Survival within Survival in Ayşe Toprak’s Mr Gay Syria (2017)

This is part of our special feature, United in Diversity.

Samer: “You’re trying to turn drama into entertainment.”

Mahmoud Hassino: “It’s not entertainment. It’s to change perception. The only image of gay Syrians is given by ISIS. How can we shift the focus to people here? Gay Syrians are [being] killed in ISIS videos.”

Samer: “Even if you find money for Mr. Gay World, there are gays who are beggars, sleeping under bridges.”

Hassino: “But I’m doing this for them.”

Samer: “But I want to send a picture of what goes on to the world.”

Hassino: “And how will you do that? Against all odds, here is a Syrian, who participates in Mr. Gay World. People get the idea that there is a community that chooses someone to represent it.”

Samer: “And then what?”

Hassino: “Do you think that my job ends after Mr. Gay World?”[1]

Courage in Collaboration

Sitting outside a tea house in Istanbul on a cold evening in early 2016, the Berlin-based Syrian journalist and gay rights campaigner Mahmoud Hassino discusses his intentions of sending the first Syrian gay man to Mr. Gay World, an annual international beauty pageant competition for gay men. His friend and collaborator Samer is afraid that this approach may come across like an ineffective, short-term publicity stunt. Mr. Gay Syria does not represent every gay refugee man in Istanbul or otherwise, and so how will one individual successfully draw attention to the plight of a group? How will Mr. Gay Syria communicate the intricate consequences of an evolving large-scale political conflict beyond the actual competition? Hassino approaches the issue from the means that are available, bringing up the crucial question of “How else?” It may not be ideal, but potentially and “against all odds” of persecution and violence, here we have Mr. Gay Syria, someone who may attract the interest of the media so as to shed light on the fact that LGBTQ rights are as ever present within a humanitarian crisis as they are without a global conflict.

The conversation above continues as Hassino and Samer discuss the logistics of Hassino’s undertaking while also practicing tasseography, the pastime, and as some would argue, the art of Turkish coffee fortune telling. Their jokes, laughter, and genuine enjoyment of the occasion is captured behind the camera by Ayşe Toprak, a Turkish filmmaker and journalist living in Istanbul. What would come to be Toprak’s award-winning and first feature length documentary, Mr. Gay Syria (2017) reflects the sociopolitical consequences and the cultural nuances of a dis/United Europe in both the making of the film and in its narrative content.

The conceptualization for the documentary began years earlier in 2011, when Toprak decided to offer perspectives on “the human faces of [the] tragedy” that was the beginning of the war in Syria. Schools on the Edge (2013), the first documentary she directed in this vein while working for Al Jazeera, uncovers the schooling problems of refugee children at the Turkish-Syrian border. It was during this project that Toprak and Hassino collaborated for the first time as Hassino helped translate for Toprak, who does not speak Arabic.[2]

While still living in his native Syria, Mahmoud Hassino began his activism by blogging in English through his website In addition to writing about gay-friendly bars, cafés, hangouts, and hotels catering to gay tourists, Hassino contributed more serious perspectives about the challenges of living in a conservative Muslim society and was one of the few individuals who came out publicly. Once the conflict in Syria began, Hassino fled Syria to Turkey, where he remained until he received refugee status in Germany. Now a Berlin-based journalist, gay rights campaigner, and the founder of Syria’s first queer magazine Mawaleh, Hassino works at Schwulenberatung Berlin, which since 2016 has offered for gay refugees shelter and legal advice, group talk sessions, and counseling, among many other services.[3]

