“We gay Syrians are more than bodies being thrown from rooftops,” said 24-year-old Hussein, the winner of Mr Gay Syria – and focus of a new documentary uncovering the competition which took place in 2015.
Hussein’s statement – a powerful challenge to the virulently anti-gay actions of ISIS – is at the heart of a story which shows gay Syrians in a non-victimising light, thereby decimating the control that the terrorist group have over the imagery which has so often defined a persecuted minority.
Images of the Mr Gay Syria contest, by photojournalist Bradley Secker, who has been documenting the lives of LGBT asylum seekers for seven years, are the antithesis of the horrific photographs issued by ISIS. They depict gay Syrian men as full of hope and joy, celebrating friendship and freedom, even amid the seemingly endless suffering of the ongoing Syrian conflict.
The idea for hosting Mr Gay Syria came from Secker’s long-time friend and journalist colleague Mahmoud Hassino. “Homosexuality is criminalised in Syria, although from my time in the country before the conflict I know that there was some degree of tolerance, despite what you may see online these days,” explains Secker. “like any country, Syria is diverse and Syrians have a huge range of opinions and values.” Secker sought to capture this diversity in his work.
“The five contestants [in the contest] all fled Syria for their own reasons, mostly for safety from the armed conflict going on in Syria now, but some had from reasons to seek protection from various armed groups or the Syrian government,” Secker tells me.
“There were threats against the community, and many individuals involved in it, including the organiser, but it went ahead anyway, and luckily without a hitch.” He adds that Hussein – who was crowned Mr Gay Syria on Valentine’s Day 2016 – “was fully aware of the risks that come with media attention and exposing oneself, but decided it was worth the risk to have his voice heard.”
Since the previously closeted Hussein – a hairdresser, married with a young daughter – won the competition, Secker has followed him in his daily life. Hussein’s success, however, has brought much media attention, which has been both positive and negative, leading to some death threats.
Mr Gay Syria - Crowdfunding teaser
The other five men who competed have also faced significant challenges. Three are still in Istanbul, one is in Athena, and a third has been resettled in Norway through UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
“After the murder of two Syrian LGBTs last year (one gay man and one trans woman), Hussein and many in the LGBT diaspora here in Turkey feel much more vulnerable,” explains Secker. “Hussein has a case with the UNHCR and hopes to be resettled overseas as soon as possible.“
Then there are the immeasurable issues that the ongoing Syrian conflict has brought. “People are traumatised, anxious, paranoid, scared, but also hopeful, positive and optimistic,” says Secker. “There is a sense of unity amongst the Syrian gay community that I didn’t see so much in Syria, mostly due to the increased freedom of being in Istanbul, but the sense of loss and despair about the unknown fate for their futures hangs over everyone’s heads.
“As with all the Syrians I’ve met and photographed since the start of this awful conflict, their lives have been turned upside-down. They need time and space to work out what their next move will be, while often also dealing with emotional loss, and struggling to survive financially in a new country.”
If any good has come out of the murders which Secker mentions it is that since 2016 LGBT Syrians have been prioritised by the UNHCR, meaning that asylum cases are being processed much quicker than before, adds Secker. “These murders have made the powers that be realise that the threats are very real.”
Now, with the release of the documentary film charting this ground-breaking contest, these men’s traumatic yet ultimately inspirational stories will reach a much wider audience - and how timely and vital this is. “This is a tale of courage, optimism and strength,” concludes Secker, “but also explaining the difficult realities of these men’s lives.”
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