Another queer Team USA athlete has just qualified for the Winter Olympics – skeleton slider Andrew Blaser.
Blaser beat out skeleton veterans Austin Florian and John Daly to become the only man on the Team USA skeleton team for the 2022 games in Beijing.
It’s the first time that the US is sending only one male skeleton athlete to the Olympics – so no pressure at all.
The truly terrifying winter sport involves sledders plummeting head-first down a steep and perilous icy track on a tiny sled. According to the Olympics website, it is considered to be the “world’s first sliding sport”.
Other LGBT+ athletes heading for the Winter Olympics, according to OutSports, also include British curler Bruce Mouat, Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, French figure skater Kevin Aymoz and Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst – the most decorated Olympic speedskater ever.
The LGBT+ sports website says that the Beijing Games will include more out athletes than any before it.
Also heading for Beijing are ice dancers Guillaume Cizeron (France) and Paul Poirier (Canada), and Canadian figure skater Eric Radford.
Only 15 openly LGBT+ athletes competed at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Skeleton returned to the Winter Olympics in 2022, having last appeared on the program 54 years prior in 1948. Blaser is the first out gay man to represent Team USA in the sport.
He previously told OutSports that there have been several times where he considered walking away from the sport.
But looking back at all his accomplishments in skeleton, he realised he could succeed.
“I have had so many moments where I have ‘quit’ mentally and thought I was done and walking away,” Blaser said. “Looking back at every conversation with every coach where I was defeated or thought it couldn’t be done, now I know that it can be done.”
Blaser started as a track and field athlete, even competing at the University of Idaho as a pole vaulter and hurdler.
After college, Blaser wanted to pursue a career as a bobsledder but tried skeleton after coaches said he’d be better suited to the super face ice sport. But Blaser initially hated the sport and quit before eventually returning to go pro.
When he’s not training, Andrew Blaser enjoys travelling, camping and singing. His favourite movies include Love Actually and Mean Girls, according to his Team USA profile.
The tiny rainbow light projecting onto the corner baseboard of the bar and tipsy people constantly belting out Mariah Carey karaoke songs clued me in. There was something unique happening here. It wasn’t until a gentleman with glittered cheeks approached me to say how fabulous my dress was that I suddenly clocked it. I’d unknowingly ended up in a gay bar in the middle of Saint Petersburg, Russia.
A flood of overwhelming joy first took over. Before coming to Russia on vacation, I knew all too well the discrimination and fear LGBTQ Russians lived in. A gay bar in Russia, even a secret one like this, seemed unfathomable, so being where people could unapologetically be out and proud — even if it was only in the compounds of these four walls — was emotionally profound.
But within seconds, dread took over. Were we all safe? If you didn’t know what to look out for, you’d assume this was just like every other neighboring non-gay bar — it wasn’t hidden or anything. I wondered what was stopping a homophobe, if they found out, from vandalizing the bar or doing something much worse.
After all, Russia approved a legislation in 2013 prohibiting the distribution of information about LGBTQ matters and relationships to minors. The legislation, known as the “gay propaganda law,” specifies that any act or event that authorities believe promotes homosexuality to individuals under the age of 18 is a punishable felony. According to a 2018 report by the international rights organization Human Rights Watch, anti-LGBTQ violence in the country spiked after it passed. The bill perpetuates the state’s discriminatory ideology that LGBTQ individuals are a “danger” to traditional Russian family values.
A recent poll indicated that roughly one-fifth of Russians want to “eliminate” gay and lesbian individuals from society. In a poll conducted by the Russian LGBT Network — a Russian queer advocacy group — 56 percent of LGBTQ respondents said they had been subjected to psychological abuse, and disturbing reports of state-sanctioned detention and torture of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region, have surfaced in recent years.
Considering this, it was no surprise that most of my gay friends refused to come on vacation with me to Russia. In our everyday, gay people don’t march around with a gay Pride flag so homophobic Russians would probably never be able to tell which tourists are gay. However, many LGBTQ people will never travel to Russia or any other homophobic country for one logical reason: Fear.
Unfortunately, many exotic locations abroad are dangerous territory for the LGBTQ community to be in. Physical safety isn’t guaranteed in countries like Nigeria, Iran, Brunei and Saudi Arabia where same-sex relationships are punishable by the death penalty. Not to mention the numerous transgender people who’ve been detained and refused entry to similar countries — even when it’s only been a layover! However, an alternative reason why someone may refuse to vacation in a homophobic country is having a conscience.
When you pay for accommodation, nights out and sightseeing tours, your money doesn’t just reach the hotel staff and waiters pockets — you’re also financially supporting that country’s government. Money talks so not giving homophobic countries tourism puts pressure on them. Ethically, why would anybody ever want to support a country through tourism that treats their LGBTQ community like dirt? Homophobia shouldn’t be shrugged off simply as a local “culture.”
Other LGBTQ people firmly embrace the right to go anywhere they choose, and that choosing to go gives them power. Homophobic countries still have closeted LGBTQ folks living there running underground gay spaces and groups. Is turning our back on the wonderful people and beautiful culture of a new place turning our back on their gay community too? There are countries where gay marriage is legal and trans rights are progressive, but abortion laws remain backwards. Do we boycott these countries too? And, how do we collectively define what a homophobic country is? Is legalizing gay marriage a requisite? Gay marriage is still illegal in Thailand when it is one of the most gay and trans-friendly countries in the world.
Increasingly the line of what is “right” and “wrong” erases all grey areas. Morality and activism — particularly when politics is involved — is never straightforward. The biggest surprise about Russia was how my own stereotypes I’d picked up from the media weren’t always true. Saint Petersburg in Russia is far more liberal and gay-friendly compared to rural Russia but the fact still stands that my bisexual friend and I actively chose to go to a homophobic country for pleasure. In an ideal world, anybody of any sexual orientation or gender identity would be able to vacation wherever they want but that’s sadly not reality. In the meantime, the wanderlust LGBTQ community will go on gay cruises that guarantee safe refuge or put civil rights and ideological differences aside to experience the world’s natural wonders and incredible cultures.
