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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Defiant 24-year-old gay Syrian: "We are more than bodies thrown off buildings by ISIS"

The newly crowned Mr Gay Syria Hussein Sabat
The newly crowned Mr Gay Syria Hussein Sabat
'Mr Gay Syria' contestants wear leather hotpants in show of defiance against Islamic State as winner reveals his boyfriend was beheaded by extremists

Dressed in a skin-tight mankini and Minnie Mouse ears, Wissam struts his stuff on stage as he competes to be crowned Mr Gay Syria 2016.

In a brazen and defiant stand against ISIS, who have killed countless gay men by throwing them off the top of buildings in Syria, he is one of five brave men who battled to become the public face of the war-torn country's LGBT community.

Speaking exclusively to MailOnline from Istanbul, where he has sought sanctuary, the newly crowned Mr Gay Syria Hussein Sabat insisted he hates the terror group more than he is scared of them.

'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.

'Of course we were nervous but we we're excited - we all wanted to be Mr Gay Syria to do something empowering,' he said.

The 24-year-old knows firsthand the pain and terror of Isis - his first boyfriend was beheaded by the terror group and the execution video sent to family and friends.

The hairdresser, whose family do not know he is gay, said: 'I was with Zakaria for four years, but three years ago ISIS beheaded him. They sent the execution video to his family - his mother almost went crazy and I couldn't speak for a month.'

It is partly in his memory that Wissam is determined to show another side to the community of gay Syrian men to whom he belongs.

Each man was given three minutes to show off their performance skills in their bid for 'Mr Gay Syria' crown.

Wissam danced in high heels, and ripped competitor William showed off his good looks with a strip tease, which was greeted with woops of approval from the audience in the central Istanbul venue.

'Most of the music was cheesy Arabic and Turkish pop – the Kylie Minogue's of the Arab world,' said British photographer Bradley Secker, who documented the competition.

Most audience members - who were able to vote for their favourite contestant - were from the Arab LGBT community that have found refuge in the relatively liberal Turkey.

The winner – Hussein Sabat spoke directly to the audience in a moving monologue about the pain gay Arabs experience.

'I played a character speaking to his mother at her grave about the difficulties of being gay.

'I just wore trousers and a t-shirt - the only thing that was missing was the hijab,' he joked, comparing his costume to his near-naked competitors.

When the idea of holding the competition first surfaced, Hussein said he didn't even think about competing.

'I met the organiser Mahmoud Hassino at our LGBT support group - it's called 'Shy wa Hakee' (Tea and Talk) - and he said we should involve other gay men and get to Mr Gay World.

'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.

'But then three weeks later I saw an application form posted on Facebook. I don't know why, but I found myself filling it in,' he said.

The next stage saw the competitors grilled by the organisers to make sure they could handle the pressure, and the risk of becoming a target for homophobic attacks.

'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,' he told MailOnline.

In the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Beyoglu, and in the backstreets off the main pedestrian shopping street of Istiklal, gay and transgender men and women can almost live in peace.

But even there, which has a comparatively liberal attitude, there are still the target of bigoted abuse.

Nine months ago Hussein was beaten so badly he couldn't open his eyes for a month after a group of Syrian and Turkish thugs attacked him when he walked home from work.

'I was talking on the phone with my boyfriend and a Syrian guy overheard me.

'He called me a f****t, and I made the mistake of answering back.

'I asked him, 'do you know me?', and he said 'you're Syrian and you're putting us all to shame.'

Then he hit him in the face and in his gut before dragging him with a Turkish accomplice to a car.

'They were going to kidnap me, it was terrifying,' he said. 'Even the freedom in Istanbul is not complete.'

Luckily a second car distracted the attackers and Hussein was able to make his escape.

And it's attacks like these that remind him that even though he can be more open about his sexuality in Turkey than in Syria, he is still not safe.

Like most gay Syrians, Hussein still lives a double life – wearing a 'mask' in front of family and friends.

