‘My friends have been locked up for weeks and had their heads shaved just for looking like they might be gay’

: Damning testimonies reveal the truth behind Qatar’s expensive PR gloss

When he was about 13 or 14, Rafiq’s father and brothers beat him with broom handles in the hope of correcting what they called his ‘effeminate’ way of walking.

Rafiq, who is gay, says that over time his behaviour became a source of ‘terrible shame for my wealthy family’.

Then one day his father snapped and, in exasperation, ordered him to ‘walk like a man’ with his shoulders pulled back, his chin parallel to the floor, chest thrust forward.

Rafiq recalls: ‘They were training me – my father and my brothers – getting me to practise walking, but it didn’t work.

‘I have always been feminine in the way I move. They hit me with their sticks, mainly on my back, when I got it wrong. I went to my bedroom shaking and crying and praying to God to make me straight.’

Rafiq, now 37, is from Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf city-state that will host the World Cup – despite having a stifling climate and no football culture – and where homosexuality is considered abnormal and is punishable by three years in jail.

Gay men and women are persecuted and, ever fearful that their double lives will be uncovered, exist in a constant state of anxiety. The backdrop to their fretful lives is the dynamic capital Doha, a shimmering forest of futuristic skyscrapers alongside the Persian Gulf, which will welcome 1.5 million football fans next year. Ahead of their arrival, the emirate has been busy burnishing its shaky public image.

Fans will be permitted to wave rainbow flags at matches for instance. But the reality, as The Mail on Sunday discovered, is that little has changed for Rafiq and his friends since his traumatising lessons in deportment. If anything, things are worse, he says.

In fact, they still face the kind of oppression that England’s socially aware footballers normally like to address. In the words of captain Harry Kane, they are committed to ‘kicking out all inequalities’.

However, despite manager Gareth Southgate’s insistence that it is their ‘duty’ to speak out on social issues, the players have been notably silent on Qatar’s inequalities.

One former England hero who is unlikely to make a stand is David Beckham, despite once declaring he was honoured to be a gay icon. He signed a deal this year, thought to be worth at least £10 million, to be the media-friendly face of Qatar.

The Qataris we interviewed, who spoke about the mental toll of hiding their sexuality, believe a well-judged pronouncement from Kane and Co ahead of the World Cup could stimulate debate and possibly reform. Better still, says Azhar, a 34-year-old engineer, they should ‘boycott the tournament altogether’.

He spoke of being ‘treated like a leper’ and being ‘degraded and dehumanised’ because of his sexuality, which has left him with deep-rooted mental-health problems.

He says he has contemplated suicide on several occasions. Last week, in a nod to democracy, Qatar, which bans political parties, held limited elections for the first time in its 50-year history. Whether it represents genuine reform or is little more than a publicity stunt to appease a watching world, the vote is unlikely to do much for LGBT Qataris. Not least because there is a depressingly widespread belief here that people choose to be gay.

When he was a teenager, Rafiq’s father, a successful businessman, arranged for him to see a psychiatrist in the forlorn hope he ‘might be cured’. Rafiq says: ‘But I couldn’t go through with it. You can imagine the pain all this caused my parents. This in turn caused me pain. Through no fault of my own, I’m inflicting anguish on them. This was very hard to bear.’

His experiences mirror those of Azhar, who says that if a pill could make him straight he would take it as his life is one of hopelessness.

The rainbow flag is symbol of LGBT pride, but not in Qatar. ‘It is meaningless, simply not compatible with Qatar,’ says Azhar. ‘There is no LGBT community, just a collection of frightened individuals.’

Rafiq says friends in Doha have been detained, often for a month or more, for simply looking ‘too feminine or appearing to be gay’. The police also shaved their heads.

‘Police don’t shave the heads of other prisoners, just gays. It’s barbaric, like something from the Middle Ages.’ Little wonder that dating can be fraught. ‘It is very difficult to meet people,’ says Rafiq. ‘You have to be skilled at reading people, sizing someone up, making a quick decision, making eye contact. I have met guys this way and we have secretly swapped numbers.

‘I use dating apps for fun, just to chat. But I would never meet anyone this way. There is a great fear that you might be meeting an undercover cop. That has happened.’

His longest relationship was three years. ‘We rarely saw each other in public. We rented a cheap apartment and met there. But we had to be careful not to let neighbours know what was going on. It was like an affair but with higher stakes.’

Societal pressure to marry is enormous – and many gay men end up doing so to stop the endless entreaties from family, friends and colleagues. So-called lavender marriages, in which the sexual orientation of the bride and groom are hidden, are not uncommon.

‘I used to lie and say I was engaged,’ says Rafiq. ‘Now I just say it hasn’t happened.’

When he was younger he stole his sister’s clothes, wearing dresses and underwear under his own. ‘Wearing her clothes was an escape. For once, it made me feel good.

‘Make-up is liberating, too. To go out wearing eyeliner or mascara is a little victory.’ He was once fired after his employer found blusher in his desk. Another time, he endured a panic-filled few minutes when his car was stopped for a routine check and a policeman asked if he was wearing make-up. ‘I furiously denied it and got away with it.’

Gay Qataris often speak of filicide, fathers killing sons because of their sexuality. ‘It happened to a friend of people I know,’ says Rafiq. ‘His father is a prominent figure and the story was that he killed his son by tying him up in a car and setting fire to it. He burned to death. You will hear nothing officially about these cases.’

And since homosexuality is never publicly acknowledged, nothing is heard about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Men are often too scared to attend clinics, leading to cases spreading.

Ahead of Euro 2020 in June, Gareth Southgate said footballers should use the ‘power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate’.

Days later, when Kane proudly wore a rainbow armband during the match against Germany, watched by 20 million, the laddish machismo that once infected the national team seemed banished once and for all. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for the captain to align himself to the LGBT cause so overtly.

‘It would be great if he could stick up for us,’ said Rafiq.

Following last night’s match against Andorra, England have all but booked their trip to the Middle East next November.

In addition to the LGBT issue, Qatar, the first Arab nation to host the event, has faced an outcry over its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom died in scorching heat building the stadiums in which Southgate’s men will do battle.

There has been criticism, too, of discrimination against women.

Southgate has indicated his players may address human rights issues after qualification, but campaigners believe they should have done so already. ‘I think our players will, at the right time, want to know more,’ he said last month. ‘But it’s also important we are not put in the middle of something for people’s benefit to try to expose us or embarrass us.’

Campaigners criticised a fact-finding trip to Qatar in August by European football’s governing body, including FA boss Mark Bullingham, for failing to speak to ‘significant human rights organisations’.

For now, Rafiq and his friends can only watch and wait from the shadows. ‘If the World Cup improves things marginally then that is good,’ he says. ‘But none of us are holding our breath. We are abnormal in the eyes of the society, an affront to Islam. Football won’t change that.’

One gay student said: ‘Foreign teams should boycott the tournament. We can’t make progress if this discrimination is allowed to continue. Being allowed to wave rainbow flags won’t make the slightest difference. I heard that was just for foreigners anyway.’

Names have been changed to protect the individuals.

by Ian Gallager for The Mail On Sunday
Source – The Daily Mail