In the days since the World Cup started on Sunday, stadium security and members of the public US and Welsh have asked fans to hide rainbow-themed items from the public, fans said, in official zones and on the subway. In some cases, fans said they were denied entry to matches unless they removed rainbow-themed decals, though others reported they were able to take the rainbow symbol into the stadiums with no problem.
FIFA officials have spent years trying to allay fears that LGBTQ fans traveling to Qatar, a conservative Muslim state that punishes homosexuality with imprisonment, would not face discrimination. “Let me reiterate clearly: everyone is welcome to the tournament, regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality,” said Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, a month before the tournament began, following commitments made by other FIFA officials and the head of the Qatar World Cup Organizing Committee.
The reported questioning of people carrying rainbow flags raised the possibility that official guidance on allowing the symbol had not trickled down to the huge army of volunteers and staff manning the tournament; or that Qatar, fearing a backlash from conservatives, had changed course and taken a heavy-handed approach.
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 on Tuesday.
FIFA has already been criticized for suppressing the LGBTQ symbol. On Monday, football teams representing seven European countries at the World Cup announced their captains will not wear rainbow armbands in Qatar after FIFA said players wearing the armbands would be penalized. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized FIFA’s decision during a visit to Doha, calling it “worrying”.
Neither FIFA nor Qatari officials immediately responded to a request on Tuesday to clarify what guidelines were in place for fans to display the rainbow symbol, both in official tournament zones and elsewhere in the Persian 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-themed supporter hat. According to an interview with ITV News, McAllister said officials told her the rainbow symbol was banned.
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“When we got through security, some of the guards told us to take off our hats. When I asked them why, they said “because it was 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 into the stadium.” She was eventually able to get in by hiding the hat.
In a separate incident prior to the same game, American football writer Grant Wahl said he was stopped by a security guard because he was wearing a 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 gay,” he said wrote on Twitter with a rainbow emoji, sharing an image of the shirt.
Under guidelines shared by FIFA last week, football fans have been told they are free to express their identities within official tournament zones without repercussions. “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 on Wednesday. “They won’t get in trouble for public displays of affection.”
FIFA clarified at the time that its guidelines did not apply to areas outside the official tournament zones, where the rules are less clear.
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On Monday, football fan Justin Martin said he was confronted several times by fellow subway passengers while also traveling to the Wales vs. US game with 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 all, Justin Martin told The Washington Post in a phone 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 wore the symbol as a show of support for marginalized groups when he was repeatedly asked by other passengers to remove it.
“I was on the train with the decal in my hand and using my phone. I was approached by two young FIFA volunteers in maroon T-shirts that read ‘volunteer’ on the back and they encouraged me to get rid of the flag to respect the local culture.” When he refused, Martin said a of the apparent volunteers became agitated and described him as “disgusting”.
A few minutes later, Martin said, another passenger angrily asked him again to remove the small decal, also becoming agitated and using his body to intimidate Martin when he refused. “He physically came into my space and I was pushed against the door of the train,” Martin said, adding that the person then followed him through the subway 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 traveling to ask him to remove the symbol, Martin added.
“I’m sad. I’m afraid to take my crest to the US-England match on Friday,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel good,” he added, also stressing that the experience of a feeling unsafe was not representative of his wider experience with Qatar.
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The reports add to existing pressure on FIFA for its handling of LGBTQ rights and community support during the tournament, in which the rainbow has become a particularly charged symbol.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly criticized the body’s decision to penalize World Cup footballers with yellow cards if they wear rainbow-themed bracelets in support of diversity and inclusion – saying it put world athletes in an impossible position. Two yellow cards will lead to the removal of a player from the game.
The decision prompted seven European World Cup captains, those of England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, to jettison “OneLove” bracelets in a show of solidarity with LGBTQ people.
“It is always concerning from my perspective when we see restrictions on free speech; it is especially so when the phrase is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken said at a joint press conference in the capital Doha along with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.
“No one on a football field 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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