The making of the documentary Mr. Gay Syria proved to be a complex undertaking. Toprak applied for funding from Turkish sources knowing that she would not get support: “I applied so that I could say I applied.”[4] Nevertheless, support for the project came during the Istanbul Film Festival, first from the French independent production company Les Films d’Antoine and subsequently from the German equivalent Coin Film. Filming Mr. Gay Syria occurred throughout 2016, mostly in Istanbul with interludes in Berlin (at Hassino’s workplace), in Norway (where one of the social actors received asylum after living in Istanbul), and in Malta (the location of the 2016 competition Mr. Gay World). During the making of the film, both the participants’ identities and the intent of the film were kept under wraps. Although Turkey, like a number of MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Slavic, and Balkan countries, does not outlaw homosexuality, it also does not provide legal protection for its LGTBQ community. As a result, the crowdfunding teaser for Mr. Gay Syria included censor bars placed over the social actors’ faces.[5] If the police asked Toprak what they were filming during a street scene, she indicated that it was a cooking show.[6] At one point in the documentary, Hassino gets interviewed by a blogger in Istanbul about the upcoming Mr. Gay Syria competition, and he states that they have not publicized it at all because “ISIS is everywhere” and “because [he] do[es] not want innocent people to die because of a competition.”[7] Another scene in the documentary depicts an attempt at the Gay Pride Parade that quickly turns into a police riot in which tear gas disperses the participants.

Out of Syria’s 23 million permanent inhabitants before the start of the conflict in 2011, an estimated 4 million became refugees, and an estimated 7.6 million were internally displaced between 2011 and 2015. Lebanon hosted more than one million Syrian refugees. Turkey registered one and a half million refugees. Jordan took in approximately five hundred thousand registered refugees.[8] Germany and Sweden received the largest number of asylum applications by Syrian nationals because the two countries are generally considered safe countries for asylum seekers, “giving opportunities for jobs and long-term settlement.”[9] However, at the end of 2014, Germany rejected 58 percent of applicants, France 78 percent, Sweden 23 percent, Italy 42 percent, the UK 61 percent, and Belgium 60 percent.[10] A year later at the end of 2015, Germany and Sweden reintroduced border checks, mainly due to the disagreement among governments and public opinion.

There are several elements that warrant attention here. The organizer of the event Mr. Gay Syria and the initial inspiration for Toprak’s documentary is Hassino, a Syrian refugee whose stay and survival in Germany allowed him to return to Turkey to assist Toprak. Furthermore, the main funding sources that helped Toprak realize Mr. Gay Syria as a professional and distributable production are West European. However, as we see from the aforementioned statistics, both France and Germany (homes to Les Films d’Antoine and Coin Film, respectively) are also part of an entire list of countries whose reactive measurements in strengthening borders play into a xenophobic approach in which the main concern is to “avoid the growth of xenophobic parties and events” by decreasing the presence of refugees.[11] Pointedly stated, while France and Germany’s official political parameters seek to limit an influx of asylum seekers stemming from a conflict that is responsible for producing the largest flow of refugees since World War II, the countries’ cultural organizations (in this case, in the form of production companies) financially support a project (in the form of Toprak’s Mr. Gay Syria) which affords a select few of these very same asylum seekers a type of official recognition on the film screen.

Nuancing the Human(e)

Toprak initially planned for Hassino to be the main character in the documentary and to focus on his efforts of organizing the Mr. Gay Syria competition in Istanbul. Shortly after filming began, however, Toprak met Hussein Sabat, a (then) twenty-three-year-old barber living a double life as a gay man who is married with a daughter. Realizing that Sabat was going through his own transition and that he was the most outspoken about it, Toprak took the chance of focusing the documentary on him: “I secretly hoped that Hussein would win the competition so that we would continue in that vein.”[12] Sabat won the Mr. Gay Syria contest by performing a monologue he wrote and dedicated to his mother. This, in turn, allowed Toprak not only to continue relating Sabat’s story, but to bring in the stories of the young gay refugees featured in the film in such a way so as to show a glimpse of the active interweaving of historical conflicts, cultural expectations, homophobia, personal struggles, and most of all, survival within survival.

