The Qatar World Cup and why I said no to a free trip

Sophie Cook holds a trans pride flag in Moscow's Red Square

When I came out as transgender in 2015 while working in Premier League football as the club photographer for AFC Bournemouth there was a lot of fear attached to that act. At the time there were few LGBT people openly involved in the game.

Over the past 7 years we have seen great strides taken to make the game more inclusive to people of all sexualities and gender identities. Most Premier League clubs now have an LGBT supporters group and the annual Rainbow Laces campaign gets support across the game.

Unfortunately there are still issues, we still see episodes of homophobic abuse at games and the levels of abuse online continue to rise.

Some of the issues around LGBT inclusion within football go right to the highest levels of the game, not least with the decision by FIFA to host two consecutive World Cups in nations with shocking human rights records, not least when it comes to LGBT people.

In 2018 I was offered the opportunity to travel to Moscow during the World Cup there to speak alongside Russian LGBT activists and help to raise awareness of the situation under Vladimir Putin’s regime. We were followed by the FSB (the modern equivalent of the KGB) and the venues for the LGBT conference were shut down multiple times in the build up to the event.

It was scary travelling to Moscow, a transgender woman arriving in the city alone following threats in the media that LGBT fans would be murdered by far-right gangs. It was scary, but it felt necessary to support the Russian activists who lived with that danger on a daily basis.

In a month’s time the 2022 World Cup will kick off in Qatar, and once again I have been invited to attend. Not by local LGBT activists but by the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

My original thinking was that I could be a visible representation of LGBT people at the tournament.

This meant that I was in a very different position to that which I was in at the Russian World Cup. The biggest problem for me was not the risk of danger but the fact that, aside from a trip to watch football, my presence would serve no purpose to support those whose rights are restricted in this Gulf State.

In a report released today Human Rights Watch disclosed that the Qatar Preventive Security Department forces have arbitrarily arrested LGBT people and subjected them to ill-treatment in detention including severe and repeated beatings and sexual harassment. Security forces arrested people in public places based solely on their gender expression and unlawfully searched their phones. As a requirement for their release, security forces mandated that transgender women attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored “behavioral healthcare” center.

A transgender Qatari woman told Human Rights Watch that after security forces arrested her on the street in Doha, Preventive Security officers accused her of “imitating women” because of her gender expression. In the police car, they beat her until her lips and nose were bleeding and kicked her in the stomach.

“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.’”

Another Qatari transgender woman, arrested in Doha, said: “They detained me twice, once for two months in a solitary cell underground, and once for six weeks. They beat me every day and shaved my hair. They also made me take off my shirt and took a picture of my breasts. I suffered from depression because of my detention. I still have nightmares to this day, and I’m terrified of being in public.”

Qatari World Cup organisers have repeatedly stated that all supporters will be welcome in the country, but public displays of affection even between heterosexual couples are not part of the local culture. As a transgender person I don’t get to chose whether or not I’m holding someone’s hand, I am me and the only way to be invisible would be to detransition.

But even if I wanted to do that, which I don’t, I’d still have the problem of my identity documents and gender based access. If you think that the anti-trans campaigns to ban trans women from single sex spaces in the UK was bad imagine the situation in a country where all activities are segregated by gender.

FIFA says that the tournament will help to break down barriers, if that’s the case then there needs to be a lot more barrier breaking and a lot less selling the soul of the game off to the highest bidder.

Dr Nasser Mohamed, who is from Qatar but who was granted political asylum in the United States over fears he would face persecution in his homeland as a gay man said: “Qatar is pretending to be this really tolerant, welcoming, accepting society.”

“The leverage they’re willing to give, even for one month, to expats and visitors and fans is something that would never be extended to us.”

Therefore I am left with only one course of action.

Despite the offer of free flights, free accommodation and tickets to the opening match from the Qatari Supreme Committee I have to refuse.

If Qatari LGBT people do not have the freedom of free expression without fear then how could I possibly visit the tournament on a jolly and enjoy freedoms that aren’t available to them.