With the very real threat of harassment, violence and even execution, life for LGBT people in Syria is a day-to-day struggle.
But one gay Syrian refused to be silenced: Hussein Sabat, who was crowned Mr Gay Syria in Istanbul earlier this year, says he wants to show extremists that he is angry, not afraid.
“I want to show that Syrian gays are not just bodies thrown off buildings by ISIS; we have dreams and ideas and we want to live our lives,” the courageous 24-year-old told the Daily Mail. “Of course we were nervous but we we’re excited—we all wanted to be Mr Gay Syria to do something empowering.”
Sabat, a hairdresser, is hardly naive about the danger faced by gays in the war-torn country—his first boyfriend was murdered by ISIS.
“I was with Zakaria for four years, but three years ago ISIS beheaded him,” he revealed. “They sent the execution video to his family—his mother almost went crazy and I couldn’t speak for a month.”
Sabat was hesitant to enter the competition at first—afraid it was nothing more than a beauty pageant.
“I thought it was going to be all about the looks and not just about the whole package so I didn’t want to do it,” he explains. “I said if this competition is about beauty then let me go because there are so many men more beautiful than me. But they said no, we need someone who can talk.”
Other contestants wore skimpy or campy outfits, but Sabat came out in a simple shirt and slacks and performed a scene of a man speaking to his mother at her grave about the difficulties of being gay.
Sadly, he couldn’t represent his homeland in the Mr Gay World competition last month in Malta because he was denied a visa. He still lives with his parents in Istanbul, though they don’t know he’s gay. He admits he hopes he’s “far away in Europe” when they do.
“They don’t speak English and my family is disconnected from Western websites or media, so I’m not scared they will find out this way,” he explains. “If they find out I will have to lie to them, they will deny it and take me to a doctor or a sheikh to ’treat’ me, but if I insist that I am gay, they will kick me out of the house.”
Living in Turkey offers more freedom, but it’s no utopia: Last year, Sabat was attacked in the street and was beaten so badly he couldn’t open his eye for a month.
“I was talking on the phone with my boyfriend and a Syrian guy overheard me. He called me a f*ggot, and I made the mistake of answering back,” he recalls. “I asked him, ’Do you know me?’, and he said ’you’re Syrian and you’re putting us all to shame.”
The man punched Sabat in the face and stomach, and then dragged him off to his car, where an accomplice was waiting. “They were going to kidnap me, it was terrifying.”
Fortunately the men were distracted and Sabat made his escape.
Below, Sabat and the organizer of Mr. Gay Syria discuss their plight and the need for more LGBT Syrian refugees to receive asylum in Europe.
For more about International LGBT issues, visit Logo’s Global Ally site.