Openly gay Brazilian Olympic diver Ian Matos died aged 32 following a severe infection that left him hospitalised.
Matos had been in hospital for two months before his condition worsened on Wednesday (22 December), the Sun reported. He had initially sought treatment because of an infection in his throat which later spread to his stomach and lungs.
He had won three bronze medals in the 2010 South American Games. He placed eighth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where he competed in the men’s synchronised three-metre springboard alongside his diving partner Luiz Outerelo.
Brazil’s Olympic Committee said in a statement that it is “profoundly saddened” to have received the “news of the premature death” of Matos.
The statement continued: “Team Brazil acknowledges his contribution to the evolution of the discipline.
“Our sincere condolences to his family and friends.”
“From a young age, I knew I was gay, but it was here that I got to live my sexuality,” Matos said at the time, referring to his home in Rio.
According to OutSports, Matos said a friend advised him to stay in the closet until after the 2016 Olympic games. But he said the pressure of hiding boyfriends, avoiding queer parties and not being able to live his truth was ultimately too much for the young diver.
At the time, Ian Matos had been part of a small number of out LGBT+ Olympic athletes. A then record-breaking 56 openly-LGBT+ athletes competed in the 2016 Rio games, OutSports reported.
In last summer’s Tokyo Summer Olympics, there were at least 186 out athletes, more than triple the number who participated in the Rio Olympics.
A swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania is the latest target in the culture-war debate over whether transgender girls and women should be allowed to participate on female sports teams.
Lia Thomas, who came out as trans in 2019, set three school records and two national records at a meet this month.
Since then, Thomas has faced criticism and verbal attacks from anti-trans groups, conservative media and, reportedly, even two teammates.
Some of the headlines about Thomas’ wins said she “smashed” the records and continued her “dominant” season alongside pre-transition photos of her and using her previous name and male pronouns — practices known as deadnaming and misgendering.
Transgender advocates have condemned that coverage and some of the conversation about Thomas as transphobic. They said it mischaracterizes her victories to make it appear that transgender women are cheating just by being trans and implies that one trans woman winning means trans women generally are dominating women’s sports. They note that Thomas is competing within guidance issued by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Thomas’ critics have varying views. Some have used explicitly anti-transgender language and argue that trans women should be completely banned from women’s sports, while others argue that the NCAA’s policy regarding trans athletes’ participation isn’t strict enough.
Thomas declined an interview with NBC News and has done only one recent interview, with the podcast SwimSwam. In that interview, she said she and her coaches expected that there would be “some measure of pushback” in response to her competing, but not “quite to the extent that it has blown up.”
“I just don’t engage with it,” she said, regarding the criticism. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”
Swimming as her ‘authentic self’
Thomas swam on the men’s team for her first three years at Penn, and for part of that time, she said she was transitioning. She started her medical transition in May 2019 and began gender-affirming hormones, also known as hormone replacement therapy, which for her included testosterone blockers and estrogen. She said she decided to swim out the 2018-19 season on the men’s team without coming out, which “caused a lot of distress for me,” she told SwimSwam.
“I was struggling,” she said. “My mental health was not very good. There was a lot of unease about basically just feeling trapped in my body, like it didn’t align.”
She came out to her coaches and teammates in the fall of 2019, and swam the rest of her junior year, the 2019-20 season, on the men’s team as well — a time she described as “an uncomfortable experience.”
By the summer of 2020, she had been on testosterone suppressants for a full year, meeting a guideline set by the NCAA in 2011. Its handbook for transgender athletes states: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.” She said she submitted medical information that included blood tests of her hormone levels. The NCAA approved her request and cleared her to compete on the women’s team that fall.
But then Covid-19 led to nationwide lockdowns, and the Ivy League canceled its swimming season. Thomas said she decided to take the year off to save her eligibility, “given how important it is to me to be able to compete and swim as my authentic self.”
She began competing on the women’s team in November, at the start of the 2021-22 season, and said she has been on hormone therapy for just over two and a half years.
Thomas has performed well at nearly every meet so far this season, but the media firestorm began after her performance at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron in Ohio, where she won three events and set three program, meet and pool records, along with two national records. In the 1,650-yard freestyle in particular, she was 38 seconds ahead of teammate Anna Kalandadze, who finished second. Right-wing media outlets have shared video of Thomas winning the race on social media.
Since then, she’s received international media attention, and two of her teammates, speaking anonymously, reportedly told the sports website OutKick that they disagree with her participation, viewing it as unfair. NBC News has been unable to verify these reports. University of Pennsylvania Athletics and several members of the women’s swim team have not responded to requests for comment.
Some critics have argued that Thomas’ performance is evidence that she has inherent physical advantages from going through male puberty and having higher testosterone levels. As a result, they argue that the NCAA should bar trans women from female sports teams or change its policy, saying that requiring one year of testosterone suppressants for trans women isn’t enough.
“While the NCAA’s rules demand the use of testosterone suppressants for a specific duration, the current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere,” John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, wrote in an op-ed. “It is obvious that one year is not a sufficient timeframe to offer up a level playing field. Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building.”
Some researchers and advocates disagree, including at least one researcher who supports what is widely considered a more middle-of-the-road approach.
Joanna Harper, visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University, published the first performance analysis of transgender athletes in 2015. Harper, a trans runner who has master’s degrees in physics and medical physics, evaluated the race times of eight trans women distance runners after they transitioned and found that they were no more competitive in the female division than they had been in the male division.
She noted that it was a small study and that it doesn’t apply to any sport other than distance running, but that it was and still is the only published data on transgender athletes. She is currently conducting three studies of how hormone therapy affects transgender athletes, though she said she is still gathering data, which could take years.
In addition to her research, one oft-cited study published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that transgender women in the Air Force performed better on fitness tests after one year of hormone therapy when compared to cisgender women. After two years, their performance was “fairly equivalent” to cisgender women, the study’s author, Dr. Timothy Roberts, told NBC News this year.
Harper said she’s been following the news about Thomas closely and believes it’s true that trans women will maintain some advantages even after hormone therapy. But she said Thomas — who is swimming slower now than she did pre-transition — is just one person, and she doesn’t represent all trans athletes.
