Mr. Gay Syria Pageant Makes Asylum Its Ultimate Grand Supreme

When two gay Syrian refugees, Hussein and Mahmoud, fled to Turkey in hopes of escaping war and homophobia, they were surprised to find once crossing the border that some things weren’t so different.

While their new country allowed them to live a life free of the violence associated with the war that continues to wage on in their native country, it didn’t, however, allow them to live their lives openly as gay men. So they decided to throw a Mr. Gay Syria pageant that is the focal point of a new, highly anticipated documentary bringing a spotlight to their struggle and now a campaign is launching to make sure their stories are heard.

“We Are Mr. Gay Syria,” created by We Are One + Together, is a new global campaign to urge the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and U.S Citizenship & Immigration Services to take swift action and accelerate granting asylum to men competing in this pageant.

The new campaign comes with a new film by director Zaher Saleh that he hopes will show other LGBTQ Muslims around the world that not only should they come out but there’s a community waiting for them that will embrace them.

INTO spoke with the people behind the film, premiering exclusively here, about the new campaign they hope will help bring the freedom that these men have always dreamed of and are still fighting for every day.

INTO: What was the inspiration behind doing this film? It’s such a complicated and loaded topic, and I am assuming not easy to make. What was the motivation to take on such a task?

Derek Anderson, founder We Are One + Together: We Are One + Together invited director Zaher Saleh to make a film that portrayed the challenges that many LGBTQ Muslims are facing. We Are One + Together believes that everyone is valuable and worthy and deserves to be honored and included. It was important to us that as we celebrate Pride Month to also celebrate Muslims that are part of our LGBTQ community.

The release of the film also coincides with We Are One + Together’s “We Are Mr. Gay Syria” campaign to gain asylum for five gay Syrian refugees whose lives are in danger because of their sexuality. In addition, We Are One + Together has committed to creating the We Are One Together Baytee Muslim, Arab, and Middle Eastern LGBTQ Center.

INTO: What is the importance of the beauty pageant in completing this film?

Anderson: There is no beauty pageant in [our] film. We Are One + Together has created a digital beauty pageant, “We Are Mr. Gay Syria,” to gain awareness through social media and to drive signatures on the petition for asylum for the Syrian refugees who were Mr. Gay Syria contestants whose lives are now in danger because of their sexuality.

INTO: What was the inspiration behind doing this film? It’s such a complicated and loaded topic, and I am assuming not easy to make. What was the motivation to take on such a task?

Zaher Saleh, Director: In Islam, to be gay is a sin. And in Middle Eastern culture in general, it is not acceptable to be gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. In fact, it’s only okay to be heterosexual. Of course, the truth is there are many queer Muslims and Middle Eastern people. I wanted to make this film to show that we exist. We always have. But it’s now time for us to come out of the shadows.

I felt like it was important for someone who is Middle Eastern, and who was raised Muslim, to make this statement publicly. I want LGBTQ Muslim kids to know that they are okay. That they are not alone. The more young gay LGBTQ Muslims see themselves reflected in the media, the more they know they are not alone and the easier it will be for them to accept themselves. I want everyone to be free to be who they really are. In fact, to celebrate it!

INTO: The current trailers and other videos you have released do not show many people’s faces. Does the film also help mask identities of certain subjects? And if so, why is that so important for a film like this?

Saleh: The main characters faces will be clearly seen in the film. The secondary characters are shown in a more abstract way because they represent an abstract representation of Khalid’s past experiences.

INTO: What other hurdles were faced while creating this film?

Saleh: The biggest hurdles in making the film were mostly internal. As much as I am committed to telling this story, it brought up fears for me. The biggest being concern was over what my family will think.

INTO: What do you hope will come from the release of the film?

Saleh: I hope that the film in some small way helps LGBTQ Muslims to be okay to come out, to be okay with who they really are.

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