The World Cup is well underway in Qatar, but issues surrounding LGBTQ+ rights for the Gulf state, world soccer governing body FIFA, teams and fans just won’t go away.
On Saturday, two German soccer fans told CNN that they were asked by security officials at Qatar 2022 to remove the rainbow-colored items that they were wearing as they made their way to watch the World Cup match between France and Denmark on Saturday.
CNN witnessed the conclusion to the incident at the Msheireb Metro Station, in Doha, as Bengt Kunkel, who was wearing a rainbow-colored sweatband and his friend – sporting a similarly colored armband – refused to hand over the items. The rainbow is a symbol of LGBTQ+ pride.
After taking the Germans to one side, a group of security guards eventually let them go – on condition that they put the rainbow-colored items in their pockets, according to Kunkel.
“Out of nowhere. They took my friend quite aggressively on the arm and pushed him away from the crowd and told him to take it [the armband] off,” Kunkel told CNN, as he recounted details of the incident shortly after it happened.
“Then they took me with him. They said: ‘You’re going to take it off and throw it in the bin or we’ll call the police.’”
The pair refused to throw their items in the bin and said they told security they could call the police.
“We had a little discussion, we were being respectful and said: ‘We’re not going to throw it away but we’re going to put it in our pockets’,” added Kunkel, who travelled to the World Cup to enjoy the soccer tournament, but also to use his social media platform to talk about LGBTQ+ issues and Qatar 2022.
Kunkel and his friend were then allowed to walk down to the station platform where CNN accompanied them to the match. Kunkel’s friend said he didn’t want to talk to CNN.
Once outside Stadium 974, Kunkel put the rainbow-colored armband and wristband back on and walked through security.
CNN witnessed Kunkel being allowed through, though the 23-year-old German was again taken to one side.
Kunkel then told CNN he was stopped four more times before being allowed to take his seat inside the stadium wearing the rainbow-colored items.
Earlier this week, American journalist Grant Wahl and former Wales captain Laura McAllister both said they were told by security staff to remove clothing with rainbow-colored patterns.
Wahl said he was released 25 minutes after being detained and received apologies from a FIFA representative and a senior member of the security team at the stadium.
When asked to clarify the dress code for fans, FIFA referred CNN to the tournament handbook, which states “expats and tourists are free to wear the clothing of their choice, as long as it is modest and respectful to the culture.”
After some Wales fans were also denied entry into stadiums for wearing rainbow-colored bucket hats on Monday, the Welsh Football Association (FAW) said FIFA told the federation on Thursday that rainbow-colored flags and hats would be permitted at World Cup stadiums in Qatar.
“In response to the FAW, FIFA has confirmed that fans with Rainbow Wall bucket hats and rainbow flags will be allowed entry to the stadium for @Cymru’s match against Iran on Friday,” it tweeted.
“All World Cup venues have been contacted and instructed to follow the agreed rules & regulations.”
However, Kunkel’s experience on Saturday would seem to suggest that there remains a disconnect between FIFA’s rules and regulations and what is happening on the ground at Qatar 2022.
CNN reached out to FIFA and Qatar’s organizing committee. FIFA referred CNN to Qatar’s organizing committee, which hadn’t replied at the time of publication.
The 23-year-old Kunkel, who is a student sports journalist back in Germany, has been in Qatar with three friends since just before the World Cup kicked off and says he has already had rainbow-colored items confiscated.
Kunkel said he was removed from his seat at the Al Thumana Stadium during Senegal’s game against the Netherlands on Monday and told to take off the items.
On that occasion security threw them in the bin and Kunkel was allowed back to his seat.
“It’s quite a statement to throw a rainbow flag in the garbage,” added Kunkel.
“I’m not part of the LGBTQ community myself, but I can understand those who don’t want to come here [Qatar] because people of the community are being oppressed.”
Kunkel’s trip to Qatar has made headlines in Germany and he met German Interior and Community Minister Nancy Faeser in Doha this week.
Faeser wore the “OneLove” armband, which features the outline of a heart striped in different colors, with FIFA President Gianni Infantino sitting close by during her country’s 2-1 defeat against Japan.
Since the World Cup kicked off, FIFA has found itself at loggerheads with seven European nations playing at Qatar 2022 over the threat of sanctions for any player wearing a “OneLove” armband during games.
Kunkel says he is unhappy that FIFA allowed Qatar to host the World Cup in a country where sex between men is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.
The 23-year-old says both Faeser and the German Football Association (DFB) have been supportive of his actions and that the DFB even provided him with more rainbow items after his were confiscated.
Ahead of its game against Japan earlier this week, Germany’s team posed with their right hands in front of their mouths designed as a protest to FIFA’s decision to ban the “OneLove” armband that many European captains had been hoping to wear in Qatar.
Although supportive of that protest, Kunkel says more can be done.
“The German FA talks a lot about the rights of the LGBTQ community but whenever they fear consequences they seem to back off and I think that’s a little bit sad,” said Kunkel, who returns to Germany on Monday.
Kunkel says he is passionate about using his platform in Qatar to raise awareness, adding that although he’s received a mixed response online, he was congratulated multiple times by fellow fans walking into Saturday’s game.
“I want to be a voice,” said Kunkel, who earlier this week posted a picture of himself on Instagram from Qatar displaying a rainbow-colored sweatband in front of his face, which he had painted with the German flag with a message saying: “Take a stand, be seen, participate in change. Awesome feeling.”
Qatar’s organizing committee, meanwhile, has previously promised to host “an inclusive and discriminatory-free” World Cup in the face of Western criticism regarding its anti-LGBTQ laws – criticism Infantino, speaking generally about Qatar’s human rights record, slammed as “hypocritical” ahead of the tournament.
“It’s so annoying they do this,” Kunkel told CNN. “This isn’t a political issue, it’s basic human rights.”