“I have seen trans athletes who undergo transition — and either because they don’t adapt well to the change in their testosterone levels, or they had trouble with the medication, or perhaps their life focus changes somewhat — who are not nearly as successful after transition as they were before,” Harper said. “And we’re never going to hear in the media of those trans women who are less successful after transition than they were before because they’re not successful.”
She said she believes that the NCAA’s guideline of requiring one year of hormone therapy is “perfectly reasonable,” and that it “will result in meaningful competition between trans women and cis women,” or women who are not trans.
She added that the NCAA’s rule has been in place for 10 years, and that trans women “aren’t taking over NCAA sports and are still underrepresented.” She noted that there are more than 200,000 women who compete in the NCAA every year, and that trans people make up about 1 percent of the population. If they were proportionally represented in the NCAA, there should be about 2,000 trans women competing, but she estimates there are less than 100 each year.
“We’ve never seen a transgender NCAA champion, and Lia is not likely to do it either,” Harper said. “But even if she did win an NCAA championship, we should see a few trans women each and every year winning NCAA Division 1 championships. So at some point it has to happen, and this idea that it’s some horrible miscarriage of justice that Lia is successful just doesn’t add up.”
Is the NCAA policy working?
The NCAA’s policy regarding trans women athletes is considered among the strictest of sports governing bodies, especially after the International Olympic Committee nixed testosterone testing and limits for trans women athletes in a new set of guidance released in November.
Anne Lieberman, director of policy for Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBTQ-inclusive sports policies, said that part of the conversation about Thomas has been focused on whether the NCAA policy is “working.”
“What do we mean by ‘working’? So for many people, working means that it will prevent trans athletes from either succeeding or even participating in college athletics — and I think that that’s an important distinction,” said Lieberman, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. “Trans athletes — Lia, in particular — deserve love, support, care, access to be able to swim. And Lia, like any other athlete, should be able to win and lose.”
Lieberman said they don’t think the conversation about Thomas is just about sports, because, they noted, there hasn’t been an issue with the NCAA policy in the last 10 years. Rather, they said the conversation about Thomas and trans athletes generally is part of the “fuel for the political fire that is absolutely ravaging trans rights in this country.”
Ten states — nine this year — have passed laws that ban trans girls and women from playing on female sports teams. More than 20 additional states considered similar bills. Over two dozen states also weighed legislation that would ban trans minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care such as hormones and puberty blockers. Governors in two states — Arkansas and Tennessee — signed such legislation into law, though a judge blocked Arkansas’ law from taking effect in July.
“While people might think more broadly that this is just about sports, this is really about the broader conversation about the humanity of trans folks and whether or not we deserve to participate in all aspects of life in society, and that includes college sports,” they said.
Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center, added that there are real needs that female athletes have, including equity in funding, safety from harassment, mental health support and making sure they have equitable facilities.
“I don’t know that if you were to poll female athletes the participation of people like Lia Thomas would come up very much,” she said. “There are much bigger issues at hand for female athletes, and people who think that they’re saving women’s sports by putting forward their transphobia have never expressed a single piece of interest in saving women’s sports before.”
In participation with the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats fundraiser, Nassib created the rainbow cleats this season to spotlight the LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization the Trevor Project.
As part of the campaign, players can custom design their own cleats to raise awareness for the nonprofit organizations of their choice. Players then auction off the cleats to raise money for the groups. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/mQeU0Lh?_showcaption=true&app=1
Cyd Zeigler, LGBTQ advocate and co-founder of the LGBTQ sports site Outsports.com, celebrated Nassib’s support, conceding that visible support for the LGBTQ community is a rarity among NFL players.
“I have been, for a couple of years, pointing to the fact that no NFL players ever choose LGBTQ causes and it’s a real source of disappointment,” Zeigler said of the cleats campaign, which began in 2016. “People talk about the importance of allies and I say all the time, that we can’t wait for allies to show up, that LGBTQ people have to push for our own visibility and our own equality.”
Before this year, Miami Dolphins receiver Preston Williams was the only NFL player out of hundreds to highlight LGBTQ causes. Williams dedicated his cleats in 2019 to the Miami-based LGBTQ advocacy group Pridelines.
Nassib’s cleats featured the Trevor Project’s name printed in bright orange and the number to its suicide prevention lifeline: 1-866-488-7386. He previously donated $100,000 to the group when came out earlier this year.https:
But Nassib was not the only player to support LGBTQ causes this year. Cleveland Browns fullback and LGBTQ ally Johnny Stanton, whose uncle is gay, created rainbow cleats in support of Athlete Ally, which promotes LGBTQ inclusion in sports.
“No one should feel unwelcome on the field or the court. If just one person being an ally can help them feel more comfortable, then I’m happy to be that person,” Stanton said in a statement the NFL shared on Twitter last week.
There are many reasons to boycott China, not least of which is its treatment of the Uyghurs; an unofficial U.K. tribunal this week said Chinese President Xi Jinping is responsible for “genocide, crimes against humanity and torture” of minorities in Xinjiang.
Add to the list the mysterious and alarming case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared for two weeks after publicly accusing Zhang Gaoli, a member of China’s ruling committee, of sexual assault. Within 20 minutes of her post on China’s equivalent of Twitter, government censors scrambled to scrub any mention of it from the Internet, as the New York Times reported Friday. China’s efforts to deny anything was amiss by posting photos and videos of Peng were clumsy and ineffective and quickly ridiculed by the twitterverse.
Earlier this month, the Women’s Tennis Association took the brave step of suspending all tournaments in China in protest of her obvious detention and censoring.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a statement as reported by the New York Times. “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
So far, the WTA is the only major sports organization to announce a boycott of China, but the organizers of Gay Games 11, scheduled for 2023 in Hong Kong, should be next.
Gay Games organizers excitedly announced a new logo for the 2023 Games two weeks ago, adding the colors of the Progress Pride flag to recognize communities of color. But so far those same organizers are silent on the plight of Peng, a woman of color herself, and a fellow athlete who was targeted by China for making an accusation of assault.
