Approaching a sign that said gays aren’t welcome. Feeling paranoid at FIFA press conferences. Conversing with people who think countries in the West are indoctrinating kids with the gay agenda.
Those are some of the dizzying experiences that soccer journalist Adam Crafton encountered while covering the World Cup in Qatar. As an out gay man, Crafton, who works for The Athletic, wanted to learn about the true state of LGBTQ rights in the Gulf nation.
His findings were deflating. Gay rights were a central storyline throughout the World Cup, with FIFA outlawing even modest attempts from teams and players to promote LGBTQ inclusion. Qatari security forces confiscated rainbow paraphernalia, and harassed a journalist, Grant Wahl, who tried to enter a stadium with a rainbow pride t-shirt.
FIFA wanted to bury the issue, and players and coaches largely fell in line, outside of the German team, whose members covered their mouths before a match in an apparent rebuke of the loathsome organization.
When Germany got eliminated, Qataris celebrated. They were becoming increasingly agitated about the focus on human rights abuses in their country, and thought that Germany received its comeuppance.
“You feel so squeezed out, and so disenfranchised. It was like people were just wanting to belittle it or mock it or humiliate it,” Crafton told me this week on my podcast, The Sports Kiki. “That’s what I mean by it being psychologically very, very challenging.”
Crafton details his wild experiences in a must-read essay, “Confusion, exasperation and dating apps – my month as a gay reporter at the Qatar World Cup.” While some aspects of the gay experience were familiar — Crafton says the Scruff grid in Doha resembles what one would find in London — it was a disorientating trip overall.
“I thought we all generally now accept that being gay is a matter of nature instead of nurture. I thought we all generally accepted now that we need to create a better environment for the LGBT community in men’s football,” he said. “All of a sudden, it was like all of that had been forgotten.”
One of the unspoken truths in life is that people tend to stand up against injustice only when it directly impacts them. Crafton saw that first-hand in Qatar, as high-profile European soccer players stayed silent about LGBTQ rights.
Even David Beckham, who once boasted about his status as a “gay icon,” ignored the issue. The retired soccer star earned millions as a World Cup ambassador in the lead-up to the tournament.
“If there was a player on the English team during that tournament who was openly gay, I don’t think everyone would’ve just stepped away from it,” said Crafton. “You can humanize the culture war. All we ended up with was this roundabout rainbow that wasn’t even a rainbow.”
Maybe most disconcertingly, Crafton found that atavistic attitudes about homosexuality weren’t only a product of Qatari propaganda. Anti-gay sentiments, and hostile feelings towards the West for pushing the issue, were widespread.
“It was almost like people were pitting Islamophobia vs. homophobia,” he said. “ ’If you’re going to raise this about gay rights, then we’re gonna talk about the way that German footballers are Islamophobic. All of these Palestinian armbands started showing up as well.”
Crafton tried to explain that standing up for LGBTQ people and Palestinians isn’t mutually exclusive, but many locals found his argument unconvincing.
“Several people said to me, ‘If you’re going to come here with your gay agendas, then we’re going to put this in response.’ It was almost like we were being pitted against each other,” he said.
Though Crafton was in Qatar for one month, he left with more questions than answers.
“I just found myself constantly walking around trying to make sense of the place,” he said.