“I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup,” he added.
Critics said Cleverly, a member of the center-right Conservatives and a supporter of same-sex marriage rights, was essentially asking LGBT fans to hide their identities in a country where homosexuality is a crime. Consensual sex between men is prohibited under Qatari law, which doesn’t explicitly ban sex between women, according to the U.S. State Department. Sex between men carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
Gary Lineker, a former British national soccer star, tweeted: “Whatever you do, don’t do anything Gay. Is that the message?”
“Don’t be gay at World Cup,” read Thursday’s cover of Metro, a British tabloid.
Lucy Powell, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on sports and culture, called Cleverly’s comments “shockingly tone deaf.” She urged the government to challenge FIFA “on how they’ve put fans in this position” instead of “defending discriminatory values.”
Downing Street rebuked Cleverly’s comments, saying in a statement that people should not have to “compromise who they are,” according to the Associated Press.
Amid the criticism, Cleverly reiterated his stance, telling British broadcaster Sky News that “we have incredibly important partners in the Middle East,” and that “it’s important, when you’re a visitor to a country, that you respect the culture of your host nation.”
When asked whether he planned to attend the World Cup, which runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, Cleverly said he would because “it is an important international event” where other interlocutors would be. He also had to be there to protect British travelers, he said.
Human Rights Watch said in a report Monday that arbitrary arrests and abuse of LGBT people have continued in Qatar as recently as last month.
The Gulf country’s treatment of underprivileged groups such as migrant workers has been heavily scrutinized since it was awarded the rights to host the tournament. Qatari leaders have bristled at some of the criticism that has been leveled against their country, claiming that the attacks were by “people who cannot accept the idea that an Arab Muslim country would host a tournament like the World Cup.”
Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.