When asked by the Blade if the Federation of Gay Games would consider a boycott of China, it issued a cowardly statement that ignored the central question of Peng’s plight and well being.
“The Federation of Gay Games continues to monitor the situation in Hong Kong regarding COVID-19, the National Security Law and all other aspects that affect the safety and security of our event,” Sean Fitzgerald, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, told the Blade in a statement. “We are committed to hosting Gay Games 11 in Hong Kong in November 2023.”
The Federation of Gay Games’s claims of supporting people of color and athletes of color ring hollow when its leaders won’t even mention Peng’s name in response to a direct question about her plight.
The Federation should reconsider its posture, denounce China’s treatment and censorship of Peng, and move Gay Games 11 to another locale in protest.
Boycotts are divisive tactics and one Hong Kong LGBTQ activist this week told the Blade she doesn’t support the idea. “In Hong Kong, the team behind Gay Games has really worked tirelessly to bring it to Hong Kong and it will be a very good opportunity to showcase diversity and people working together and the human spirit at its best,” Gigi Chao told the Blade.
But what does it say about the queer community if we fail to take a stand even after the WTA has acted so boldly and decisively in its own boycott? The Biden administration on Monday announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics that are slated to take place in Beijing in February. A Gay Games boycott would be consistent with our own government’s efforts to hold China accountable for Peng, the Uyghurs, and other human rights abuses.
The Federation of Gay Games has an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the WTA and Peng and send a powerful message that the LGBTQ community will not reward a regime that engages in overt censorship while covering up allegations of sexual assault by sending hundreds of athletes and millions of dollars to Hong Kong in 2023.
More than 600 best-selling authors, publishers, bookstore owners and advocacy groups Wednesday condemned the recent wave of LGBTQ- and race-related book bans in public school libraries across the country.
Over the last several weeks, lawmakers, school officials and parents in at least 10 states — including New York, Texas and Virginia — have sought to rid books about the lived experiences of Black and LGBTQ people from elementary, middle and high schools.
Some who are challenging the books argue that they contain graphic illustrations of LGBTQ sexual experiences or portray an unflattering image of the country’s history with race.
But in a joint statement, signatories — led by the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 57 American nonprofit groups that advocate for free expression — called the effort to ban the books an “organized political attack” that “threatens the education of America’s children.”
“Libraries offer students the opportunity to encounter books and other material that they might otherwise never see and the freedom to make their own choices about what to read,” the statement read. “Denying young people this freedom to explore — often on the basis of a single controversial passage cited out of context — will limit not only what they can learn but who they can become.”
The group included more than 50 independent bookstores, nearly 80 advocacy groups, top American publishing companies (including Penguin Random House and Scholastic) and dozens of authors, including bestselling children’s book author Judy Blume.
Books about race, sexual orientation and gender identity have historically been challenged in schools, but over the last several weeks, school libraries have seen a surge of opposition.
Last month, the governors of Texas and South Carolina urged state school officials to ban several books that contain “pornography” and “obscene” content. A school board member in Flagler County, Florida, filed a criminal report with local authorities after finding copies of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” —a young-adult memoir detailing the trials of being a Black queer boy — in her district’s school libraries. And in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County, school board members voted to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves, with two board members calling for the books to be incinerated.
“I’ve worked at ALA for two decades now, and I’ve never seen this volume of challenges come in,” she said. “The impact will fall to those students who desperately want and need books that reflect their lives, that answer questions about their identity, about their experiences that they always desperately need and often feel that they can’t talk to adults about.”
Queer advocates who signed on to the statement echoed Caldwell-Stone’s concerns with regards for the LGBTQ community.
“Every LGBTQ young person needs to see themselves in stories about their lives, to let them know they belong just as they are,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization, said in a statement. “All leaders must speak up against hostile rhetoric and behavior targeting vulnerable young people and books about their lives, and prioritize protecting children and safe spaces for all to learn.”
Author Kelly Yang signed on to the statement after her children’s novel “Front Desk,” about a Chinese-immigrant experience, was challenged by school administrators in Plainedge, New York, and York County, Pennsylvania, in September.
She said she was pushing back because growing up, she never saw herself represented in books.
“I remember living through that and feeling so incredibly lonely,” Yang said. “We finally made this great progress and the fact that this can be so easily wiped out by these book bans, and to have all of these books be pulled and in some cases burned, it sort of feels like an existential crisis. It just feels like we could be erased at any moment, and that’s a dehumanizing feeling.”
Last week, world leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector gathered virtually for the Summit for Democracy to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle today’s greatest threats to democracy. In advance of the summit, the Council for Global Equality—a coalition of LGBTQI advocacy organizations of which the Center for American Progress is a proud member—in collaboration with F&M Global Barometers published report cards assessing the extent to which participating states have fulfilled their obligations to ensure LGBTQI+ people are full citizens and able to contribute to and benefit from democratic institutions. Unfortunately, the United States’ score on the human rights of LGBTQI+ people is in critical need of improvement. While we scored a 70 percent on basic human rights—a C- if our country were a school—we received failing grades in protecting LGBTQI+ Americans from violence and upholding the socioeconomic rights of LGBTQI+ Americans. We clearly need to catch up on our homework.
Why the terrible scores? A key reason is that LGBTQI+ Americans continue to lack comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the federal level, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination in key areas of life such as taxpayer-funded programs like emergency shelters and in stores and restaurants. On top of that, this year marked the most anti-LGBTQI+ state legislative session in history, with transphobic attacks lodged at our most vulnerable community members: our children. From blocking access to necessary medical care, to prohibiting transgender kids from joining school sports teams, to erasing all mention of the existence of LGBTQI+ people from textbooks, more than 100 bills targeting transgender people were introduced in state legislatures last session. And school districts across the country are racing to pull LGBTQI+ -themed books and authors from library shelves. These attacks against the basic rights and dignity of LGBTQI+ people, and transgender people, in particular, have devastating consequences.