'I got used to having a double life but it's very difficult. I wish I could just be myself. It's very difficult to be living your life outside the house and then have to wear a mask at home.

'I just want to be able to be myself and not lose anybody, and I have met more gay people in Istanbul and I have accepted myself.

'The situation in Syria was worse because I had to wear the mask all the time – but in Istanbul I can at least be myself when I'm not at home.

'Before I had to wear the mask all my life - I wanted to wear it and couldn't live without it,' he said.

And despite being crowned Mr Gay Syria, he hides his sexuality from his parents, who he lives with in Istanbul.

'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 explained to MailOnline.

Anybody in my situation would be scared and I'm not prepared to lose my family for any reason.

'But they will find out one day and I hope they find out from a stranger and not from me. I hope I'm far away from here when they find out - it would be much better if I'm in Europe.

'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.'

A gay man is thrown off a building top by ISIS militants in Iraq in Oct. 2015
The consequences for other gay Syrians are much worse, made all too clear in the countless barbaric videos of ISIS 'judges' throwing men accused of homosexuality off the top of buildings.

If they survive the fall - often in front of a baying crowd of men and boys, the condemned man is stoned to death.

Hussein left Syria two years ago when ISIS shells began to fall around his hometown of Afrin in northern Aleppo.

But tragedy had already struck.

He met his first boyfriend through a mutual friend in a café when he was just 17.

Zakaria was a few years older and the pair exchanged stolen looks, tentatively flirting to discover if the other one was also gay.

'I was with Zakaria for four years, but three years ago ISIS beheaded him. They sent the execution video to his family - his mother almost went crazy and I couldn't speak for a month,' he told MailOnline.

'I don't think it was because he was gay – they didn't say why they killed him. We just don't know,' he said.

The persecution of gay men in Syria plays a big part in explaining why Hussein has bravely taken the risk to publicly speak out on behalf of the Arab LGBT community.

'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,' he said.

'Everyone is scared of ISIS but it doesn't stop me from living my life. I won't let them be a barrier and I hate them more than I'm scared.'

For Hussein, and the other participants, the competition was an opportunity to do something positive.
'Everybody was pretty nervous to start with – event the 40-50 people who turned out for it. People were happy to be doing something positive for the community rather than talking about attacks and LGBT problems,' said Bradley.

'But then everyone had a great time.

'It was very funny, although the contestants took it so seriously. They supported each other like brothers,' he told MailOnline.

But the competition has a serious edge, and both the organisers and Hussein are campaigning for more gay Syrian refugees to be granted asylum in Europe.

Hussein's joy at winning the competition was short lived after he was denied a visa to travel to Malta to represent Syria at 'Mr Gay World'.

'My happiness was not complete,' he said. 'It was a wonderful title but then I found out on my birthday that they had denied my visa.'

The winner was due to fly to Malta day after he was given the crushing news and had already had a make over in preparation for the big event, which they had hoped would highlight the plight of gay Syrian refugees.

A reluctant stand in, Mahmoud Hassino was determined that his country would be represented and while he gave it his best he dropped out on the third day - not keen to take part in the swimwear challenge.

'Mahmoud went to represent everybody – but he quit on the third day because he said it wasn't for him - he's a spokesman, and it's not his way of doing activism. All the competitors were very supportive of him and more than willing to let him join in when he wanted,' said Bradley covered the competition in Malta.

All of the Syrian competitors remain in Istanbul, apart from one who smuggled himself to Greece before the March 20th deadline agreed between the EU and Turkey.

For Hussein, he will spend the year fighting for LGBT rights in Syria and beyond.

'We need to be more public about our sexuality so we can demand our rights. I can't give advice because some people just can't leave Syria,' he said sadly.

'I think we would have been an inspiration to them if we had been able to go to the final in Malta, but now... I don't know.'

Source: Mail Online, Isabel Hunter, May 11, 2016

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