of civil society," said Younes, which "is only reflective of the country's restriction on everyone's rights, including the rights to free assembly and association, and a status quo."

Swad said that for safety reasons, LGBTQ Qataris do not document what they do and experience.

It is "a struggle for us because even if we want to make a document for an asylum project ... we do not have actual formal reports of what's happened to us," he said.

Mohamed said Qatar's conservative Muslim government, ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s, according to the CIA World Factbook, owns everything, maintains strict rule, and doesn't appreciate dissent.

The alternative for many people is to continue their lives in Qatar and "practice self-censorship [of their sexual orientation and gender identity] to maintain and survive their daily lives. That is how they can get by," Younes said. That's how they "avoid any interference or abuses by the authorities or by private individuals."

LGBTQ Qataris told her they want the government "to afford them basic rights, to be able to practice who they are without fear and intimidation."

Dangerous speaking out

Global criticism of Qatar's human rights violations regarding labor, LGBTQs, women, and human rights organizations took center field last year and made headlines for months leading up to the World Cup.

It was a harsh blow to a country that doesn't take kindly to criticism, but it left some Qatari LGBTQ people and women feeling hopeful, reported Chatham House, a global policy institute.

Public demonstrations are not allowed. It's "extremely dangerous," said Mohamed.

Last year, two Qatari protesters, brothers and lawyers Hazza and Rashed Ali Hazza Salem Abu Shurayda, were given life in prison, while one unidentified demonstrator was sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to Amnesty International.

Tatchell was also arrested and deported when he showed up outside the National Museum of Qatar in Doha, the capital, wearing a white T-shirt with "#QatarAntiGay" written on it protesting the country's government and FIFA in October 2022.

Speaking with the B.A.R., Tatchell said Qataris would love to speak out, but "It was too risky for the Qatari activists to do for themselves. They would be behind bars for years or decades to come."

"That's why we need people like you to voice our concerns," Tatchell recalled the Qatari human rights activists he has worked with for more than a decade telling him.

Mohamed said speaking to the B.A.R. is "considered a cybercrime" in Qatar.

According to Amnesty International, Qatar's government restricted journalists and media outlets, strengthening the law in 2020 to severely punish any media entity or representative who publishes or broadcasts anything against the country domestically or abroad. Those who violate the law by "biased" broadcasting or publishing can be punished by up to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 riyals (over $25,000 USD).

Younes said that when she sought people to interview for her report, Qataris "don't want to even badmouth their country and government because they are afraid that they will be labeled as 'traitors' to their country."

"They feel like they are betraying their country by even speaking about their own abusive experiences," she said.

The only narrative allowed in Qatar is "the homophobic narrative," said Mohamed.

FIFA's top officials demonstrated that with their anti-LGBTQ comments in the media last year, the B.A.R. previously reported.

Tatchell told the B.A.R. that his demonstration generated headlines in more than 5,000 media outlets worldwide and reached nearly 1 billion people. The action generated "internal discussion" especially "among the younger Qataris," where people didn't speak about it before.

"That is definitely a positive and I'm told those conversations are ongoing within quite strict parameters because of the very repressive regime," he said, defending the action and the backlash that occurred afterward.

Mohamed, Swad, and Younes were critical of Tatchell's action and blatant disregard for LGBTQ Qatari's requests not to protest in Qatar. They said Tatchell's protest did not improve anything. Mohamed said it possibly might have made the situation "a little worse."

"We all felt so betrayed," when Tatchell showed up in Doha for a "theatrical" stunt protesting human rights abuses against LGBTQ Qataris, he continued. "It really didn't serve us at all. It just really shifted that attention to him."

Swad said, "It just gave people more power to become homophobic," explaining that "people just became more aggressive and hating."

Mohamed was particularly irked that Tatchell's action took away from the release of the HRW report he worked on with Younes, which echoed similar concerns about Qatar's abuses of LGBTQ citizens raised by the U.K.'s House of Commons report, "LGBT+ rights and issues in the Middle East," published in February 2022.

Nothing changed, only got worse

Mohamed, Swad, and Younes said the protests of Qatar's abuses against LGBTQ people were "ineffective" and simply "symbolic."

"People are definitely enraged," after the visibility and criticism the World Cup brought to Qatar, Younes said.

"The moment the World Cup was done, nobody cares," Swad said about the dashed hopes that the international pressure and economic potential for Qatar would lead to authorities repealing anti-LGBTQ laws.

