In the days since the World Cup began on Sunday, stadium security and members of the public have asked American and Welsh fans to hide rainbow-themed items from the public, fans said, in official zones and on the Tube. In some cases, fans said they were denied entry to games unless they removed rainbow-themed emblems, although others reported they were able to get the rainbow symbol into stadiums with ease.
FIFA officials have been trying for years to allay fears that LGBTQ fans traveling to Qatar, a conservative Muslim state that punishes homosexuality with prison terms, would not face discrimination. “Let me be clear again: everyone will be welcome to the tournament, regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality,” said Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, a month before the start of the tournament, reiterating commitments from other FIFA officials and the head of Qatar’s World Cup Organizing Committee.
The reported polling of people carrying rainbow flags raised the possibility that official guidance on the symbol’s approval had not leaked through to the vast army of volunteers and staff staffing the tournament. or that Qatar, fearing a backlash from Conservatives, has changed course and is 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 Rainbow Flag Tuesday.
FIFA has already been criticized for suppressing the LGBTQ symbol. On Monday, football teams from seven European nations at the World Cup announced their captains will not wear rainbow armbands in Qatar after FIFA announced players who wear the armbands would be penalized. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken criticized FIFA’s decision on a visit to Doha, calling it “worrying”.
Neither FIFA nor Qatar officials immediately responded to a request on Tuesday to clarify the guidelines for fans wanting 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 denied entry to a FIFA stadium by security officials on Monday for wearing a rainbow-themed supporter’s hat. According to an interview with ITV News, McAllister said she was told by officials that the rainbow symbol was banned.
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“When we got through security, some of the security guards said we had to take off our hats. When I asked them why, they said ‘because it’s a forbidden symbol and we’re not allowed to wear it in the stadium,'” she said. “They insisted that we were not allowed to enter the stadium unless I took off my hat.” She was finally able to enter by hiding the hat.
In another incident before the same game, American football author Grant Wahl said he was stopped by a security guard for wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow on it. Wahl later said he was held for half an hour in an “unnecessary ordeal” but was finally allowed into the stadium. “Go gay,” he wrote on Twitter with a rainbow emoji sharing a picture of the shirt.
According to guidance shared by FIFA just last week, football fans have been reminded that they are free to express their identities within official tournament zones without consequences. “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 love.”
At the time, FIFA made it clear that its guidelines did not apply to areas outside of the official tournament zones, where the rules are less clear.
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On Monday, football fan Justin Martin said he was confronted on a number of occasions by fellow Tube passengers while also traveling to the Wales-US game carrying a small rainbow flag, including by two men in official FIFA volunteer uniforms. Five people asked him to keep the symbol out of sight throughout the subway ride, 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 Qatar-based journalism professor, said he does not identify as LGBTQ but carried the symbol with him as a sign of support for marginalized groups when he was repeatedly urged by other passengers to remove it.
“I stood on the train with the emblem in hand and used my phone. I was approached by two young FIFA volunteers in maroon T-shirts with ‘Volunteer’ written on the back and they encouraged me to put the flag down to respect local culture.” When he refused, said Martin, one of the The apparent volunteer was upset and called him “disgusting”.
Minutes later, Martin said, another passenger angrily asked him again to remove the small emblem, also became agitated and used his body to intimidate Martin when he refused. “He physically entered my room and I was pushed against the train door,” Martin said, adding that the person then followed him around the subway car while he filmed it.
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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 on his trip to ask him to remove the symbol, Martin added.
“I’m sad. I’m afraid to take my emblem to the USA-England game on Friday,” he said. “It doesn’t make me feel good,” he added, also stressing that the experience of feeling insecure not representative of his broader experience with Qatar.
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The reports add to existing pressure on FIFA over its handling of LGBTQ rights and statements of support for the community during the tournament, where the rainbow has become a particularly tense symbol.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken directly criticized the panel’s decision to punish 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 result in the elimination of a player from the game.
The decision prompted seven European World Cup captains from England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark to shed “OneLove” armbands to show their solidarity with LGBTQ people.
“From my point of view it is always worrying when we see restrictions on freedom of expression; it’s especially so when it comes to diversity and 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 those 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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