ALBAWABA - With rainbow flags and "OneLove" armbands, World Cup fans have been protesting against host Qatar's anti-LGBTQ stances, but many Arab homosexuals fear that the Western solidarity may do them more harm than good.
Gestures in support of the Arab LGBTQ community have unleashed a torrent of homophobia, activists and community members said, creating new risks for people who have long relied on discretion to survive.
"It's not great to live in the closet, but it's also not great to live out of the closet," said a 32- year-old entrepreneur from the neighboring Gulf nation of Bahrain, who requested anonymity for safety concerns.
"The World Cup will end, FIFA will leave, and the hate will continue." LGBTQ rights in Qatar, where homosexuality is banned, and concerns over the use of the rainbow flag during the World Cup have been a simmering issue ahead of the international tournament that kicked of on November 20.
Captains of seven European football teams had planned to wear the rainbow-themed "OneLove" armbands as part of a campaign to embrace diversity, but backed down after a threat of disciplinary action from FIFA.
The well-meaning drive for LGBTQ rights has caused distress for some, the Bahraini entrepreneur said. "No one from the queer community here has ever been asked about their opinion of what they think the rainbow flag does," he said. "I am worried about the future."
- 'Ruining a lot' -
The clash playing out in Qatar is the latest example of the unintended backlash generated by Western LGBTQ initiatives in the Muslim majority region. Earlier this year, US embassies in Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates raised the rainbow flag, and posted solidarity messages on social media to mark the Pride Month, which was commemorated in June this year.
For the Bahraini entrepreneur, it triggered a scathing response in a region where queer people, citizens and expats alike, prefer to stay under the radar. "They're ruining a lot of things for people," he said, referring to the Western campaigns. "I don't necessarily hide who I am and I also don't walk around flying a rainbow flag."
Over the summer, authorities across the Gulf zeroed-in on what they perceived as attempts to encourage homosexuality. In Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relations are punishable by death, authorities cracked down on rainbow-colored toys and clothing.
In Bahrain, posters went up showing silhouettes of a family under an umbrella, taking shelter as a rainbow flag spilled over them like a downpour.
Meanwhile, Hollywood productions including Disney's "Lightyear" were banned from theatres in several Gulf countries for supposedly promoting same-sex relations. - 'From bad to worse' - "Religion remains central in the Gulf, despite relaxing some laws and social restrictions," Saudi researcher Eman Alhussein told AFP.
And the LGBTQ cause "is probably not up for local debate anytime soon", she said.
Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said growing Western criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies in the region "has failed to produce change, and is unlikely to do so at least for the short term".
"As many Gulf citizens remain conservative, maintaining some boundaries is seen as crucial to accommodate all segments of society." Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Lebanon-based Helem, the Arab world's first officially registered LGBTQ organization, lamented a "missed opportunity" to bring positive change to the region.
"Obviously we need to have a conversation about human rights despite the efforts of those trying to prevent it," he told AFP. But "if you care about human rights, lift up the voices of the people who are actually at the receiving end of violence", as opposed to the overwhelming attention on what he called "Western outrage".
Zeidan, who used to live in Qatar, noted a "hardening of positions" around the World Cup, which he said the LGBTQ community would ultimately pay for.
"It's going from bad to worse," said Zeidan. "The backlash is probably going to be very, very harsh, if not deadly," the activist said.
"The coming years are going to be extremely punishing for LGBTQ people in the region," he added.