Qatar is the first country in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region to host the world’s largest sports event, which is by no means a small feat. It is also something I personally take great pride in, as a Qatari with a family lineage deeply rooted in the country’s labyrinthine tribal network.
But as a queer Qatari man who has endured insurmountable trauma, social and emotional abuse and prejudice — both from my own community and elsewhere — I am deeply worried about the inevitable “clash of civilisations” orientalist rhetoric from the West that has surrounded discussion of LGBT+ rights in my country.
Queer identities in Qatar and the MENA region are nuanced. When I was younger, I blindly and rather voraciously consumed American pop culture, to which I owe my English-speaking skills. In fact, I could say it was a lifeline. Growing up in Qatari public schools, during an era where we were still under the shadow of Saudi Salafism, there weren’t many avenues for escapism.
Modern day Qatar has little resemblance with how it all was a few decades ago. The school I attended practiced corporal punishment, emphasised rote memorisation and left little room for anything else.
Being exposed to Western media was a real contrast – and while it allowed me to gain perspective, it also became a standard that I idolised because it was the antithesis of my strangulating life at home and its ultra-religious institutions.
Before I matured and decided that the “Q” in my identity could simultaneously stand for “queer” and “Qatari”, I fell into the same trap that many activists and journalists (albeit well intentioned) are falling into now. The belief that the only way to defend the rights of queer individuals in the MENA region is to belligerently eradicate local cultures and belief systems is rooted in colonial, racist and supremacist structures that perpetuate the very systems of oppression we seek to dismantle. After all, the labelling and commodification of these identities is a remnant of colonialism.
He came into my country unannounced, seemingly without the slightest understanding of local laws and idiosyncrasies, and after queer Qataris urged him not to demonstrate and to use his privilege and clout in a way that would benefit us, he staged what looked to me to be a self-serving demonstration that earned him praise among his audience: mostly white, Western and cisgender.
I felt that he took advantage of the fact that queer Qatari voices are not as loud as his. He centered himself. Sadly, arbitrary arrests and abuses are a reality for many of us, who will not be gaining social media followers or paid for our activism.
The monetary and social resources tend to support loud voices like Peter’s, who I imagine will likely forget about Qatar once the World Cup is over, and whose protest will have no effect whatsoever because Qatari authorities were able to dismantle it without even addressing the issue of LGBTQ+ issues.
Personally, my view is that had Peter done his research, he would have known that unauthorised demonstrations are illegal, regardless of the topic. Qatari authorities were, thus, able to repeat the mantra that everyone is welcome and that all guests will be expected to respect the law, as in any other country.
They are not wrong. The logic behind it is legitimate and rooted in sovereignty and self-determination, but to me it seems that people like Peter, who appear to take pride in counting “arrests”, do not seem to care about the wider issue. Meanwhile, those who are at the frontline of LGBT+ rights in the region must shield ourselves against the backfire from those who reject queerness more due to its foreignness than its actual queerness.
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We now have to try to salvage the safe spaces we used to have before Western queer iconography outed our identities. Western activists using white saviourism to try and “grant us rights and freedom” is no different from the disastrous foreign intervention that began destroying the Middle East centuries ago.
We do not need a white man standing in front of a landmark in Qatar with a generic poster calling for LGBT+ rights because they are inspired by our daily struggles. What we need is Qataris calling for a ban on conversion therapy within our public health systems; demanding access to antiretrovirals for those living with HIV; shouting out for sexual health services without needing to present a marriage contract and concrete action on limiting the police’s ability to conduct random searches.
But now it is even harder to expect these initiatives to make it to the discussion, as Peter may have inspired like-minded white, cis, western gay men to storm Qatar during the World Cup and stage protests that end up hurting us more than they help us.