In the days following the start of the World Cup on Sunday, stadium security and the public asked American and Welsh fans to hide rainbow-themed items from public space, fans said, in official areas and on the subway. In some cases, fans said they were denied access to matches unless they removed rainbow emblems, although others reported being able to take the rainbow symbol into stadiums without issue.
FIFA officials have tried for years to allay fears that LGBTQ fans who traveled to Qatar, a conservative Muslim country that punishes homosexuality with prison terms, would not face discrimination. “Let me repeat it clearly: everyone will be welcome at the tournament, regardless of their background, origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality,” Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, said a month before the tournament began, echoing promises made by other FIFA officials, as well as the head of the Qatar World Cup organizing committee.
The reported questioning of people carrying rainbow flags raised the possibility that official guidelines regarding allowing the symbol had not reached the vast army of volunteers and staff serving the tournament; or that Qatar, fearing a backlash from conservatives, has reversed course and is cracking down.
But last week, when Qatar reversed a previous decision and decided to ban the sale of beer outside World Cup stadiums, FIFA released a statement announcing the change. There were no similar statements from FIFA or Qatar on Tuesday regarding the rainbow flag.
FIFA has already faced criticism for stifling the LGBT symbol. On Monday, soccer teams representing seven European nations at the World Cup announced their captains would not wear rainbow armbands in Qatar after FIFA said players wearing the armbands would be sanctioned. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticized FIFA’s decision during a visit to Doha, calling it “concerning”.
Neither FIFA nor Qatari officials immediately responded on Tuesday to a request to clarify what the guidelines are for fans who wish to display the rainbow symbol both in official tournament areas and elsewhere in the Gulf state, where sex between men is illegal.
Former Welsh professional footballer Laura McAllister tweeted that she was refused entry to a FIFA stadium by security officials on Monday because she was wearing a rainbow supporters’ hat. McAllister said officials told her the rainbow symbol was banned, according to an interview with ITV News.
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“When we went through security, some of the security guards said we had to take the hat off. When I asked them why, they said “because it’s a forbidden symbol and we weren’t allowed to wear it in the stadium,” she said. “They insisted that unless I took the hat off, we weren’t actually allowed to enter the stadium.” Eventually, she was able to enter by hiding the hat.
In a separate incident before the same game, US soccer writer Grant Wall said he was stopped by a security guard for wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow on it. Wahl later said he was detained for half an hour in an “unnecessary ordeal” but was eventually allowed into the stadium. “Go gays,” he wrote on Twitter with rainbow emoticons sharing an image of the shirt.
According to guidelines shared by FIFA last week, soccer fans are on notice that they are free to express their identity within official tournament areas without consequence. “There is no risk; they are welcome to express themselves; they are welcome to express their love for their partners,” Gerdin Lindhout, FIFA’s head of fans, told ITV News on Wednesday. “They won’t get themselves in trouble for public displays of affection.”
FIFA clarified at the time that its guidelines did not apply to areas outside official tournament zones where the rules are less clear.
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On Monday, soccer fan Justin Martin said he was confronted repeatedly by other subway passengers as he traveled to the Wales-USA match carrying a small rainbow flag, including by two men wearing official FIFA volunteer uniforms. A total of five people asked him to remove the symbol from view during the subway ride, Justin Martin told the Washington Post in a telephone interview, and one passenger became physically agitated when he refused to hide the flag.
Martin, a journalism professor who lives in Qatar, said he does not identify as LGBTQ but was wearing the symbol in support of marginalized groups when he was repeatedly asked to remove it by other passengers.
“I was standing on the train with the badge in my hand and I was using my phone. I was approached by two young FIFA volunteers in brown T-shirts with ‘volunteer’ written on the back and encouraged me to put the flag up to respect the local culture.”When he refused, Martin says one of the apparent volunteers became excited and described as “disgusting”.
Minutes later, Martin said, another passenger angrily asked him to remove the small emblem again, also becoming agitated and using his body to intimidate Martin when he refused. “He physically entered my space and I was pushed into the door of the train,” Martin said, adding that the man then followed him into the subway car while filming him.
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A football fan who witnessed the exchange confirmed Martin’s account of the altercation to The Post in a separate interview.
Two other members of the public also approached Martin while he was en route to ask him to remove the symbol, Martin added.
“I’m sad. I’m scared to wear my badge at the USA-England game on Friday,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel good,” he added, also stressing that the experience of feeling unsafe is not representative of his wider experience in Qatar.
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The reports add to existing pressure on FIFA over its stance on LGBTQ rights and expressions of support for the community during the tournament, during which the rainbow has become a particularly dangerous symbol.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken directly criticized the body’s decision to yellow-card World Cup footballers for wearing rainbow armbands in support of diversity and inclusion – saying it put the world’s athletes in an impossible position. Two yellow cards lead to the expulsion of a player from the match.
The decision prompted seven European World Cup captains, those of England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, to ditch the ‘OneLove’ armbands in a show of solidarity with LGBTQ people.
“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 joint press conference in the capital Doha, alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.
“No one on the football field should be forced to choose between upholding these values and playing for their team,” Blinken said.
Sands reports from London; Hudson from Doha, Qatar. Karim Fahim in Doha contributed to this report.
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