A group of gay Syrian refugees living in Istanbul organized a Mr. Gay Syria competition to show the world that gay Syrians are more than just victims of ISIS.
Hussein Sabat, who was crowned Mr. Gay Syria, spoke with The Daily Mail about his journey out of ISIS-controlled territory and what he hopes the competition will achieve:
‘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.
Of ISIS, Sabat adds, “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.”
Sabat has already faced tragedy in his mere 24 years. His boyfriend was beheaded by ISIS three years ago, though he does not know if he was killed for being gay or for some other alleged offense:
“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.”
Sabat says he dedicated his performance to his late boyfriend. More on the competition which took place earlier this year:
Each man was given three minutes to show off their performance skills in their bid for ‘Mr Gay Syria’ crown.
[Another contestant named] Wissam [above] 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.
‘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. […]
‘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.
Sabat is not out to his family. “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 says. Once Sabat leaves home he says he feels comfortable being in his own skin.
But athough Istanbul is a far better place for LGBT people than Syria, it’s far from paradise. Sabat was recently attacked because he is gay:
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.
Sadly, despite raising money to travel to Malta for the Mr. Gay World competition and getting a makeover with help from the Berlin-based organizer of Mr. Gay Syria, Mahmoud Hassino, Sabat’s visa request was denied, preventing him from competing at the Worlds.
Sabat says, “My happiness was not complete. It was a wonderful title but then I found out on my birthday that they had denied my visa.”
Of what could have been, Sabat says, “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.”
Watch a video that Sabat and Hassino made to raise funds for Sabat’s travel to Malta, below.