Advocating For LGBTQ+ Rights in Qatar: We Need to Change the Narrative

Lorenzo Capito

With millions expected to attend the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatari authorities have ramped up efforts to prepare for the global sporting event. However, recent reports have shown many arrests of Qatar’s LGBTQ+ nationals, with the most recent being just weeks before the sporting event is set to start. Impact’s Lorenzo Capito considers whether it is still appropriate for countries to participate in light of these revelations and the long-term damage Western support might cause. 

Human Rights Watch’s recent report has revealed that Qatari law enforcement arrested people in public areas based on their gender identity, in addition to having unlawfully searched through their phones. The report has also revealed Qatar’s law enforcement’s mandate of transgender women to be placed into conversion therapy at a government-sponsored centre. This is on top of the abuse LGBTQ+ individuals experienced while under police detention.

These strings of arrests echo the repression faced by the LGBTQ+ community in the 69 countries criminalising LGBTQ+ activities – Qatar being one of them. Qatar is also one of the 11 countries that also imposes the death penalty for consensual, same-sex relations. 

With this, it’s no surprise that some are boycotting the Qatar World Cup. From a one-man protest in Qatar to others refusing to watch the World Cup, there has even been a petition to ban Qatar to host the World Cup – though this was rejected. 

Rather than LGBTQ+ identities being [perceived as] inherently human, they’re [seen as] imported Western practices

So, should governments ban their national teams and tourists from travelling to Qatar? Should Western nations be more vocal about LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar and the world in general? Well, it’s more complicated than a ‘yes.’ 

One of the main reasons why LGBTQ+ rights have been so slow to advance in various parts of the world is the perceived connection between the LGBTQ community and the West.  

When previous US president Barack Obama encouraged Africans to stop anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, it drew significant backlash. Former Kenyan Prime Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, responded by stating that gay rights were a “non-issue” and that there are certain things in the US that “our culture, our societies, don’t accept.” Many Middle Eastern societies also see homosexual behaviour as a Western invasion against ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern cultures in addition to it being a product of colonialism. What binds these together is the view that, rather than LGBTQ+ identities being inherently human, they’re imported Western practices. 

This is the crux of the problem. Many Western politicians think that calling for the fair treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals in societies that view them as taboo will automatically stop discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and rally public support. This simply isn’t the case. 

Forcing FIFA to cancel the World Cup because of Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws isn’t the solution

Religion greatly influences the negative views of homosexuality. The influence of Western colonialism has also shaped negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ expression. The entrenchment of these beliefs means that homophobia has become a cultural norm in these societies. As such, Western calls for LGBTQ+ rights give the impression that the West is forcing their way of life. It also doesn’t help that many of these societies were also previously colonised by Western powers, reaffirming the belief of the West trying to recolonise them through cultural invasions. 

Forcing FIFA to cancel the World Cup because of Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws isn’t the solution. While it would be a symbolic act of protesting against the intolerance of the abuse of LGBTQ+ individuals, it may also backfire on Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community. It gives off the impression that the West is bullying Qataris into adopting their cultural practices and might lead to clamping down on their LGBTQ+ population even harder, who many already perceive as deviant, Western imports. As such, rather than enforcing a boycott or encouraging FIFA to prevent the World Cup from being held in Qatar, politicians and organisations should advocate for the promotion and protection of free speech instead. 

Freedom of speech is crucial in advancing not just LGBTQ+ rights, but human rights in general. Some may argue that free speech allows homophobes to spew out their hatred against LGBTQ+ individuals, but it’s also this freedom that allows LGBTQ+ individuals to voice and call out instances of homophobia. It forces people to listen to the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community and to recognize the injustices the community faces in their everyday lives. As British human rights advocate, Peter Tatchell, says in an interview with Index:

“Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time”.

Homophobic attitudes … can change by encouraging and protecting the right to free speech

Similarly, the outrage that would be inevitably generated in societies that heavily stigmatise LGBTQ+ expression would also be beneficial in sparking discussion. It forces people to listen to the experiences of a repressed and fearful community that simply wants to be treated equally as much as their cis, heterosexual counterparts are. Only then can change potentially happen. 

Ultimately, banning players or having politicians simply verbally encourage Qatar to respect LGBTQ+ rights won’t help the LGBTQ+ community in the country in the long term. The deep-seated belief that homosexuality and all other queer identities are Western imports means that it won’t do anything but confirm the notion of Western cultural imperialism being at play. However, like all cultures, beliefs and values change, and the homophobic attitudes with it can change by encouraging and protecting the right to free speech. Doing so will force people to acknowledge the existence and life experiences of the LGBTQ+ communities and possibly change a few minds on their opinion towards them.

For the time being, Nassar al-Khater, head of the Qatar 2022 World Cup project, reassured that LGBTQ+ fans will be welcomed in Qatar. Let’s hope it’ll stay that way in the future.

Lorenzo Capito

Featured image courtesy of Raphael Renter on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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