It should come as no surprise that, according to a 2020 survey by the Center for American Progress, over half of transgender people reported avoiding public spaces like stores and restaurants in order to avoid the trauma of discrimination. In addition to being the most anti-trans legislative session, 2021 is also the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, with over 50 reported killings of transgender or gender-nonconforming people, the majority of whom were Black and brown transgender women.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, over 80 percent of Americans support protections for LGBTQI+ Americans such as those found in the Equality Act, which passed the House in early 2021 yet still awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill’s provisions also have support from majorities in every state across the country, regardless of political ideology or faith tradition. Despite the protections’ broad popularity, support among elected officials lags behind that of the people they are supposed to represent. Congress’ failure to enact massively popular legislation advancing LGBTQI+ equality while state legislatures launched attacks on transgender children emphasizes how our country’s crisis in democracy impacts the basic rights of LGBTQI+ Americans. It also is reflected in our country’s dismal LGBTQI grades as compared to other countries participating in the Summit for Democracy this week. Unsurprisingly, research has shown a strong correlation between the strength of a country’s democratic institutions and the legal rights of its LGBTQI+ citizens. We are also coming to understand that the inverse is also true: The full and inclusive participation of LGBTQI+ citizens strengthens democratic institutions and the democratic process itself.
The Summit for Democracy is not the end but the launch of a year of action. LGBTQI+ Americans need the Senate to get to work and bring the country closer to realizing its founding ideals by passing the Equality Act. And to ensure our elected leaders better represent the American public, Congress should also pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would strengthen the integrity of our elections and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Let’s work together to hold our elected representatives accountable for strengthening our democracy for all Americans and bring home straight As next year.
Sharita Gruberg is the vice president of the LGBTQI+ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Mark Bromley is the chair of the Council for Global Equality.
The South African government has taken important steps but did not provide adequate funding for shelters and other services for gender-based violence survivors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many survivors have been made more vulnerable in the context of Covid-19.
The South African government has acknowledgedhigh rates of gender-based violence both during and before the pandemic. But South African experts told Human Rights Watch that despite promises – including in a National Strategic Plan – to address gender-based violence and femicide, the government has still failed to provide necessary funding for shelters and other services. Efforts should be made to improve access for marginalized people, including sex workers; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; and undocumented survivors.
“South Africa is facing a situation in which survivors have been locked down with abusers, and they need economic security to free themselves from their abusers, all during a very tight job market and a period of food insecurity,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Key services such as shelters have been under huge stress for months because of pandemic-related problems and costs and long-standing difficulties like late payment of funds in some places and patchy government support.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed staff at seven shelters spread across the country and six other frontline organizations working directly with victims to prevent gender-based violence or provide emergency support to survivors. Human Rights Watch also interviewed activists and other experts from 12 organizations working to end this violence. Human Rights Watch made unsuccessful attempts to interview or obtain feedback from South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD), which oversees shelter services.
Those interviewed said that the biggest problem was a lack of adequate government funding to help overwhelmed nongovernmental organizations providing direct support to victims, including shelters, cope with the pandemic.
The DSD should finalize its draft Intersectoral Shelter Policy as a matter of urgency, and all government agencies involved should carry out planned improvements.
Immediate-, medium- and long-term impacts from South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdowns have increased the risk for women and girls of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Human Rights Watch research with frontline workers in South Africa suggests that this risk may be greater for additionally marginalized people like black lesbians, transgender men and women, sex workers, and older women, as well as refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants.
Those interviewed said that domestic violence victims living under lockdown were cut off from others who might help them, giving them no respite from partners or family members beating, raping, or psychologically or verbally abusing them.
Government support to shelters during the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to vary enormously among provinces. Some shelters described firm relationships and public health guidance and other support from the provincial DSD staff. Shelters in the Western Cape, for example, said that the agency provided guidance, solidarity, and personal protective equipment (PPE) and that funding for shelters arrived on time.
In other places, though, funding was late. The National Shelter Movement of South Africa, a nonprofit organization with about 78 shelters under its umbrella, said that some staff even had to take personal loans to pay expenses. The South African government did promote a hotline for victims it had set up in 2014, but civil society members said it sometimes provided confusing or out-of-date information and that it was hard for some victims to use because they were afraid their abuser would hear them.
Commentators have said that the South African government worked to keep services open for the survivors. But experts criticized the South African government, saying it was too late to acknowledge the impact of strict lockdowns and had not provided adequate public information about shelters and services to make clear that domestic violence victims could leave their homes to get help.
Frontline workers said that many people, perhaps especially among vulnerable populations, were further endangered by the sudden loss of jobs, incomes, or housing. Sex workers, in particular, were forced to leave brothels and to take greater risks to make ends meet as the work dried up, sex worker rights groups said. Research by Human Rights Watch in 2018 found that female sex workers are especially vulnerable to violence in South Africa, in part because their work is criminalized.
Frontline workers also said that loss of income and lack of food security made undocumented migrants even more dependent on abusive partners and less likely to leave them. Human Rights Watch researchfound that the government’s Covid-19 aid programs, including food parcels during national lockdown, overlooked people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, and many LGBT people.
Shelters vary in whether they accept undocumented migrant survivors. South African law prohibits sheltering immigrants without documentation but allows for emergency humanitarian support for undocumented people. The exception is not clearly defined, and some shelters fear liability for violating the law. South Africa has one shelter designed for LGBT survivors, the Pride Shelter in Cape Town. Though other shelters accept them in theory, experts said that more funding, training, and skills building is needed to counter discrimination and bias in the shelter space, provide tailored services, and raise awareness about availability of shelter services among marginalized populations.
The pandemic and lockdowns temporarily affected or made impossible some important in-house services in shelters, such as some forms of counseling and job training, Human Rights Watch found. Job opportunities for clients evaporated. Shelters were unable to carry out normal in-person outreach activities to raise awareness about their services as well as fundraising activities to support themselves or supplement government grants.
Perhaps because of uncertainty and isolation, several shelter workers said they felt that anxiety and depression among clients increased. Staff also had to make significant changes to how they worked, they and experts said, for example, working week-long shifts rather than going home every day, and there were many reports of burnout among shelter staff.
