At Qatar’s World Cup, LGBTQ fans are supposedly ‘welcome’ but still afraid

Len Lanzi is a certified soccer boomer, a 21st-century convert to the beautiful game whose fandom now knows no bounds. He latched onto Tottenham Hotspur last decade, then onto Los Angeles Football Club as MLS expanded in his adopted city. He followed the U.S. national teams, and recently traveled to Europe to sample the global flavors of the sport he now loves. He hit London, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Paris, and “had an absolute ball,” he said.

So Lanzi, like thousands of Americans, considered trekking to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.

But he, like other LGBTQ fans who spoke to Yahoo Sports, opted not to for very specific reasons.

“I will be viewing it from my home here in the United States, where it is safe,” Lanzi said. “And where I don't have to be looking over my back and thinking, are people from the government there looking over our shoulders?

FIFA and Qatar’s Supreme Committee, the two bodies responsible for organizing the 2022 World Cup, have said that “everybody's welcome” at the tournament, which begins Nov. 21. Yet the host country has not repealed or suspended laws that criminalize homosexuality. It regularly ranks among the most dangerous destinations for LGBTQ travelers. The U.S. State Department warns that queer Qataris “largely hid[e] their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression due to an underlying pattern of discrimination toward LGBTQI+ persons.”

That discrimination has left a significant number of fans who yearned to experience a World Cup feeling unsafe and unwanted at soccer’s quadrennial extravaganza.

“I can't say that I would feel comfortable going — which is painful for me, because I really wanna go,” one nonbinary U.S. fan told Yahoo Sports. They initially agreed to speak on the record, then, like others, requested anonymity because they feared consequences for criticizing the Qatari government. Some fans even hesitated to speak anonymously. “If I end up in Qatar,” one texted, “I want to be under the radar.” In light of the fact that his sexual orientation is discoverable via Google, he said he’d “received some cautionary words about the prospect of going.”

Some LGBTQ fans and advocates acknowledge that, in all likelihood, they’d be able to attend games and return home without trouble. The arrest of a gay fan would explode into an international incident and mar a tournament whose primary geopolitical purpose is to sportwash the image of Qatar in the eyes of the world.

But even the slightest uncertainty would create lingering discomfort.

“It could be potentially very dangerous, or it could be absolutely fine — you won't know until you go,” Lanzi said. “I typically will take a risk, but this one is so much in your face.”

General view of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 countdown clock marking 30 days to go until the opening day of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo by Nikku/Xinhua via Getty Images)
General view of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 countdown clock marking 30 days to go until the opening day of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo by Nikku/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Fans unconvinced Qatar is opening its doors 'without discrimination'

Under Sharia law, homosexuality is punishable by death, a fact that contributed to the spread of misinformation and exaggerated fears as the World Cup neared. In reality, there is no evidence that the punishment has ever been levied in Qatar. But the Qatari penal code does punish any extramarital sex, including gay sex, with up to seven years in prison; and “leading, instigating, or seducing a male to commit sodomy or dissipation” with 1-3 years.

Reports of imprisonment are rare — in part because, in a deeply conservative state, most of Qatar’s LGBTQ community remains closeted. Some are forced to suppress their true selves and marry the opposite sex. And if they do live openly, or if authorities invade their private lives, there can be retribution. Human Rights Watch reported this week that Qatari officers had arbitrarily detained, beaten and harassed at least six LGBTQ people since 2019, and as recently as last month.

“Security forces arrested people in public places based solely on their gender expression and unlawfully searched their phones,” the rights group said. “As a requirement for their release, security forces mandated that transgender women detainees attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored ‘behavioral support’ center.”

Qatari authorities have given dozens of assurances, in public and private, with varying degrees of specificity and vagueness, that the so-called “morality” laws will essentially not be enforced during the World Cup.

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, told the United Nations General Assembly in September that his nation would be “opening our doors … without discrimination,” according to a translation.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has urged LGBTQ fans to attend, and, in a video message one month before kickoff, specifically mentioned “gender” and “sexual orientation” as axes of non-discrimation.

Nasser Al-Khater, the Supreme Committee’s CEO, has said that gay fans will be allowed to hold hands, and Pride flags will be tolerated.

"We have a country that's conservative, however we are a welcoming country," Al-Khater said in 2020. "We are open and welcoming — hospitable. We understand the difference in people's cultures. We understand the difference in people's beliefs and so I think, again, everybody will be welcome and everybody will be treated with respect.”

"All we ask is for people to be respectful of the culture," Al-Khater said this month. "At the end of the day, as long as you don't do anything that harms other people, if you're not destroying public property, as long as you're behaving in a way that's not harmful, then everybody's welcome and you have nothing to worry about."

As ticket windows opened and closed, though, some fans remained unconvinced.

“Here is a country that is literally on record as saying, any other time, if you're gay, this is very very bad for you,” one American fan who ultimately decided not to attend told Yahoo Sports. “But suddenly now, for two, three weeks, it's totally kosher? I just don't buy it.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: German fans hold up protest signs reading LGBTQ Rights Should Be Human Rights From Wembley To Qatar ahead of the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on June 29, 2021 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
German fans hold up protest signs ahead of a UEFA Euro 2020 match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on June 29, 2021 in London. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

LGBTQ fans divided on supporting Qatar World Cup

For fans who’ve chosen to watch from home, their reasoning was part safety, part principle. Even if Qatar and FIFA could guarantee their safety, a few said, they didn’t want to support a World Cup in a country that doesn’t guarantee the safety of its own LGBTQ citizens.

“I don't really wanna give my money to a country that will then more than likely take this money to actively work against people like me,” one fan said.

But their own safety concerns — and those of partners and parents — were real, too. They didn’t doubt Infantino or Al-Khater, but how, two wondered, could they be sure that every local police officer and security guard would act in line with the international messaging?

And if they couldn’t be sure, how could they fully savor the experience without constant back-of-mind worry?

And how could they rationalize conforming to cisgender, heterosexual norms to satisfy that worry?

“I dress in a feminine way sometimes,” the nonbinary U.S. fan said. “I'm not gonna change how I act to fit the code to go to a World Cup.”

In Britain, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly suggested Wednesday that all fans should "compromise" and "be respectful of the host nation," which is "an Islamic country with a very different set of cultural norms to our own." But Cleverly was quickly admonished; the Prime Minister's office said that people should not have to “compromise who they are."

The U.S. Soccer Federation, for its part, has been “in consistent communication with the U.S. Embassy about all that we can do to ensure everyone enjoys a safe and welcoming World Cup,” a USSF spokesman said. Its events, including night-before parties, will feature rainbow flags and wall decals. It is in the process of finalizing a “fan guide” that all who are traveling can access. And it has received the same assurances from FIFA and the Supreme Committee that everyone has, “that LGBTQ fans will feel welcome and safe during the tournament,” the spokesperson said.

And some LGBTQ fans will, of course, be among the million-plus people who descend on Doha in November. John Collins, a lawyer who sits on U.S. Soccer’s board, said he’d had fans reach out to him asking if, for example, they could “wear their rainbow jerseys, do things like that.”

But others have simply decided against going. Lanzi, in a summer interview, said that he didn’t know of any members of Pride Republic, his LGBTQ supporters group at LAFC, who planned to travel to Qatar.

And that, to him, was a shame. “It's counter to everything that they're trying to build within the world of football,” he said of FIFA — “being accepting and a place where everybody can belong.”