When Mahmoud Hassino, an openly gay Syrian activist, arrived in Istanbul over a year ago, he had a plan. Hassino, a refugee living in Germany since 2014, wanted to hold up a mirror to LGBT Syrians like him.
So he flew to Turkey, where LGBT Syrians make up a small percentage of the millions who have sought refuge there. Hassino organized a beauty pageant for gay Syrians in Istanbul, in the hopes that the winner could represent their home country at the upcoming Mr. Gay World competition in Malta.
Hassino’s reasoning was simple: the pageant, which for many participants was the first time they could feel truly comfortable expressing themselves publicly—and legally—was an act of resistance.
“For a long time, LGBTI Syrians only existed as victims of the Islamic State,” he tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards from Germany, where he now lives. The contest, dubbed Mr. Gay Syria, would serve as “a message that those who left [Syria] are forming a community and want to enjoy life and advance their rights.”
But now, over a year after the contest’s judges crowned their winner, and as an eponymous documentary film on the pageant is about to be released, hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgender people in Turkey—where homosexuality is legal—are on the rise.
A still from Toprak’s crowdfunding teaser, via Facebook.
Last June, riot police dispersed Istanbul’s annual LGBT pride parade, once the largest such event in any Muslim-majority country, with rubber bullets, citing “security” concerns.
Just one month later, authorities found the decapitated, mutilated body of Mohammad Wissam Sankari, a gay Syrian refugee who arrived in Turkey in 2015. In August, prominent LGBT activist Hande Kader, a transgender woman, was found raped and tortured to death.
But for Ayse Toprak, the Turkish filmmaker who directs the documentary Mr. Gay Syria, “if you don’t talk about certain things, you can never shed light onto them and things never change,” she tells Syria Direct from Istanbul.
“I think for all the participants, Mr. Gay Syria reminded them of their sense of freedom and a sense of rebellion.”
Ayse Toprak is the director of Mr. Gay Syria, a feature documentary now in post-production that looks at LGBT Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Q: Your forthcoming documentary Mr. Gay Syria focuses on a group of gay Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. How did you first meet these men?
I first met Mahmoud Hassino when I was working on a documentary about the schooling system for [Syrian] refugee children in Turkey. I don’t speak Arabic, so I needed to find a fixer and Mahmoud was one of the first people I interviewed.
When we first met, he actually asked me: ‘I’m gay—are you okay with that?’
So, I’ve always known that he’s a big gay-rights defender. We became friends, and when he set off to find Mr. Gay Syria, he introduced me to the community. That’s when I met Hussein, Omar, Wissam, Ayman—all of those guys.
Q: What initially drew you to these men’s stories? When did you realize their stories needed to be told?
I’ve always been sensitive toward people who, especially living in Turkey, face discrimination on the basis of their race, religion or gender. I’ve always found these topics important.
And I saw that these men have something about them that’s very courageous. Regardless of the circumstances that they’re living in, they can turn back to life and have fun with it. There’s dignity in that.
Their story—and it’s not that this film is just the Syrian LGBTI story—touches on the Mr. Gay Syria competition, and through this competition we look at the migration crisis. There’s [also] a story about coming out, and there’s a story about falling in love.
It’s a Syria story. It’s a refugee story. Yes, they’re gay, but they’re also refugees, and they’re among the millions of refugees who are trying to find a peaceful home to live in.
So it’s very important to tell this story today because the whole world is watching this crisis.
This is [also] a story that hasn’t really been told from inside the Muslim world. It’s been told by Arab filmmakers who are living in the US or the UK, but it’s never really been done with Arab characters who are still living in the region, which is why it’s very courageous of them to be involved in the film.
Q: Is a documentary centered around the Mr. Gay Syria pageant representative enough of LGBTI Syrian refugees in general? Why did you choose this particular event as a basis to tell the story of gay Syrian refugees in Turkey?
The pageant is there, but the film isn’t about the pageant. It looks at the migration crisis and all sorts of different things, and the problems of gay people living in homophobic countries. The film is just using [the Mr. Gay Syria pageant] as a means to talk about these general issues.
So you don’t see men going up and down with their bikinis and their national costumes and whatever—it’s not flamboyant like that.
It might seem insignificant and actually kind of inappropriate within the context of such a big human tragedy, but I think for all of the participants, Mr. Gay Syria reminded them of their sense of freedom, and a sense of rebellion.
At the same time, it’s a slap in the face of everyone who has these specific norms of what refugees should be. They’re showing that they’re still alive and they follow their dreams despite everything that has happened to them.
It’s not just gloom. Of course, there’s so much tragedy in the story, but there’s also some hope in it.
A demonstration in Istanbul after the murder of transgender activist Hande Kader, August 2016. Photo courtesy of OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: Mahmoud Hassino, one of the characters in your documentary, said recently that it isn’t as safe as it used to be for LGBT people to put themselves in the spotlight in Turkey, due to rising hate crimes. Are any of the men featured in Mr. Gay Syria feeling endangered by appearing so publicly in the documentary?
