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One activist is using the World Cup to raise awareness of LGBTQ rights in Qatar

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In November, the men's soccer World Cup opens in Qatar. And while the country highlights the tournament, some are pointing to its record of denying LGBTQ rights. FIFA, governing body of the game, bans LGBTQ discrimination among fans and players. But Qatar is one of scores of countries that criminalize same-sex relations. And while Qatar says all soccer fans are welcome, NPR's Deborah Amos reports on one man who is speaking out.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. There is surveillance of social media sites. Reports on gay rights in the international media are censored, says Dr. Nasser Mohammed, who grew up in an ultraconservative community in Qatar.

NASSER MOHAMMED: I didn't even listen to music. It was considered sort of the devil.

AMOS: He knew he was different as a teen. He recalls knowing for sure he was gay at a medical conference in the U.S. and realized what that would mean back home.

MOHAMMED: I went to my hotel room, and I just cried because all of a sudden, home felt dangerous.

AMOS: A year later, he moved to the U.S. to do residency training, but he eventually applied for asylum here. He's now a doctor practicing in California. This year, he started speaking out publicly, apparently the first Qatari to speak so openly about being gay. He says the world soccer championship gave him an opportunity.

MOHAMMED: This year, the spotlight is shining on Qatar and the world is about to meet us. And I'm like, you really need to know all of us.

AMOS: In the months since he's become a public advocate, he's heard many stories of abuse.

MOHAMMED: Like, being caught by undercover cops is a very common theme, really intrusive surveillance. The fear is so, so real.

AMOS: Rasha Younes with the LGBTQ rights program at Human Rights Watch backs his claims. She says people are pressured into so-called conversion therapy, a discredited program to force people to change gender identity.

RASHA YOUNES: There are many informal conversion practices, and conversion practices really range from religious interventions to medical interventions all the way to forced marriage. For lesbian women, it is primarily forced marriage.

AMOS: Qatari officials are mindful of the criticism. The Qatari embassy sent a rebuttal to NPR. There are no official therapy centers for LGBTQ people in Qatar, it stated. When asked about the welcome for gay fans, the embassy responds, we welcome everybody. But the embassy letter continued, we also expect and want people to respect our conservative culture. Younes says this language is a signal to Qataris who might wave a rainbow flag or post support for LGBTQ rights on social media during the games.

YOUNES: Those individuals will definitely face the risk of arrest because the Qatari government has surveillance capabilities that allows it to track individuals and persecute them after the World Cup is over and the international attention vanishes.

AMOS: Younes says Nasser Mohammed is a voice from the region, countering claims that gay rights are just a Western import. And he feels extra motivated as Qatar enjoys the World Cup spotlight.

MOHAMMED: I didn't know there was a word to describe the experience I was going through this year, but then I learned there is a term for it. It's called sportswashing (ph).

AMOS: It's when countries or companies use high-profile sporting events to repair tarnished reputations.

MOHAMMED: The PR that's projecting from Qatar about Qatar is so inaccurate. It's just not where I grew up.

AMOS: Dr. Nas, as he's called, says there's a cost to coming out. He cannot go home and is unlikely to reconcile with his parents. But he says his country will only change when more come out publicly, even after the games are over. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.