Inconsistent government support for the shelters is not a new problem. The Heinrich Böll Foundationfor example, together with the National Shelter Movement, has long noted that shelters are “chronically underfunded,” and that funding is also highly variable between and within provinces. A 2019 report on the state of shelters by the Commission for Gender Equality, an independent government watchdog body, found “grossly inadequate and misaligned” funding for shelters from the agency and late payments in some provinces.
Ongoing sensitization and skills training for shelter staff to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, sex workers, or undocumented African non-nationals and to ensure tailored services are available is important, Human Rights Watch said. The DSD should also ensure that all shelters accept undocumented survivors and know how to assist them with immigration procedures.
“The government of South Africa has been addressing gender-based violence during the crisis over the past year,” Isaack said. “But a large-scale and fully resourced effort will be needed to ensure the Covid-19 crisis and its fallout over the next years doesn’t result in South Africa’s rates for gender-based violence worsening further.”
For more information about gender-based violence in South Africa and the impact on shelter services, please see below.
Gender-Based Violence in South Africa
South Africa’s president has characterized gender-based violence in South Africa as a “second pandemic,” after the coronavirus. Statistics, including police reports, are worrying but incomplete, both because of problems with data collection and because victims often do not report abuse. Despite the lack of accurate statistics, it is evident that the rates are high, both for women and for LGBT people.
It is also not yet clear to what extent gender-based violence increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns. An analysis by the Heinrich Böll Foundation released in August 2021 found that various data, including police reporting, a government helpline, and hospitals, did not provide a clear indication that rates had increased, but said that more research was needed. Several people interviewed said that they thought rates increased, and experts and frontline workers widely agreed that the pandemic created additional vulnerabilities.
In September 2021 parliament passed three linked bills amending relevant laws. One, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, should make it easier for victims to get protection orders.
There is political will to address the crisis, but adequate funding has long been a problem, Human Rights Watch found. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide attributed the high rates of gender-based violence to South Africa’s history of violence and apartheid, but also to government underinvestment in solving the problem. Others have also concluded that budgetary constraints and lack of cooperation among government departments have undermined progress. Victims lack support when attempting to report violence and lack adequate access to courts and to shelters. The experts interviewed said that the pandemic worsened these problems.
The Commission on Gender Equality’s March 2020 submission to the United Nations committee that oversees states’ compliance with Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women detailed the situation just prior to the pandemic and lockdown. It said that while there was “political willingness to lead national efforts to deal with gender-based violence”, in practice, funding and implementation of a pre-Covid-19-era Emergency Response Action Plan was “still unfolding.” Despite promises of more support, the commission said that even before the pandemic, a lack of government funding had meant the shelters were forced to close, police were undertrained, and medical services for rape survivors were lacking.
The National Strategic Plan is the result of years of activism by South African civil society, including demonstrations in August 2018 that triggered a Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence. Drafted by government and activists, the South African cabinet has also approved the plan. However, it is difficult to track how the plan is being funded. In February 2021 in response to government efforts, the private sector pledged a total of 128 million South African Rand (R, about US$8.1 million) to fight gender-based violence.
Government financial support to shelters and services for survivors is an important part of meeting human rights obligations to address gender-based violence. The National Plan’s Pillar 4, “Response, Care Support and Healing,” and Pillar 5, “Economic Empowerment” tasks the DSD with increasing funding for shelters and services at shelters, and to increase access to shelters and interim housing for all victims, including LGBT people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, older women, and women with older children.
Covid-19 and Economic Insecurity
The abrupt change in economic activity caused by the pandemic and response had a profound impact on many South African’s economic security. Interviewees said that certain marginalized populations, in particular, African LGBT asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and sex workers, already more at risk of violence, experienced a significant drop in food security and loss of income. This compounded their risk, especially for those who were forced into homelessness.
Human Rights Watch analysis showed that the authorities did not take steps to facilitate support, including from donors, for refugees and asylum seekers whose access to food and other basic necessities were limited during the nationwide lockdown. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to ascertain, the government did not consult with people from vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, leaving many at serious risk of Covid-19 infection, hunger, and other harm.
“Things were very bad to be honest – migrant sex workers were told to move out of brothels and safe houses,” a sex worker peer advocate said about her efforts to assist sex workers in a small town in Gauteng province. “We intervened and made agreements [with the owners] like [in one place] – as long as the sex workers were able to pay electricity the owner allowed them to stay. In another brothel [the owner] gave them a few days after we intervened, but eventually they had to go.”
Dudu Dlamini, a sex worker activist, said that “Sex workers had no cash, no income, they were chased out of houses by landlords”. She said that the loss of income often affected three or four dependents. “They couldn’t go home without bringing money, (couldn’t) visit their children.”
Sex work remains criminalized in South Africa, and as a result, the South African Police Service in some places perpetuates abuse by profiling and harassing sex workers. “Lockdown amplified the challenges for sex workers,” said Nosipho Vidima, a sex workers’ rights advocate. “You can imagine if you’re trying to work and there’s no one else in the street because of curfew… sex workers were harassed and arrested by police for being out, because they were known to be sex workers.”
A social worker at People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP), a community-based organization working to defend the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and non-nationals in Cape Town, said economic insecurity because of the pandemic made it even less likely that their clients, mostly undocumented immigrant LGBT survivors of gender-based violence, would leave abusive partners or report violence. “The majority [of our clients] have lost their jobs [and the need for food and shelter have been those most faced during Covid-19,” he said, adding that the group’s programming had been replaced by proving food parcels and other emergency relief.
“[Even under better times] our clients can’t get work and struggle because they don’t have documents and so have to rely on partners even if they are ill-treated,” he said. He said that at least nine clients were doing sex work to survive, and some had faced police harassment and others violence, and all were more likely to have unsafe sex.
“We did an announcement about our food parcels on the radio as well as our evacuation services and our line blew up,” the codirector from Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Newly homeless people needed] things like buckets to go get water and plastic bags to keep their things in. Especially during the hard lockdown, we had a lot of LGBTIQ people we needed to assist because their families had thrown them out of homes [and] we also did a lot of parcels for non-nationals because there was no assistance for undocumented people.”
