Can We Make It?: An Odyssey of Gay Refugees

By Josh Watkins

Ambassadors for LGBT and human rights are important, especially in regions like the Middle East—and that’s exactly what the upcoming documentary Mr. Gay Syria will be highlighting. Set in Istanbul and Berlin, Mr. Gay Syria follows two gay refugees who are trying to rebuild their lives after fleeing the war in Syria.

“Husein is a 24-year-old barber who escaped Istanbul with his parents and pregnant wife—to whom he was forcibly married. Mahmoud is the founder of Syria’s LGBTI movement and a refugee in Germany. He works part-time at a [non-governmental organization] helping gay asylum-seekers,” explains Ayse Toprak, director of Mr. Gay Syria.

Husein and Mahmoud have been brought together by a common dream: to compete in the international Mr. Gay World 2016 contest that was hosted in Malta. If they pull it off, it will be the first time an Arab man from the Middle East has participated in such a public event.

“For Husein, this is [his chance] to escape to Europe. He yearns to live in a society that accepts him,” Toprak says. “For Mahmoud, as a gay rights defender, this is the place to generate visibility and launch a campaign for gay Syrian refugees.”

Resilient: The new documentary Mr. Gay Syria explores the state of LGBT culture in the Middle East. In this scene, police raid the gay-pride parade in Istanbul.
Resilient: The new documentary Mr. Gay Syria explores the state of LGBT culture in the Middle East. In this scene, police raid the gay-pride parade in Istanbul.

The idea for the film came to fruition when Toprak met Mahmoud while she was working for the Al Jazeera media network. Toprak was assigned to do a documentary on the school system for Syrian refugee children in Turkey, and she needed an Arabic translator. As fate would have it, Mahmoud interviewed for the position. “One of the first things he told me was that he’s gay, and asked if I’d be okay working with him, given his sexuality. That was the start of our friendship,” Toprak recalls.

Mahmoud has always been a defender of gay rights and an active voice for Syrian LGBTI rights. As a former journalist who had founded Syria’s first queer magazine, Mahmoud knew that in order to garner the media’s attention on such a niche topic in the midst of an international humanitarian crisis, he needed to do something big. When the idea to enter the Mr. Gay World contest came up, Mahmoud decided to set out and find Mr. Gay Syria. Husein ended up being one of the candidates.

Throughout the film, the journey to Mr. Gay World threads together the difficulties of being gay in a homophobic society, the many challenges of coming out, the joys of falling in love, and the devastating refugee crisis.

Toprak explains that even as mere observers of Husein and Mahmoud’s stories, the Mr. Gay Syria film crew felt as though they were in the midst of the whole refugee crisis. 

A gay refugee’s voice is an extremely powerful one. Facing discrimination and tragedy amidst such dire and hostile conditions, the drive of the film’s characters to improve their lives is admirable. With the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey, the documentary is providing a medium for these voices to be heard and these stories to be told.

Despite Turkey being a place of refuge for many Syrians, it’s a country of harsh conservative values. Hate crimes against the LGBTI community in Turkey continue to grow.

“The biggest problem is the lack of legal protection of the LGBTI,” Toprak says. “One of this summer’s most heartbreaking stories was the brutal murder of Hande Kader, a transgender activist and sex worker. Yet once again, Turkey’s police turned a blind eye and the case was left unresolved—which obviously encourages more attacks against the LGBTI.”

There have been increases in verbal and physical discrimination. The Pride walk in Istanbul had been one of the biggest events in the city, with more than 100,000 people participating. But in the last two years, Pride events have been banned by the government and raided with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Although Turkey seems to be more liberal-minded in comparison to neighboring countries, LGBTI people still face many problems. “At least it’s not criminalized,” says Toprak.

When asked about the media’s blurred perceptions of the Middle East situation, Toprak responds with fresh concerns: “As societies, we’re becoming more intolerant of our differences. We’re losing faith in each other. Too many causes are being forgotten. Sometimes, the overwhelming amount of news on Syria and the Middle East loses its effect, and we become numb to it.”

Toprak hopes that her film will take the audience on an intimate ride with its characters, and that this “tragi-comic” look at refugees can bring about more engagement and empathy.

Mr. Gay Syria recently surpassed its crowd-funding goal to finish the film. “The crowd-funding is not just about the money. It’s a way to build a community of people who believe in [a filmmaker’s] ideas, as well as the dreams of the characters,” Toprak explains. She believes that people can challenge repressive governments by building global communities that can rally to support people like Husein and Mahmoud.

“So even if people can’t help [by contributing money],” she says, “they can be involved in the conversation.” Being involved and engaged is just as important.

For updates on the film’s completion and future screenings, go to kisskissbankbank.com/mr-gay-syria-film.

Josh Watkins is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.


Joshua Watkins

Joshua Watkins is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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