British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly faced criticism Wednesday after telling gay soccer fans heading to the World Cup in Qatar that they should show some “compromise” and be “respectful of the host nation.”
The comments were quickly disavowed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office, while a senior figure in the opposition Labour party called them “shockingly tone deaf.”
Homosexual activity is criminalized in Qatar and Cleverly was asked about the issue in the wake of British activist Peter Tatchell being questioned by police after holding a one-man protest in front of Qatar’s National Museum, holding up a sign accusing the country of jailing members of the LGBTQ community.
“I have spoken to the Qatari authorities in the past about gay football fans going to watch the World Cup and how they will treat our fans and international fans,” Cleverly told LBC Radio. “They want to make sure that football fans are safe, secure and enjoy themselves, and they know that that means they are going to have to make some compromises in terms of what is an Islamic country with a very different set of cultural norms to our own.
“One of the things I would say for football fans is, you know, please do be respectful of the host nation. They are trying to ensure that people can be themselves and enjoy the football, and I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup.”
Qatar has said all are welcome at the World Cup, including LGBTQ fans, but that visitors should respect the country’s conservative culture, in which public displays of affection — even among heterosexuals — is taboo.
Qatari law calls for a prison sentence of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual gay or lesbian sex. European soccer federations last month announced their intention for captains to wear an armband with a rainbow heart design as part of an anti-discrimination campaign during international matches.
Downing Street quickly rejected Cleverly’s language, saying that people should not have to “compromise who they are.”
Opposition parties also criticised Cleverly’s comments, with SNP Westminster deputy leader Kirsten Oswald tweeting: “Foreign Secretary seems in essence to be advising people travelling to the World Cup in Qatar to show some respect and not be gay. This is abhorrent.”
Labour shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said: “This is shockingly tone deaf from James Cleverly. Sport should be open to all. Many fans will feel they can’t attend this tournament to cheer on their team because of Qatar’s record on human, workers, and LGBT+ rights.”