Covid-19 Impacts on Gender-Based Violence Shelters
Human Rights Watch found that the pandemic had a significant impact on gender-based violence shelters. The shelters provide refuge from violence and include safe houses that offer temporary accommodation. Crises centers typically offer accommodation for three to six months, and most interviewed by Human Rights Watch also provide counseling, psychosocial and emotional assistance, and life planning, skills building and job training, as well as connections to courts or other government services such as help with protection orders or divorces.
Human Rights Watch did not receive any reports about major Covid-19 outbreaks in shelters, but protecting clients and staff from Covid-19 infection and managing lockdowns strained shelters in many ways. Several shelter workers said that stress and anxiety were greatly heightened for both clients and staff. “We probably worked harder than ever before,” said a senior social worker from a Durban shelter in KwaZulu-Natal. “We had greater levels of anxiety than before among the clients.”
One social worker said that a client and a worker, a cleaner at her shelter, had died of Covid-19, causing anxiety and distress among both staff and clients. “It was a roller coaster,” she said.
Clients at shelters had to self-isolate, especially new arrivals, meaning they lost out on solidarity and community, made worse by restrictions against visitors or making trips outside of the shelter. At one Gauteng shelter, for example, new clients had to self-isolate for 14 days. “It was a very traumatic time,” said a social worker at the shelter. “I’ve never spoken or debriefed about it, but it was frustrating and depressing and not just for the clients here but also for the staff.”
Two other senior shelter workers said that they and their staff had not had a chance to talk about the impact of the pandemic on their wellbeing, and a few people said that the work and sacrifices of shelter staff had not been acknowledged, and that burnout was increasingly a problem. “Everyone just put their heads down and did the work, but now we’re seeing the impact on staff,” said a senior social worker at a 120-bed shelter, Saartjie Bartman Centre, in Cape Town. At least two shelters moved employees from daily shifts, going home at night, to working a week at a time to reduce exposure.
Protections against Covid-19 also created additional costs. “We spent huge amounts of money on PPE in the first months, some R60,000 [about $3,800],” said a senior social worker at the Saartjie Bartman Centre. Like others, this shelter also spent precious funds on private car services to reduce staff exposure on public transport. Fundraising events were canceled and at least some shelters decided to stop in-kind deliveries of food and other support that they usually depend on to reduce opportunities for virus transmission. In-person outreach work in communities also stopped, potentially reducing people’s access and knowledge about sheltering.
Covid-19 Impacts on Services for Survivors
Shelter workers said that perhaps the most worrying loss for shelter residents from the pandemic has been job opportunities. “Women can’t find jobs now, some have been with us for six months now and have no follow-up plan because of that,” a KwaZulu-Natal social worker at a shelter said in February. “I refuse to send a client back to an abusive situation.”
“Our clients have been disappointed,” said a senior social worker from the Sahara Shelter. “A lot come here unemployed, and we try to work as much as possible with local businesses and people who can give our clients jobs, so they have income, but that’s not been possible under Covid-19.” Another social worker said that “We have 15 women [clients] with us now, and only two are employed – it’s terrible.”
Government services were harder to get, including some lifesaving services. “Some government officials were working from home and it was hard to reach them”, a social worker from a shelter in the Eastern Cape Province said. “[This] led to a delay in service delivery to our clients and also added strain on them with regard to their cases. In the beginning of the lockdown, cases were postponed in court and protection orders could not be granted on the date set.”
“We faced huge problems in getting protection orders,” another social worker said.
Others said that health services were affected, with some hospitals shutting down or canceling normal services their clients depended on, some medications being harder to get, and general anxiety and uncertainty as to when taking a client to a hospital or clinic was worth the risk of exposure to Covid-19. “Access to mental [health services] and other health care has proved to be extremely inaccessible during lockdown, even more so than before,” a domestic violence worker in the Cape Flats said.
Shelters struggled to keep essential services such as psychosocial – mental health – support and counseling ongoing, and these essential services were halted in some places for at least a period. Some shelters lost at least some programming. “We also had to stop all our extra services,” said one social worker.
Organizations like SWEAT, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, and Mothers for the Future, a SWEAT offshoot, who work to support sex workers including protecting them against gender-based violence, struggled with major programming losses, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “We had to stop support group meetings,” Dlamini said. “We moved over to a WhatsApp group so we could provide a little support.”
“We even saw places that had provided condoms for free had shut down,” said a sex worker activist, Megan Lessing. “Some sex workers were earning R50 a day [about $3.20] and paying R20 [about $1.30] for condoms.”
Access to Shelters for Marginalized Survivors
Human Rights Watch found that shelters differed in whom they accepted as clients. Undocumented migrants, LGBT people, and women with older male children were sometimes excluded, for reasons that range from lack of private family facilities to concern about running afoul of the immigration law, or not being able to pay expenses the government would not reimburse for non-nationals. Older women, people who use drugs, and women with severe illnesses were sometimes excluded as well, with many facilities lacking the resources to provide specialized health or services, such as personal care and other support, to people with disabilities, including older people with disabilities.
While sex workers, transwomen, transmen, and lesbians, were usually accepted in theory, people working with these vulnerable groups said that particular group often did not feel welcome and that more needed to be done to help them access shelters.
“Vulnerable groups struggle to find or use shelters mainly because of stigma,” a shelter social worker said. “They are often discriminated against by the public and by staff at shelters … and they’re coming from a place where there’s a lack of acceptance to start with from family members.”
Citing security concerns, about half of the shelters contacted would not take older boys, usually any male over 12. Two shelters said that they did not take older women, in one case because of fears that they would never find another home for them. “We can’t [discharge] them because other support structures [like [older] people’s homes] are not working,” said one social worker. More commonly shelters said that they would not take women using drugs, because they are not set up to safely provide necessary services.
“Some shelters won’t take foreign nationals, especially undocumented people, [and] we spent a lot of time trying to place foreign nationals,” said one person who had helped more than 50 women leave domestic violence in Johannesburg. “We will assist, we won’t judge them if they’ve got papers and have been referred to us and have a right to be in the country,” one shelter social worker said. Others said that they would take undocumented survivors, but it was “problematic … we then have to refer them to the correct institutions handling their cases.”