"I cannot say that the World Cup has changed the status quo or the lived realities of LGBT people," said Younes, who hasn't documented abuses since the games but was careful to clarify that she couldn't be certain that none have happened due to only being in contact with six queer Qataris since the World Cup ended.

"If anything, it afforded visibility that could be helpful if continued and sustained, but these isolated incidents of visibility specifically by the West, have in some instances backfired and have not served ... the experiences of LGBT people who are residents of Qatar," she said.

Repressing existence

"The climate around free expression remains largely repressed" to the point that there is no "community," Younes said about queer Qatari life after the games and the controversy over anything rainbow symbolizing LGBTQ rights.

"The main takeaway is that efforts to suspend local norms or state practices that are abusive temporarily for outsiders only reinforce this idea that sexual orientation and gender diversity is a particular preoccupation of outsiders or Westerners," Younes said, "but it doesn't apply to residents or locals themselves."

Mohamed, Swad, and Younes don't consider Qatar as having an LGBTQ community.

"I would not call LGBT people inside Qatar a community," Younes said, explaining that the word "community" assumes "a monolithic connected" entity that shares "the same concerns, values, and experiences."

"That isn't the case, especially in such hidden underground realities," she said. In such circumstances, "people cannot even coalesce or meet virtually or physically to create any kind of community or intentional kind of association with each other."

The only way Younes believes real change will happen for LGBTQ Qataris in the Gulf country is through Westerners' sustained focus on the "nuanced and different realities of LGBT people inside the country" and working with local queer Qataris "to document and verbalize their realities."

Then people can "advocate privately or publicly to end these abusive practices by the government," she added, "as opposed to reiterating these symbols that are very easily accused of being imported from the West."

That's not how one queer Qatari in her 20s, who only went by Moza, saw the games effect. She told Chatham House that much of Western coverage of the games missed some of the positives it brought to Qatar's LGBTQ community and women like herself.

The games' "free zones" allowed her and her friends to be free for a brief period.

"For once, I genuinely felt free," she said, stating that she could go places and not feel threatened, go to a concert with her gay friend wearing makeup, and go out with glitter on her face.

The Qatari government "have to do it because if you did all of these things to attract people, you are going to do it again," she said.

Sports washing

Qatar is aiming to "legitimize" its status on the world stage. The Gulf country is bidding to host the 2036 Olympic games.

Reuters reported Qatar lost out to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Tokyo in 2020, and Brisbane in 2032. The Olympics are being hosted in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006 — and will again in 2030 — and the World Athletics Championships in 2019.

Tatchell accused Qatar of "sports washing" its image on the world stage.

"Qatar's objective is to present a glamorous glitzy image and to host big international events as a way of getting itself accepted within the wider international community," said Tatchell. "It's bidding to legitimize its status through a combination of entertainment and sporting events."

"Sports washing" is a term derived from similar terms such as "pink washing," where governments attempt to cover up human rights violations and other atrocities through targeted cultural campaigns.

Tatchell and others are skeptical about the International Olympic Committee's commitment to LGBTQ rights, especially after the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia after Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the "Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda Act" into law seven months before hosting the games, the B.A.R. previously reported. The newspaper reported the games prompted protests in support of Russia's LGBTQ community and queer Russians seeking asylum in safer countries.

Taking action

Whatever the future holds for Qatar, Mohamed is working with LGBTQ and human rights organizations to document the Gulf country's abuses against its queer people.

"We showed the state-sponsored physical torture," he said, referring to the report, stating "that data is helpful," especially for Qataris who want to claim asylum in a safer country.

Now six months later, Mohamed continues to work to "summon resources to continue supporting people doing research and helping with advocacy work in the long term," he said.

Through his foundation he is collaborating with human rights organizations' researchers to help put more evidence-based data about LGBTQ Qataris together for advocacy purposes. He said governments, human rights and LGBTQ organizations and conferences, immigration lawyers, and companies seeking to help protect LGBTQ employees working in Qatar and contribute to local communities are interested in the information gathered.

"I would love for people to see the extreme version of what [Qatar's government is] trying to do that I have fled," said Mohamed, who became a U.S. citizen earlier this year. He expressed disappointment about the anti-LGBTQ attacks happening in the U.S. "It is not a good thing."

Mohamed shared with the B.A.R. hundreds of hate messages tweeted to him after posting photos and videos of him dressed in traditional Gulf garb with a rainbow sash during Pride weekend.

Turning his thoughts back to his former homeland, he said, "I'm very excited to just grow this foundation and grow our community, [and] grow the support for our community."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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