The continuing discrimination and risk of imprisonment or worse faced by LGBTQ people in Qatar is in focus as another major international soccer tournament begins in the Gulf state.
Fourteen months after the men’s FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar amid intense scrutiny of the country’s dismal record on human rights, the AFC Asian Cup brings together 24 men’s national teams from across the continent for a month-long competition.
To date, there has never been an out gay or bi male player in action at a senior continental tournament or at a World Cup.
On Friday, when the hosts were beating Lebanon 3-0 in the opening game, Human Rights Watch released its annual “World Report.”
The section on Qatar mentioned “the shameful human rights legacy of the 2022 World Cup” in its introduction, adding: “Qatari laws also continue to discriminate against women due to abusive male guardianship policies and against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.”
Previewing the Asian Cup, Reuters anticipated that fans from across the Gulf region would again flock to support their teams, with just under half of those competing from the Middle East.
However, allegations of human rights abuses — particularly those experienced by migrant workers — continue to be leveled at many of them, not least Qatar.
Reuters reported: “Homosexuality is also illegal in the conservative Muslim country, and during the World Cup concerns were raised for fans traveling to the event — especially LGBT individuals and women, who rights groups say Qatari laws discriminate against.”
Australia, which is now ranked as one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly nations on earth, is among the favorites to win this year’s Asian Cup.
Two of the world’s six active out gay male professional footballers, namely Josh Cavallo and Andy Brennan, are Australian, though neither has ever been capped at senior level.
Before the 2022 World Cup, a video was released in which Socceroos stars criticized Qatar over human rights and called for reforms, including “the decriminalization of all same-sex relationships.”
The video was coordinated by Football Australia and the players’ union Professional Football Australia but at the time of writing, there had been no similar message published for this tournament in Qatar. The Socceroos face India in their first game on Saturday.
In total, half of the teams at the Asian Cup are representing countries where consensual same-sex sexual activity is criminalized.
While gay sex is legal in the other 12, most of them are incredibly challenging places in which to live for LGBTQ people due to discrimination, prejudice, and a lack of protections in workplaces and society.
Going group by group, here’s an overview of the tournament through an LGBTQ rights lens…
Group A: Qatar, Lebanon, China, Tajikistan
Qatar’s abusive treatment of LGBTQ people was documented in detail by Human Rights Watch research in October 2022, and its new World Report summarizes its findings.
In interviews with HRW, made possible in part by connections provided by activist Dr Nas Mohamed, LGBTQ Qataris described “cases of severe and repeated beatings, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment in police custody.”
The World Report also says that trans women detained in Qatar are mandated to attend conversion therapy sessions, while surveillance of online activity by the authorities puts LGBTQ people in the country at increased risk.
It’s a grim scenario, although David Beckham — banking millions of dollars from a lucrative ambassadorial role to promote Qatar — surprisingly claimed three months ago that the World Cup had provided a ray of light.
The soccer icon said “the LBGTQ people (sic)” in Qatar had personally told him about their enjoyable tournament experience. So that’s alright then.
As for the other countries in this group, the penal code of Lebanon (like that of Qatar) carries the threat of jail for gay sex, and its politicians have recently introduced bills that would not only make the sentences harsher but also seek to punish anyone who “promotes homosexuality.”
While neither China nor Tajikistan criminalizes same-sex sexual activity, HRW says authorities in both countries have been increasingly targeting LGBTQ activists and limiting their freedom of expression.
Group B: Australia, Uzbekistan, India, Syria
Australia’s domestic A-Leagues for men and women staged their first-ever Pride Celebration rounds in February 2023, focusing on “education, training… and long-term impact,” according to chief executive Danny Townsend.
The activations included a designated Pride Cup match between Melbourne Victory and Josh Cavallo’s Adelaide United.
Although India’s Supreme Court ruled against legalizing equal marriage in October, progress appears to be accelerating for LGBTQ people in the world’s most populous country.
Of the competing Asian Cup nations, only Australia ranks higher than India in the Equaldex Equality Index, which measures LGBTQ freedoms.
One of India’s leading soccer clubs, Bengaluru FC, has shown strong support for Pride Month in June each year since 2018, when homosexuality was decriminalized in the country.
Uzbekistan and Syria both criminalize gay sex between men, with imprisonment of up to three years.
In the case of the latter, lesbians and bi women are also at risk of jail, and the punishment for adultery is harsher for Syrian women than it is for men.
Group C: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Palestine
Hong Kong, where homosexuality has been fully legal since 1991 and which recently became the first country in Asia to host the Gay Games, is the obvious outlier in this group.
LGBTQ people live in fear of violence, jail, or in some instances even death (at least theoretically) in Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Palestine.
Sharia law strictly proscribes same-sex conduct, with the HRW World Report stating that flogging is the punishment for LGBTQ Iranians found guilty of this but that men could face capital punishment.
In the UAE, laws related to “zina” (an Islamic legal term relating to unlawful sex) means the death penalty is also possible there under Sharia law, although the annual US Department of State reports have found no evidence of arrests or prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct since 2015.
