Gay people living under the radar in Qatar are cautiously preparing for the World Cup

DOHA, Nov 19 (Reuters) – A group of Arab friends living in Qatar’s capital Doha met over cocktails and snacks last week and exchanged views while browsing profiles of gay men on dating apps Tinder and Grindr.

One’s phone flashed with a message from a suitor around the corner. The man in his 20s jumped up from the table and went to meet his date face to face.

The friends, who met days before the World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, are part of a Doha gay scene that manages to stay under the radar in a country where same-sex relationships are illegal and punishable by up to three years to fly the jail time.

“We meet together. We’re going to eat. We go to parties. We’re going to the beach,” said another gay Western man who has lived in the affluent country for over a decade. “We don’t make out with our friends in public or wave rainbow flags, but we certainly don’t lower our voice.”

Reuters spoke to four gay men in Doha – the westerner, two Qataris and one Arab from other parts of the region – who said they live in the countryside, a magnet for foreign workers because that’s where they have well-paying jobs and friends or family.

All four spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for possible punishment by the authorities. But they said they can live out their lives to an extent and meet potential partners at private parties or through dating apps, which are usually blocked in Qatar and accessed via a VPN.

“It’s not all suffering,” said a 30-year-old gay Arab who has lived and worked in Doha for almost a decade.

Indeed, the four have expressed concern at the wave of international criticism of gay rights in Qatar unleashed by the World Cup and feared they could lose the freedoms they enjoy if the outrage sparks a public backlash against LGBT+ community should lead as global attention increases.

“What about us who have lived in Doha for years and made Doha queer?” said the Arab. “What happens when the World Cup is over? Does the focus on the right stop?”

These men represent but a snapshot of gay life in the Gulf nation – and the four acknowledge that their relative freedoms are a product of privilege; They can afford to live alone, throwing parties and meeting partners in high-end restaurants or nightclubs, where the strict rules of Qatari society are often more relaxed.

That’s not the case for everyone.

Other members of Qatar’s LGBT community have reported their detention, some as recently as September, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group also accused authorities of ordering some transgender women to enter conversion therapy.

A Qatari official criticized the HRW report for containing incorrect information and said the country does not license or operate conversion centers.

Nas Mohamed, a gay Qatari doctor who has lived in the United States for about a decade, welcomed the attention the tournament drew to Qatar’s rights record and said it prompted him to speak widely about his sexuality.

“If you’re an LGBT person (in Qatar) and you don’t experience being your full authentic self, you just lose your sense of self,” Mohamed told Reuters this month at a clinic he runs in San Francisco.

Other groups, including Amnesty International, have also criticized Qatar for discrimination against the LGBT community.

A Qatari official said the country “does not tolerate discrimination against anyone and our policies and procedures are underpinned by a commitment to human rights for all”.

NO SIGNS OF AFFECTION

Qatar, a wealthy gas-producing nation, attracts workers from across the region and around the world. Qatari nationals make up just 380,000 of the 2.9 million population, with the rest made up of foreign workers, ranging from low-income construction workers to high-level executives.

The four men interviewed by Reuters said there are strong financial and professional incentives to live in the country, adding that gay life there is better than in some other places in the Middle East.

They cited Saudi Arabia and Iran, where men have been sentenced to death for homosexuality.

“As an expat, you can live your life the way you want,” said the 30-year-old Arab. “At the same time, I know that I can live like this because I’m privileged. I know gay men couldn’t live like that in labor camps.”

Qatari organizers of the World Cup have warned visitors against public displays of love but say everyone is welcome at the event, regardless of their sexual orientation or background.

According to Yousef Al Maslamani, spokesman for health at the FIFA World Cup, doctors will not ask patients about their extramarital sex, religion or any other status during the tournament.

In the 12 years since Qatar was named to host the 2022 tournament, the country has faced increasing criticism for its rights record towards workers, women and the LGBT community.

The furor was fueled by comments from public figures, including former Qatar player and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman, who told a German broadcaster homosexuality was “damage to the mind”.

“Qatar and FIFA have had over a decade to introduce basic protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but have failed to do so,” said Rasha Younes, LGBT+ researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“In 2020, Qatar assured potential visitors that the Kingdom will welcome LGBT visitors and that fans are free to fly the rainbow flag at the games. But it raised the question: what about the rights of LGBT residents in Qatar?”

Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Andrew Mills; Editing by Pravin Char

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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