The Creighton Shelter in KwaZulu-Natal said that they had recently taken in a transwoman. “It was very hard for her to find a shelter because in her ID she’s still a man,” the manager said. Other shelters said that staff can feel reluctant to accept transwomen in the facility, especially if there are no private rooms and bathrooms, or training for staff. Another shelter manager and National Shelter Movement executive committee member, Bernadine Bachar, said that the shelter serves transwomen, but that generally, “there’s a lot of reluctance to take transwomen. Staff feel that they’re not equipped to deal with issues.”
Sex workers experience barriers to accessing shelters, including assumptions about their drug use, on whether they can remain working and not violate shelter rules, or whether they have immigration documentation. One shelter worker said: “Sex workers are sometimes [dependent on] drugs; we have a zero-tolerance policy on that.” She also said that female sex workers often “disregard” the shelter’s 5 p.m. curfew, along with the government’s Covid-19 regulations.
“Sex workers … often do not stay long because they have to leave to do their work and so they violate the shelter rules as well as Covid lockdown regulation,” another person interviewed said.
“I put one sex worker in a shelter and the staff there saw her working and told us to take her to another shelter,” Dlamini said. “And there was another case where a sex worker tested positive for drugs and so was not allowed to stay.”
Sex workers usually do not even consider a shelter an option, a sex worker peer said. “The general feeling is that without a South African ID you can’t access anything.”
Government Support During the Pandemic
Unlike many other governments in the region, South Africa does provide support to shelters, and the pandemic has placed many strains on government institutions and services, Human Rights Watch said. It is apparently difficult to calculate government spending on gender-based violence, but experts agree that more funding and focus is needed.
Experts said that the government was too slow to publicly note that the pandemic and the stringent lockdowns had increased the risks of gender-based violence. They said that national and local officials have never acknowledged the added dangers to some groups like sex workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants as well as LGBT people. The experts also said that it was not made clear from the beginning that shelters and other services were essential services that would remain open and that survivors could leave their houses to get help even during curfew or the various levels of lockdown. “Women didn’t know what was going on,” Bachar said. “It was unconscionable.”
South African authorities’ enforcement of curfews and lockdowns has been strict, and sometimes violent, which may have affected victims’ ability to seek help. In June 2020 a report by the Atlantic Council noted that, “Since South Africa instituted a country-wide lockdown on March 27, the number of violent incidents by police against civilians has reportedly more than doubled, with poor and vulnerable populations most affected.”
For many shelters, work with local government officials and police continued during the pandemic even if it was bumpy. Some said they got some additional assistance like funds, PPE including masks and sanitizers, and advice from the government, although more commonly from the National Shelter Movement.
A social worker at the Sahara Shelter in Durban said: “we got masks and sanitizer … whenever there was stuff available (DSD) would drop it off and they helped with deep cleaning two or three times.”
“DSD worked with us from the beginning to prepare, even before lockdown, they sent an epidemiologist to consult with shelters,” a senior worker at a large shelter of 120 beds in Cape Town said. Other shelters said that they did not get any additional support from the government and instead were dependent on the National Shelter Movement for PPE and other resources as well as guidance on how to handle social distancing for example.
The biggest problem was when funding arrived late, those interviewed said. But the overall lack of funding for shelters, even when on time was also consistently mentioned as a problem. “A lack of funding means many shelter workers earn a minimum wage even though they are essential and the work they do is so important,” said Claudia Lopes from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Lopes and Kailash Bhana, who are doing research for the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the impact of Covid-19 on shelters, and Lisa Vetten, another expert, said that two shelters in the Eastern Cape had to halt their operations because they could not afford to pay for food as they had not received government funding during the pandemic. They said that at least one shelter in the Northwest province, struggled to feed about 80 clients, some of them children, and came close to collapse because of significantly delayed government funding.
Experts also expressed concerns about the quality of a government hotline set up during the pandemic for victims. “We were shocked by the GBV [gender-based violence] hotline,” the codirector at Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Victims are] trapped in their homes with their abuser and you’re giving them a telephone line. Many people have no phone, and [even if they do] the abuser is within earshot.”
Even when survivors could call, said Lopes, hotline workers were sometimes giving callers inappropriate advice and “deciding for themselves whether someone was eligible for shelters or not” rather than just doing referrals. In one example, she said, “the victim’s partner was a gangster, and she was needing urgent escape from the situation and the community that she lives in, but the command center told her that she was not eligible for sheltering as she could be accommodated elsewhere, essentially with her mom in the same community she had to leave for her own safety. They simply didn’t understand the dynamics.”
As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the government has assured prospective visitors it will welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) tourists and that fans will be free to fly the rainbow flag at the games. But for LGBT Qataris like Mohammed, openly expressing his sexuality as a gay man is not an option. Doing so, he fears, would land him backin jail.
Mohammed was arrested in 2014 for alleged same-sex conduct, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment under article 285 of Qatar’s penal code. While in detention, officers searched his phone, identified a man he’d been messaging, and attempted to contact this person to target him as well. Mohammed was detained for weeks, enduring verbal abuse and sexual harassment by police. Officers even shaved his head.
Seven years later, Mohammed has resigned himself to a life of discretion: he dresses in a masculine style, refrains from posting about his sexuality online, and no longer meets men from dating apps.
“There is zero freedom [to post anything related to sexuality online],” Mohammed said.
As Qatar advances its surveillance capabilities, including inside football stadiums, the possibility of LGBT Qataris being persecuted for publicly supporting LGBT rights will remain long after the international fans have gone.
Physical and virtual spaces free from surveillance are vanishing in Qatar as data protection law allows broad exemptions that undermine the right to privacy. When digital surveillance is combined with laws that target individuals based on consensual sexual conduct outside of marriage, there is nowhere left to hide.
The Qatari government should repeal article 285 and all other laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations outside of marriage and leave people like Mohammed living in fear in the shadows. Freedom of expression and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be guaranteed for all Qataris, not just spectators and tourists flocking to Qatar for the World Cup.