In general, public decency laws in the UAE are vaguely defined and LGBTQ people still face significant social stigma, particularly trans women. Amid it all, Dubai’s reputation as a playground for the mega-rich continues to grow.
The picture in Palestine is more complex. Before the start of the Israel-Hamas War in October, testimonies from LGBTQ Gazans spoke of detention and torture under the governance of the Islamist militant terror organization.
While these accounts are in line with many people’s expectations, the majority of them were carried in Israeli media outlets, and some experts have questioned their accuracy.
In the West Bank, homosexuality is legal but social attitudes are overwhelmingly negative towards LGBTQ people. Palestine ranks 191st out of 197 countries on the Equaldex Equality Index.
Group D: Japan, Indonesia, Iraq, Vietnam
Japan is the only G7 nation not to provide LGBTQ people with legal protection from discrimination, although a step towards that was taken last summer when the country’s parliament passed a bill committing to an “enhancement of public understanding.”
Currently, same-sex unions are not recognized in Japan either. The country does have an out transgender professional footballer, however — Kumi Yokoyama came out as a trans man in June 2021 while at Washington Spirit in the NWSL.
The forward, who has won 43 international caps, is now back in his homeland and still plays in the women’s game, with Okayama Yunogo Belle.
Vietnam soccer hit an LGBTQ milestone moment more recently thanks to Women’s World Cup player Tran Thi Thu, who publicly celebrated her wedding to her girlfriend and thus became the country’s first known out athlete active in elite sports.
The conservative Muslim province of Aceh in Indonesia operates a form of Sharia law and while same-sex sexual activity is not stated as being illegal elsewhere in the country, there have been recent reports of crackdowns against LGBTQ people in the capital Jakarta.
The HRW World Report says the political climate in Iraq became “markedly more hostile” towards LGBTQ people in 2023. A bill was introduced in parliament which would make both gay sex and trans expression criminal offenses with the threat of life sentences or the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Iraqi media outlets have been ordered by a government directive in recent months to replace the word “homosexuality” with “sexual deviance”, and the term “gender” is now banned there.
Group E: South Korea, Bahrain, Jordan, Malaysia
South Korea’s progress towards LGBTQ equality remains slow and prone to setbacks. In 2023, activists were frustrated when the country’s constitutional court again upheld a ban on gay sex in the military, but bills were proposed to formally recognize same-sex unions.
Despite that, public attitudes in Korea are still generally opposed to equal marriage.
Somewhat amusingly, one of the country’s top soccer stars, Cho Gue-Sung, became an international heart-throb during the Qatar World Cup in 2022, going on to take part in shirtless magazine cover shoots for Vogue and Elle Man.
The sex-symbol striker is in Korea’s Asian Cup squad and is certainly “one to watch.”
Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, neither Bahrain nor Jordan criminalize same-sex conduct but LGBTQ people living there face harassment from the authorities under vague “immorality” laws. In Jordan, HRW also reports an increased risk of entrapment and extortion.
Completing the group, Malaysia appears to be an increasingly unsafe place to live for LGBTQ people.
Islamic law dictates punishments of caning and imprisonment for those found guilty of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, while only Guyana is ranked worse in the Global Trans Rights Index.
Meanwhile, news stories were reported worldwide last year about Swatch wrist-straps in Pride colors being seized by Malaysian authorities and an on-stage protest kiss by members of rock band The 1975 leading to a Kuala Lumpur music festival being shut down early.
Group F: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan
As with other countries operating under Sharia law, criminalization of gay sex is not explicitly codified in Saudi Arabia but is enacted through vaguely worded principles of “public morality” and “religious values.”
There were reportedly 170 executions in the Gulf kingdom in 2023 and while none of those sentenced were known to have been subjected to capital punishment based on being LGBTQ (information on these judgements is limited enough as it is), gay and trans Saudis have spoken recently of their fears of violence or even death at the hands of family members.
Meanwhile, the Gulf kingdom continues to use its $700 billion Public Investment Fund to pursue its soccer and other sporting ambitions.
Having lured some of football’s biggest names to the Saudi Pro League with astronomical wages, they are increasingly attracting events like last month’s FIFA Club World Cup, the Spanish Supercopa featuring Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the big one for the future, the motherlode of sports — the men’s FIFA World Cup in 2034.
Oman does have a codified Penal Code, and the maximum penalty for anyone found guilty of same-sex sexual activity is three years in jail. However, cases reportedly only come to court if they are considered a “public scandal.”
Thailand is on the verge of becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to legally recognize same-sex couples. There have been workplace protections for LGBTQ people there since 2015.
While gay sex is also legal in the other country in this group, Kyrgyzstan, LGBTQ rights more generally are moving in the opposite direction there compared to Thailand.
The HRW World Report says the former Soviet republic enacted an anti-LGBTQ propaganda bill in 2023, “effectively criminalizing any discussion” of “non-traditional sexual relationships.”
The 18th AFC Asian Cup in Qatar runs from January 12 to February 10.