In the film, in the beginning, there’s a part where Ayman [a judge in the Mr. Gay Syria competition] asks Hussein [a participant in the competition] a question: ‘Is it out of courage or desperation that you’re attending Mr. Gay Syria?’ And then he replies: ‘desperation and despair turned into courage.’
This is a very interesting line—Hussein feels that if he doesn’t do anything about himself and about his situation, then he will keep being where he is and he won’t move forward. He says: ‘My biggest fear is that I can’t move forward.’
And by the time this film premiers anywhere or makes it to Turkey, which is probably God knows when, hopefully Hussein will already be out.
I think Turkish society in general has been getting more difficult for everybody who holds certain beliefs in terms of what this country should be going towards, in terms of democracy, and so on. So there’s this extra element of pressure.
Q: How are you balancing the goals of your film with the risks involved for the main characters who appear in it?
As a team, we’re very cautious about everyone who’s involved in this project.
But at the same time, if you don’t talk about certain things, you can never shed light onto them and things never change.
There are certain risks that I take personally, as well. It’s not easy being a filmmaker in Turkey. God knows who’s going to say what when the film comes out. We already get lots of hate messages directed toward me and the film. But we do have to take a stance at some point, I suppose, and just be careful.
Q: You’ve said before that, through your work, you hope to “create dialogue” and shed light on various minority groups in Turkey, including LGBT Syrian refugees. What were your goals with Mr. Gay Syria, in particular?
I don’t think that this is the kind of film that will change policies or anything, and I don’t think it’s an activist film either.
It’s a very human film in the sense that hopefully, if people watch it, they’ll feel that these people are their friends. That would be my biggest wish.
One of my best friends watched the film the other day and she said: ‘When I finished the film, I just felt the urge, the wish, that life gets better for them.’ And I do hope that people who watch the film come out of it feeling like that.
Mahmoud Hassino is a Syrian blogger and refugee from Hama who launched Syria’s first LGBT magazine, Mawaleh, in 2012. He organized the Mr. Gay Syria pageant in 2016 for gay Syrian refugees in Istanbul. He has lived in Germany since 2014.
Q: You wrote on your personal blog that you organized the Mr. Gay Syria competition in the hopes that it would bring media attention to the LGBT cause. However, it seems as though, particularly for LGBT people, increased visibility can drive progress but also lead to increased backlash. How do you balance that tension in your activism?
I do understand the fears of a backlash, but I also believe that visibility is important at this point. While the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and many others are targeting LGBTI Syrians, no one has accepted any proposal for a response plan. This has been happening in Iraq since 2003.
Drawing from that experience, I think visibility is essential to draw attention to the cause. That involves risks, but so does any rights movement.
Q: As far as the LGBT rights movement is concerned, what do you think is the role of performance and entertainment like the Mr. Gay Syria pageant? Mr. Gay Syria director Ayse Toprak has mentioned that for many participants, the pageant was a way to go on living and celebrate life after going through so much suffering in Syria. What are your thoughts on this?
The event itself is not intended to entertain LGBTI Syrians as much as to attract attention to the Syrian LGBTI issues. For a long time, LGBTI Syrians only existed as victims of the Islamic State and others. Only as dead bodies. This was more of a message that those who left are forming a community and want to enjoy life and advance their rights.
Under different circumstances, I would have done it merely to entertain, but to me and to the contestants it was an act of rebellion. Even the people who attended it saw it as an act of activism.
Q: At the same time, there’s an often-repeated criticism that LGBT people are somehow inauthentic, following a Western trend or lifestyle. How would you respond to that accusation, as a gay Syrian?
This question requires books and volumes to be answered.
I am a gay Syrian. I have my Syrian culture and my sexual identity. However, I was fortunate to have had the space to explore my sexuality. Most others in the Middle East are not allowed that. If they are forced to believe that their sexuality and their cultures are incompatible, they would reject one of the two.
For me, I am sure there is nothing that indicates that the two are incompatible. However, this is not a discussion that can be held in a time of war, unfortunately.
Q: I'm curious about why you think this discussion can't be held during times of war—do you mind explaining this more?
Talking about LGBTI people's right to live is as important as anything else. No one is allowed to put a value on human lives. However, discussing the lifestyle, identities, laws, and acceptance cannot happen during the war.
How can I advocate for "anti-discrimination laws" for example, when I know that LGBTI lives are not protected? For now, our main struggle is to stop violence against LGBTI people, document any violations, and hope that the perpetrators will be held responsible for those crimes.
Once we achieve peace, we can have all the LGBTI-related questions about identity and anthropology.
Q: Considering the political oppression in Syria, do you think there is hope for a Syria that is accepting of LGBTI people? If you ever returned home to live in Syria, what would you want it to look like?
I have no answer for this question. The Syria I was dreaming of is gone. I would rather focus on the current issues rather than dwelling in dreams. I hope the work I am doing now will contribute to more justice in the future.