David Beckham is a proud gay icon — just ask him. The international sensation embraces his elevated status in the LGBTQ community and openly courts gay fans.
But now, he’s reportedly close to becoming the whitewashed face of one of the most notorious anti-gay countries in the world. How shameful.
Beckham has been offered at least £10 million (the equivalent of roughly $17.8 million) to serve as an ambassador for Qatar in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup, according to multiple reports. Conceivably, Beckham would be the face of Qatar’s public relations efforts in the months ahead, tasked with cleaning up the Gulf nation’s battered international reputation.
Most notably, Qatar has been dependent on 2 million migrant workers, who comprise roughly 95 percent of its labor force, to build all of the World Cup stadiums and amenities. These workers are often treated like slaves, subject to documented wage and rights abuses. The country’s kafala (sponsorship) system is especially odious: it ties workers’ visas to their employers, leaving laborers entirely reliant on their employers for their legal status and residency.
Human rights organizations say at least 34 stadium workers have died over the last six years.
Ever since Qatar landed the 2022 World Cup, its leaders have rightfully been peppered with questions about the country’s hideous history with LGBTQ rights. Qatar is the second-most dangerous country in the world for gay people to visit, according to Forbes. The Qatari government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, and homosexuality is illegal.
Back in 2014, Qatar’s sports minister was ambiguous about whether openly gay fans will be welcome for the World Cup, comparing their existence to the prospect of selling beer at stadiums (alcohol sales are severely restricted throughout the country).
“It’s exactly like the alcohol question,” he told the Associated Press. “We are studying all these issues. We can adapt, we can be creative to have people coming and enjoying the games without losing the essence of our culture and respecting the preference of the people coming here.”
In recent years, the messaging from Qatar’s top officials hasn’t been much better. The chief executive for the 2022 World Cup, Nasser al-Khater, said in 2019 that gay people should feel safe in the country — as long as they keep their hands to themselves.
“Any fan of any gender, [sexual] orientation, religion, race [should] rest assured that Qatar is one of the most safe countries in the world, and they’ll all be welcome here,” he said to AFP. “(But) public displays of affection are frowned upon, it’s not part of our culture — but that goes across the board to everybody.”
With the event now just one year away, It’s apparent Qatar is trying to burnish its standing on LGBTQ inclusion. Officials recently assured FIFA that displays promoting LGBTQ rights won’t be removed. Qatar also hosted a member of Liverpools’ “Kops’ Out” supporters group and his husband, among other fans who expressed concerns.
Still, homosexuality remains illegal, and agreeing to fly rainbow flags at soccer stadiums doesn’t make up for outright discrimination. But as the face of Qatar, that’s the message Beckham will undoubtedly be selling.
Beckham holds a special place in gay sports lore, partially due to his sexy-as-hell underwear ads, and partially due to his marriage to Victoria “Posh” Beckham. To his credit, the English captain has always recognized his gay fans — even while the topic of homosexuality was still taboo in elite male team sports.
“I’m very honored to have the tag of ‘gay icon,’” Beckham told the BBC in 2007. “Maybe it’s things like (the fact) I like to look after myself, I like to look smart and presentable most of the time.”
Since then, Beckham and his wife have continued to show their support for LGBTQ people, with Victoria recently unveiling rainbow colors on her new store’s window to honor the LGBTQ community.
But if Beckham moves forward as the face of Qatar, he risks losing his goodwill. He’s already publicly endorsed its efforts to host the 2022 World Cup, promising the event will be a “dream” for players and fans. Beckham finished his playing career with the Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain club in 2013, and is close with the team president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
There could be a financial motive to Beckham’s affinity for Qatari power-brokers. The Athletic reports Beckham is also in talks with the Qatari government about an endorsement deal that would cover his upstart MLS club, Inter Miami.
Beckham originally courted Qatar as a possible investor in his team, but was met with resistance by some of the league’s owners, according to The Athletic. There are other ways to get paid without discarding values, or in Beckham’s case, loyal LGBTQ fans.
That is, unless we’re just another business opportunity, too.