At the World Cup, a rainbow flag can get you in trouble

Zrant Wahl was entering the World Cup stadium in Qatar on Monday night when he was suddenly stopped by security. Pointing to the rainbow-colored shirt he was wearing in support of the LGBTQ community, a guard told him to take it off because it was “political.”

When Wall, a freelance journalist from the US who covers soccer, refused, another security guard said: “You can do this easily. Take your shirt off,” according to a description of the incident posted on The Wahl Newsletter.

The incident contradicts promises to fans and participants that the World Cup will be inclusive of the LGBT community, made by FIFA and the Supreme Committee, the joint organizers of the event. Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, told reporters on Saturday that “everyone is welcome” after speaking to “the top leadership of the country – several times, not just once” on the issue.

There was a FIFA representative before the games told ITV News that fans can express their identity however they wish and that they “will not get into trouble for public displays of affection”, while advising travelers to respect the local culture of the host nation. FIFA’s kit rules state that no clothing or equipment may be worn if it is considered “dangerous, offensive or obscene” or includes “political, religious or personal slogans”.

Read more: This is the reality of life for LGBTQ+ people in Qatar

But Wall’s incident marked another example of LGBTQ rights becoming a flashpoint at the 2022 World Cup. Tensions continue to flare in Qatar – where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by prison terms – over attempts to ban the universal symbol for LGBTQ rights, and several people wearing rainbow-embellished clothing were stopped from entering stadiums.

They include former Welsh footballer Laura McAllister who said ITV that she was banned from a game as a fan because she wore a rainbow bucket hat. And Justin Martin, associate professor at the Doha Institute for Postgraduate Studies, said he was verbally harassed by Arabic-speaking fans for wearing a rainbow – not much bigger than his arm – on the subway.

In another case, Los Angeles Times reporter Kevin Baxter tweeted that the rainbow mask is not allowed at the Qatar training ground for the US Men’s National Team before practice. Instead, he was offered a standard blue mask, which he refused to wear, opting instead to go maskless. After he tweeted about the incident, a representative of the Supreme Committee called him to ask about his safety and to assure him that they would look into the incident, he said.

The Dutch football team conceived a campaign called OneLove, symbolized by a rainbow band on the arm to promote inclusion. 10 European teams had initially signed up for it in September, but by the time matches began on Monday, the captains of seven European teams had dropped their plans to wear the strips after FIFA threatened them with “sporting sanctions”.

“We were willing to pay the fines that are normally applied to equipment violations and we had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in a situation where they could be booked or even sent off,” the football associations said in a joint statement.

FIFA also required Belgium to remove the word “love” from the collar of their shirts two days before the Group F match with Canada, according to reports from ESPN. “It’s sad,” Peter Bossert, chief executive of the Belgian Football Association, told reporters on Monday, “But FIFA leaves us no choice.”

England's Harry Kane wears the new FIFA approved strip "No discrimination" the World Cup match between England and Iran on November 21, 2022 (David S. Bustamante-Soccrates/Getty Images)

England’s Harry Kane wears the new FIFA-approved ‘No Discrimination’ strip at the World Cup match between England and Iran on November 21, 2022.

David S. Bustamante-Socrates/Getty Images

In a separate statement on Monday, FIFA said it had introduced its own “No Discrimination” campaign, allowing all 32 national captains to wear the armband throughout the tournament. “FIFA is an inclusive organization that wants to put football to the benefit of society by supporting good and legitimate causes, but this must be done within the framework of competition rules that are known to all,” the statement said.

Read more: Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar’s extreme heat. The World Cup forced a reckoning

In Qatar, tolerance of LGBTQ symbols remains low. Last year, authorities censored a same-sex kiss in the children’s film Lightyear and seized rainbow-colored children’s toys that “go against Islamic values.” Human Rights Watch detailed the experiences of six individuals who were harassed, detained and beaten by a Qatari security group as recently as September, although the government disputed some of his allegations. Some expatriate communities in European countries, the US and Australia report same-sex couples discreetly meeting and living together.

Performance may also vary. Qatari law calls for a sentence of up to seven years in prison for committing “sodomy” or “inducing or enticing a man or woman in any way to commit an illegal or immoral act,” according to a recent statement from the US State Department report.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticized FIFA’s decision to impose “sporting sanctions” of players wearing rainbow ribbons. “From my point of view, it is always disturbing when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression; this is especially so when the expression is about diversity and inclusion,” Blinken said at a news conference in Doha alongside Qatar’s foreign minister.

While Wall, the American soccer journalist, was eventually allowed into the stadium and received an apology from a FIFA official, he called the incident an “unnecessary ordeal” on Twitter. Posting a rainbow emoji, he tweeted: “Get gay.”

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