Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, have said they were refused entry into World Cup stadiums and confronted by members of the public to remove the emblem, despite assurances from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as well as Qatari officials that visitors would be allowed to express their identities during the tournament.
In the days since the World Cup started Sunday, stadium security and members of the public have asked American and Welsh fans to hide rainbow-themed items from public view, fans said, in official zones and on the subway. In some cases, fans said they were refused entry to matches unless they removed rainbow-themed emblems, although others reported they were able to take the rainbow symbol into the stadiums without issue.
FIFA officials have for years tried to allay fears that LGBTQ fans who traveled to Qatar, a conservative Muslim state that punishes homosexuality with jail time, would not face discrimination. “Let me repeat it clearly: Everyone will be welcomed to the tournament, regardless of their origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality,” Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, said a month before the tournament started, echoing pledges made by other FIFA officials as well as the head of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee.
The reported questioning of people wearing rainbow flags raised the possibility that official guidance about allowing the symbol had not trickled down to the vast army of volunteers and employees staffing the tournament; or that Qatar, fearing a backlash from conservatives, had changed course and was cracking down.
But last week, when Qatar reversed an earlier decision and decided to ban the sale of beer outside World Cup stadiums, FIFA released a statement announcing the change. There were no such statements from FIFA or Qatar about the rainbow flag Tuesday.
FIFA was already facing criticism for stifling the LGBTQ symbol. On Monday, soccer teams representing seven European nations at the World Cup announced that their captains will not wear rainbow armbands in Qatar after FIFA said players sporting the bands would be penalized. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized FIFA’s decision during a visit to Doha, calling it “concerning.”
Neither FIFA nor Qatari officials immediately responded Tuesday to a request to clarify what guidance was in place for fans who wished to display the rainbow symbol both in official tournament zones and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf state, where sex between men is illegal.
Former Wales professional soccer player Laura McAllister tweeted that she was refused entry to a FIFA stadium by security officials Monday because she was wearing a rainbow-themed supporters’ hat. McAllister said she was told by officials that the rainbow symbol was forbidden, according to an interview with ITV News.
“When we got through security, some of the security guards said we had to take the hat off. When I asked them why, they said ‘because it was a banned symbol and that we weren’t allowed to wear it in the stadium,’ ” she said. “They were insistent that unless I took the hat off we weren’t actually allowed to come into the stadium.” She was able eventually to enter by concealing the hat.
In a separate incident before the same match, American soccer writer Grant Wahl said he was stopped by a security guard for wearing a shirt with a rainbow on it. Wahl later said he was detained for half an hour in an “unnecessary ordeal” but ultimately allowed into the stadium. “Go gays,” he wrote on Twitter with a rainbow emoji, sharing an image of the shirt.
According to guidance shared by FIFA as recently as last week, soccer fans have been advised that they are free to express their identities within official tournament zones without repercussion. “There is no risk; they are welcome to express themselves; they are welcome to express their love for their partners,” Gerdine Lindhout, FIFA’s head of fan experience, told ITV News Wednesday. “They won’t get into trouble for public displays of affection.”
At the time, FIFA clarified that its guidance did not apply to areas outside official tournament zones, where the rules are less clear.
On Monday, soccer fan Justin Martin said he was confronted multiple times by fellow subway passengers while also traveling to the Wales-U.S. match carrying a small rainbow flag, including by two men wearing official FIFA volunteer uniforms. Five people asked him to remove the symbol from view during the subway journey in total, Justin Martin told The Washington Post in a telephone interview, and one passenger becoming 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 carrying the symbol as a show of support for marginalized groups when he was repeatedly asked to remove it by other passengers.
“I was standing on the train with the emblem in my hand, using my phone. I was approached by two young FIFA volunteers in maroon-colored T-shirts that say ‘volunteer’ on the back and they encouraged me to put the flag away to respect local culture.” When he refused, Martin says one of the apparent volunteers became agitated and described him as “disgusting.”
Minutes later, Martin said, another passenger angrily asked him again to remove the small emblem, also becoming agitated and using his body to intimidate Martin when he refused. “He physically got in my space and I was pushed against the door of the train,” Martin said, adding that the person then followed him around the subway carriage while filming him.
A soccer 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 on his journey to ask him to remove the symbol, Martin added.
This was the emblem I had on the Qatar metro. Smaller than my hand. Wasn’t waving it, wasn’t speaking to anyone, wasn’t trying to provoke. Genuinely wanted to watch US-Wales match while supporting marginalized groups in the smallest of ways #FIFAWorldCup https://t.co/Q3MHlSKsmT pic.twitter.com/NaQ05VOeaV— Justin D. Martin | جاستن مارتن (@Justin_D_Martin) November 22, 2022
“I’m sad. I’m afraid to bring my emblem to the USA-England match on Friday,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel good,” he added, also emphasizing that the experience of feeling unsafe was unrepresentative of his broader experiences of Qatar.
The reports add to existing pressure on FIFA over its handling of LGBTQ rights and expressions of support for the community during the tournament, during which the rainbow has become a particularly fraught symbol.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly criticized the body’s decision to punish World Cup soccer players with yellow cards if they wear rainbow-themed armbands in support of diversity and inclusion — saying it put world athletes in an impossible position. Two yellow cards result in a player’s expulsion from the match.
The decision prompted seven European World Cup captains, those of England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, to jettison “OneLove” armbands showing solidarity with LGBTQ people.
“It’s always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression; it’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken said in a joint news conference in the capital, Doha, alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.
“No one on a football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting these values and playing for their team,” Blinken said.
Sands reported from London; Hudson from Doha, Qatar. Kareem Fahim in Doha contributed to this report.
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