LGBT+ fans at the World Cup will be ‘safe’, but what about locals like my friend?
Posted by  badge Boss on Nov 09, 2022 - 09:24AM
We can’t just be satisfied that fans from other countries will be ‘safe’ (Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Waiting outside a charming little restaurant in Elephant and Castle on a damp and dark Thursday evening, I was excited but nervous to meet Khalid*.

He was a young man in his mid-thirties who had reached out to me on Twitter just a few weeks before. 

This wasn’t a random blind date, but rather a much-overdue catch up – Khalid had got in touch, as I was his teacher 25 years ago when I did a stint as an expat in Doha, .

This story isn’t one about an educator and his pupil, but rather a comment on how this young man’s life has panned out, and how the upcoming in Qatar should provoke a seismic change in the way the country treats its LGBTQ+ citizens.

We can’t just be satisfied that fans from other countries will be ‘safe’ when visiting during the competition; we have to be allies to those whose lives are restricted and endangered because of who they love.

For reasons that will hopefully become clear, names have been changed, including my own, to protect my pupil from the victimisation and abuse that he could suffer at the hands of the Qatari authorities, were his identity to be made public.

Before our meeting, Khalid had sent me an old school photo that his mum had found while clearing out her loft.

A fresh faced, early 20s me and a young, bright 10-year-old stared into the camera, and it took me straight back to that moment as if it was yesterday. 

Teaching a lively, multi-lingual bunch of mostly boys was a highlight of my early career and according to Khalid, I had inspired him and provided him with the foundation of the English language. 

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Still, I wasn’t quite sure whether I would have anything to say to this 10-year-old and had to constantly remind myself that Khalid was now a fully-fledged adult, and not the Year 5 child I had last seen in 1997.

My worries faded away as soon as he turned the corner and called out my name. 

His mannerisms were the same as I remembered. His calmness, his intelligence, his humour, his seriousness and his depth were all too familiar. 

We had dinner and shared stories of the country, 25 years ago – Khalid is now an engineer and works between Qatar and London.

Having skirted around the edges of history, our professions, where we enjoyed taking a holiday and our favourite foods, I broached the subject of family. You see, I’m a gay man with a husband and beautiful, adopted children. 

How would my family situation go down with this Qatari guy, brought up under strict rule of law that homosexuality, or deviance, was wrong, illegal in religious law, and if proven, punishable by death in his country?

‘Oh, I’ve Googled you. Your family looks wonderful,’ his response was not the one I had been expecting. 

The ‘coming out’ experience that I felt in that moment, 32 years after doing it for the first time, was just as raw, just as nerve-wracking. 

Yet, this strict Qatari national seemed to just accept it, with a smile so wide I wondered whether he might not be the straight Arab Muslim man I thought he was – and maybe his life, his experience and his own sexuality were something he might want to discuss further.

Inevitably, discussions turned to the World Cup.

Qatar World Cup ambassador says homosexuality is ‘damage in the mind’

A interview with a Qatar World Cup ambassador was cut short after Khalid Salman claimed homosexuality was ‘damage in the mind’.

The tournament begins in less than a fortnights’ time with the Gulf State’s record on human rights firmly under the microscope.

Addressing the issue of homosexuality, Salman, speaking to German TV, said: ‘They have to accept our rules here.

‘(Homosexuality) is haram. You know what haram (forbidden) means?.’

When asked why it was haram, Salman said: ‘I am not a strict Muslim but why is it haram? Because it is damage in the mind.’

The interview, that was due to air in full later on Tuesday, was then immediately stopped by an accompanying official.

Read more

In the UK, it had already attracted much controversy due to the well-publicised hideous working conditions of the thousands of migrants helping to build the infrastructure in order to make the Qatar World Cup a success. 

But recently, attention had turned to Qatar’s stance on homosexuality, and the dangers that LGBTQ+ fans might face if they chose to go and support their home country.

I mentioned that in recent days in the British media, it had been reported that Qatari officials had given assurances that fans visiting for the World Cup would be ‘safe’ even if displaying public signs of affection and that this would be a positive step forward. 

However, my point was met by questions from Khalid.

‘That’s great for the UK, to feel their fans are going to be safe. But what about the locals? What about the Qatar LGBTQ+ community, who live in fear of their lives on a daily basis? What about them? What about us?’

To my shame, I was buying into the whole rhetoric that because things seemed to be OK for the fans, then everything was OK.

In the UK, the World Cup had already attracted much controversy due to the well-publicised hideous working conditions (Picture: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

It was at that point, that all barriers came down – the young boy I knew as a studious, quiet pupil, suddenly wanted to tell me how it was, what he knew, how he was feeling and how he was suffering.

He and his friends live in constant fear of being found out. He can’t and won’t come out to his closest family, who he loves dearly, at fear of rejection and abandonment.

He worries for the safety of his closest friends – some of whom have had to take part in ‘conversion therapy’, leaving them as shells of their former bright and happy selves.

He mourns for those friends and colleagues that have taken their own lives, rather than live with the constant threat of discovery. He wants to escape but can’t.

He wants to leave. He wants to be true to himself. He wants a life.

What began with the expectation of a quick, polite dinner, turned into hours of talking – more listening than talking for me. 

Unbearable scenarios playing out in my mind, as Khalid told true accounts of having to collect his friends from conversion therapy clinics that didn’t appear on any map, or any search engine – but existed. He had seen them. He knew they were real. 

Tales of a ‘pep-talk’ that took place during military training (national service is compulsory in Qatar) where officials encouraged all recruits to ‘out’ their friends and comrades if they suspected them to be deviant, to be LGBTQ+ as the state would ‘help’ them to be better.

Most strikingly for me though, was the reality that lives with Khalid every day of his life. 

Even if the death penalty is a threat rather than a regular occurrence for the crime of homosexuality in Qatar, the sheer prospect of one policeman, one official or one judge having the control, the influence and the power to hand out the death sentence, just for Khalid being who he is – not for a crime he has committed, but just for being who he is – is the most terrifying thought of all.

What if one day, Khalid is caught showing affection to another man, is judged as gay and on that one day, he is Ki**ed for this crime?

I could see that the anguish, the fear, the helplessness in this wonderful, wonderful man was completely real.

I wanted to reach across the table, to hold his hand and tell him it was going to be OK – but how could I do that, when I simply couldn’t make that assurance to him? The teacher in this instance did not have the answers and could not protect his pupil.

I asked what I could do – How could I help? What support could I offer? The realisation that from here in the UK, all I could do was tell his story, left me angry. I felt even more resentful of a World Cup that is putting the joy of football above the rights of the citizens that live in the host country.

Competitive sport seems to be able to comfortably detach itself from the realities of life – citing ‘sport is not politics,’ and ‘we can change ideas through sport’ and ‘the fans will be safe,’ as excuses or rationale for all sorts of competitions to happen in China, – and now Qatar.

As we paid the bill, and returned our conversation to lighter topics, I couldn’t help but see, with pure clarity, the fear and anger in Khalid’s eyes. This was a boy, now a man, with such ambition, such success and such joy in his life but who was also being punished on a daily basis – just because of who he is.

And that’s not right.

I’m not going to The World Cup, I’m not a football fan. I’ll probably watch on TV if England reaches the final. 

But for each and every player, club, sponsor and fan that makes the journey to Doha, to take part in this celebration of competition and sport – there needs to be the bravery of every Westerner to ask the questions that no official wants asking. 

Thank God the fans are safe. But what about the others? What about the locals? What about the LGBTQ+ people that will still be there, even once the cup has been lifted and the attention turns to the next World Cup in four years’ time?

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