In a recent interview with Human Rights Watch (HRW), a Qatari trans woman described being arrested by the country’s Preventive Security Department for “imitating women.” She was kicked in the stomach and beaten in a police car until her nose and lips were bleeding. “I saw many other people detained,” she recalled. “[There were] two Moroccan lesbians, four Filipino gay men, and one Nepalese gay man. I was detained for three weeks without charge, and officers repeatedly sexually harassed me. Part of the release requirement was attending sessions with a psychologist who would ‘make me a man again.’”

The interview was published alongside the stories of five more anonymous victims. Some were beaten until they lost consciousness. Another Qatari trans woman was detained in an underground cell for two months, her head forcibly shaved. All six interviewees had their phones confiscated by Qatari authorities, who scoured their messages for the contact details of other LGBTQ+ people.

Despite these human rights violations, Qatar is set to receive a huge economic boost as host nation of the upcoming 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. Since hosting duties were awarded in 2010, an estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died – an average of 12 per week. Many died building the new stadiums, hotels, and public transport needed to accommodate World Cup tourists.

Labor law progress has been made, but NGOs have critiqued the current response as insufficient. FIFA’s response? “Let’s focus on the football.” For marginalized fans, this isn’t so easy.

Alongside international LGBTQ+ NGO All Out, activist Nas Mohammed has spent months calling on FIFA to push for the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity in Qatar. In May of this year, he became the first LGBTQ+ Qatari to publicly come out, in an interview with BBC News. “I had to sit down and accept that I could be harmed as a result,” he tells Highsnobiety. “I had to take down my personal social media accounts, because they were flooded with death threats.”

Since then, Mohammed – a physician now based in San Francisco – has been channeling his energy into creating the Alwan Foundation, an LGBTQ+ NGO aiming to advance rights within the Gulf Region. He also played a key role in the aforementioned HRW report, connecting researchers to five of the six victims interviewed. There are, however, dangerous barriers to this research. “There’s a very intrusive cybercrime unit in Qatar that surveils us all the time,” Mohammed explains. “People have gotten into trouble for having what they thought were private conversations. People have been catfished on dating apps. People have left anonymous comments on online articles, yet their IP addresses have been traced and they have been brought in for questioning.”

Because all eyes are currently on Qatar, calls to boycott the World Cup have gained traction. Yet the stories Mohammed tells, of queer people being entrapped and sexually assaulted by plainclothes officers, kidnapped by the Preventive Security Force, forced into conversion therapy, are often buried by more sensationalist headlines. “Everyone lost their minds when a World Cup Ambassador said being gay is a ‘damage to the mind,’” he says, incredulous. “Meanwhile, I’m giving you literal evidence of conversion therapy.”

Government statements on the acceptance of LGBTQ+ fans have varied wildly over the years. First, Qatari officials said they would be welcomed as long as they didn’t have sex. More recently, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Qatari authorities would “make sure fans were safe and secure,” but requested fans to “be respectful” and “compromise.” Basically, be less gay.

Unsurprisingly, these words have done nothing to quell the fears of queer football fans. “I despise the expectation of women and queer fans to ‘respect’ Qatar’s laws if they want to go,” says Kieran, a 27-year-old London-based football fan. “FIFA’s letter saying football shouldn’t be ‘dragged into every political battle’ is downright hypocritical when they’ve expelled Russia from the organization, precisely for moral and political reasons.”

FIFA’s repeated partnership with homophobic governments can leave emotional scars, too. “As a queer person, you begin to see your queerness and love of football as incongruous,” says Jay, a 25-year-old fan. “That’s wrong. Football should be for everyone. I can only imagine what it must be like for a closeted queer player heading to Qatar, or even worse, to be an LGBTQ+ person living in Qatar having the arbitrary nature of anti-gay laws demonstrated to them in the starkest possible terms.” Despite campaigns like Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces and the success of this year’s Women’s World Cup, it’s clear there’s still work to be done in terms of inclusivity within football.

These discussions were widespread in 2018 too, when Russia was awarded hosting duties. FIFA called it “the most profitable edition to date,” and Russia received a $14.5 billion economic boost. Clearly, the calls of marginalized people to stop partnering with – and, by extension, funding – repressive governments have not been heard.

FIFA’s hardline stance that football should be separated from politics raises a key question: Who gets the luxury of being apolitical? It’s also worth noting that, in 2020, the US Department of Justice claimed “representatives working for Russia and Qatar… bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights.” Prosecutors made these accusations in an indictment which charged “three media executives and a sports marketing company with a number of crimes, including wire fraud and money laundering.” Accusations of financial corruption have plagued FIFA in the lead-up to the 2022 event, despite their President’s claims otherwise.

As well as partnering with Mohammed to call on FIFA to push for decriminalization, All Out has launched various campaigns calling on international football teams to show solidarity with Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community. “We have a petition started by an activist in Brazil, which urges the team to wear the number 24 on their kit,” explains Justin Lessner, All Out’s Campaign Manager. “That’s significant because 24 is considered a ‘gay’ number, and we’ve had the captain of the Brazilian football team agree to wear it. We’re also targeting countries in the global north to ensure their asylum policies are accessible to LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution. Although I do think FIFA has the greatest responsibility, we’re aiming to take a multi-pronged approach.”

In terms of labor laws, campaigns have yielded success. A spokesperson for adidas – a World Cup sponsor – says the company has “worked with partners to improve the human rights situation in Qatar,” achieving “support for the establishment of an Independent Labor Organization office as a local monitoring body, strengthening the rights of migrant workers and a national minimum wage.”

Mohammed acknowledges these victories, but remains cautious. It remains to be seen whether marginalized fans will actually be safe in Qatar throughout the World Cup, and Mohammed’s biggest fear is linked to “reputation-laundering.” Ambassadors like David Beckham have given idyllic statements citing Qatar as a tourist paradise, which will likely draw more tourism to a nation whose human rights violations are increasingly well-documented. “This has all built up so significantly that I’ve heard Qatar is trying damage control,” Mohammed explains. “It’s trying to present itself as this cosmopolitan nation, so I think the government will turn a blind eye to rainbow flags and the occasional same-sex kiss. But I do worry about how fans will be protected from the public. They’ve been trained to attack us at all times, and they’ve not been at any of these security briefings.”

Ultimately, the next few weeks will see discussions around the rights of marginalized people take center stage. But headlines will come and go, Qatar’s government will receive an influx of tourist cash, and the dust will settle, leaving the country’s LGBTQ+ population still vulnerable to persecution, forced conversion therapy, and torture.

Mohammed’s aim is to capitalize on this brief spotlight, launching an Instagram campaign which will publish a daily paragraph by an anonymous LGBTQ+ person in Qatar. He’ll also establish an online gay fan club for the Qatari team, which he’s calling the Proud Maroons – a reference to the country’s flag. “People can join worldwide, buy merchandise and cheer in extremely gay ways,” he says of the “fun, provocative” campaign. It carries a salient message: “This will be the only gay football fan group which can’t have members from its own country, because they’ll be persecuted.”

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