Men’s domestic football seasons are paused around the world and national teams have touched down in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. Qatar’s capital, Doha, opens the doors of 10 new hotels as 1.2 million international fans descend on the city. Maybe these fans missed the “#boycottQatarWC” memo.
Most of the planet certainly has. Latest predictions indicate the first winter World Cup will draw a global audience of around 5 billion people, beating the number who watched the previous 2018 World Cup (a mere 3.572 billion). A country smaller in land mass than Yorkshire is well and truly center stage.
With the host nation facing global attention, the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar is also under the limelight.
LGBTQ+ people in Qatar “face persecution, imprisonment and even death.” The Penal Code of Qatar bans gay sex, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison, while the country also operates Sharia courts, meaning it’s “possible for men who engage in same-sex intimacy to be sentenced to death”.
For this reason—and a number of others—many have chosen to boycott the event, including England women’s football players and the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer.
There has generally been outrage in the UK (Beckham aside).
The UK is generally considered one of the friendliest and safest countries to be gay. Fighting for basic rights for LGBTQ+ people in the UK is heralded as a thing of the past, and LGBTQ+ rights are perceived to be in safe hands. After all, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, while same-sex marriage has been legal for almost ten years. Indeed, the question is often asked by some in the UK: what else is there to fight for? Clearly, a lot.
Through being in the spotlight, Qatar exposes the fragility of LGBTQ+ rights. Fragile, because it was only 60 years ago in the UK that LGBTQ+ people were locked up for being in same-sex relationships. Sound familiar?
I recently watched the film adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ 2012 book, My Policeman, starring Rupert Everett, Emma Corrin, and, of course, Harry Styles. It documents the despairing and broken lives of young gay men in the mid-twentieth century who were outcasts from society and perceived to be suffering from a mental illness. The film offers a stark reminder of how life in the UK for young gay men and women today could have been, had they been born a few decades previously. A life of prejudice, fear, and criminalization.
Needless to say, the UK has progressed in LGBTQ+ rights. However, other countries have not. Mark Gevisser’s 2020 book, The Pink Line, highlights the channel between freedom and prejudice that exists for LGBTQ+ people in today’s world. The pink line acts as a metaphor for relative safety for LGBTQ+ people on one side of the line, whose rights are protected, and prejudice and criminalization on the other, where rights are non-existent.
The lives of LGBTQ+ people in the UK today appear safely above the pink line, as LGBTQ+ rights in the UK have gradually moved above the pink line in the past half-century. Sadly, the same cannot be said for LGBTQ+ people in Qatar. Their LGBTQ+ policies remind us that many people around the world do not enjoy even the most basic freedoms to express themselves. LGBTQ+ rights are sadly not universal and should not be taken for granted.
It frightens me that it’s only been 60 years since Britain was below the pink line. I agree trends have plainly moved in a progressive direction since then, but what if that trend were to cease—or reverse? Even if the fight for basic rights is over in the UK, preserving those rights must continue.
Perhaps my apprehension is unnecessary. Much of the world has crossed or is crossing the pink line. Only this month, Mexico was the latest to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country, joining 31 other countries around the world. However, it’s also true that LGBTQ+ rights are increasingly under attack in countries above the pink line: the US has seen a “section 28-like” bill in Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, while the UK has seen an increase in hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people.
Qatar’s record on LGBTQ+ is a potent reminder that we are still a long way from a world in which human rights are guaranteed. LGBTQ+ rights are fragile and are increasingly under attack in proudly progressive countries. If rights are to be preserved for the next 60 years, action to preserve these fragile rights is imperative – the UK’s fight is not over. Far from it.