By Simone Foxman and David Hellier
Attempts to ban the universal symbol for LGBTQ rights at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have drawn in the highest levels of the US government, as fans continue to turn up at matches with rainbow flags in support of the community.
Several people wearing rainbow-coloured clothing said they were stopped from entering stadiums. An American professor carrying a small rainbow flag on the metro said a fellow passenger threatened him after accusing him of disrespecting local traditions.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also criticised a decision by Fifa to impose "sporting sanctions" on players wearing rainbow armbands.
The incidents appear to fly in the face of promises by organisers that the rainbow would be allowed at games in the conservative Muslim Gulf country, where homosexuality is a criminal act punishable by jail time.
"It's always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression; it's especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion," Blinken said at a news conference alongside Qatar's foreign minister in the capital, Doha, when asked whether he supported the move by world soccer's governing body.
Qatari officials hoped the event would showcase a sleek, modern Doha – a budding regional hub for business, tourism and diplomacy. And since winning the bid to host it 12 years ago, they promised to welcome and ensure the safety of different nationalities, religions and sexual orientations, in line with Fifa rules.
But they weren't expecting the avalanche of scrutiny that followed.
A U-turn on allowing beer sales in stadiums on Friday only fuelled concerns that authorities will be more strict about enforcing social codes than they had said they would be. Representatives for the main Qatari organising committee and the Qatari government didn't immediately provide comment.
The issue of rainbow flags is particularly sensitive.
Over the past two years, local organisers have repeatedly promised they would be tolerated in stadiums, in line with Fifa rules promoting tolerance and inclusion. But officials have given conflicting statements about how they'd respond to displays of support for LGBTQ rights outside the venues.
Justin Martin, an associate professor who teaches journalism at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said the rainbow-coloured flag he was carrying on the metro was not much larger than his hand.
He said he was verbally harassed by Arabic-speaking fans, including some wearing shirts identifying them as World Cup volunteers. One of them shoved him into a door.
"I've been writing and tweeting about Qatar for more than 10 years, mostly good things but no shortage of criticism as well, including about LGBTQ issues.
"The responses that I get on Twitter from some of my followers in Qatar are not always pleasant but I've never felt physically threatened," he said.
By the time Martin arrived at the stadium, he said he'd hidden the flag in his bag.
Other people reported difficulties when trying to enter the event.
Laura McAllister, a former Wales national football captain, told ITV News that guards at Ahmad bin Ali stadium on Monday night were "insistent" that she wouldn't be let in unless she removed a rainbow-coloured Wales hat they called a "banned symbol."
Sports journalist Grant Wahl, meanwhile, tweeted that his phone was taken by security staff as he was trying to enter the same stadium, after he refused to take off a T-shirt bearing a rainbow. He said a Fifa representative later apologised, and he was granted entry.
Animosity towards LGBTQ symbols isn't universal in Qatar.
Over the past year, authorities have been both criticised and praised at home for censoring a same-sex kiss in the children's movie “Lightyear” and for seizing rainbow-coloured children's toys that "go against Islamic values."
Enforcement also varies.
LGTBQ people within the white-collar expatriate community – especially from places like Europe, the US and Australia – date and some live together, discreetly.
Qataris and other foreigners report less tolerance. Human Rights Watch says it spoke to six who were harassed, detained and even beaten by a Qatari security group as recently as September, though the government has disputed some of its accusations.
The arrival of more fans in Doha for four group-stage matches per day may only exacerbate these internal tensions.
Throngs of people strolled down Qatar's main Corniche Monday night, purchasing food from vendors and enjoying family-friendly entertainment lining the boulevard, which is closed to normal traffic. The same promenade had been much quieter 24 hours before, ahead of the tournament's opening match between Qatar and Ecuador.
Jonathan Baron, an English fan living in Doha outside the England-Iran match, said he just wanted people to focus on soccer.