One of the opening scenes in the documentary Mr. Gay Syria shows Hussein Sabat making his way to Zelal Kuaför, the barbershop in which he works as a stylist. Through a voiceover we hear him describe how he comes from a small town in the countryside of Syria. As we see him boarding a train and walking the rest of the way while listening to music, Sabat tells the viewer that his conservative family left him no other options but to “become straight” and marry. “In the past, I saw my life as a sickness. When I looked in the mirror, I hated myself. Why am I like this? I wanted to be a good person, and that meant being straight.” We see Sabat finish cutting a customer’s hair and sweep the salon floor before in the subsequent shot he walks into Mono Café. “The ‘Tea and Talk Group’ helped me change,” Sabat continues in the voiceover. “Listening to others helped me to accept myself. It’s the only Syrian gay support group.” In the subsequent shot we see a group of young Syrian men sitting around tables, smoking and drinking. Mahmoud Hassino introduces himself to the group and discusses his plans to hold the Mr. Gay Syria competition in Istanbul: “I’ve already started preparing the trip to Malta. The idea is that Mr. Gay Syria will represent Syrian LGBT’s…and Syrian refugees. Mr. Gay Syria is a refugee. He escaped after many problems in his country. He’s the only refugee in Mr. Gay World.”[13]

These excerpts engage with an elaborate set of popular assumptions and sociopolitical circumstances regarding migrants. In particular, they challenge a commonly constructed image of the refugee. News coverage of a so-called “refugee crisis” in both the United States and in Europe gives the impression that “asylum seekers,” “refugees,” and/or “illegals” are not just the main source of migration in the current world – they are also dangerous. This is highly misleading. Even taking into consideration the waves of migrants following an international conflict, for the past fifty years global migration rates have remained relatively stable while the political salience of the topic significantly increased.[14] Factual, decisive nuances such as these are lost as images of boats overloaded with people, dead bodies washed up on Mediterranean shores, and/or individuals stranded in refugee camps, to name a few, flash across the screen, consequently driving this type of a crisis narrative.[15] The image of the refugee is therefore a repetitive visual reflecting an isolated instance: the individual is either dead or helpless. Filtered through an image of weakness, crisis narratives as they pertain to the image of the refugee do not account for the complexities of this type of human occurrence. Instead, cultural products in the form of gallery installations, theatrical productions, art happenings, and documentaries such as Ayşe Toprak’s Mr. Gay Syria attend to the nuances of the refugee experience. Sabat, Hassino, and the rest of the social actors, including Issam, Wissam, Nader, and Omar, to name a few, actively negotiate their existence in the film. In addition to creating the “Tea and Talk Group,” the participants work, support one another in personal matters, and utilize the Mr. Gay Syria competition as a way to “take off [the] masks” they have been wearing “since birth.”

Another complex set of circumstances depicted in the film involves the consequences of bilateral European Union policies pertaining to both migration and to human rights conventions. The scenes suggest that while countries in the European Union align in the production of crisis narratives, they do not employ compatible, streamlined policies regarding asylum. In one instance in the documentary we see Omar, a Mr. Gay Syria contestant, watch a movie with his partner Nader. The two are eating popcorn and smoking hookah while laughing at a scene projected on a laptop in front of them. While it is unclear what they are watching, their quoting and commentary in the form of “Are you single?,” “Are you gay?,” and “Ugh, always the same questions.” suggest that what they are watching engages with issues pertaining to relationships and sexual orientations. At one moment Omar grabs Nader’s face, kisses his cheek, and smiles with tears in his eyes: “This might happen to me when you leave.” Nader begins to cry while Omar tries to smile. In a later scene we witness Nader skyping with Omar from his new home in Norway.

Following the Mr. Gay Syria contest, it is time for Sabat to apply for the Schengen visa so that he may travel from Istanbul to Malta for the Mr. Gay World competition. We see him filling out the paperwork in one scene only to find out in a subsequent shot that he his application has been denied. Hassino travels to Malta in Sabat’s stead and wears the sash bearing the inscription “Mr. Gay Syria.” In a subsequent scene we see Ayman Menem (one of Mr. Gay Syria contestant judges) walk down a street with Sabat. When Menem comments on how “good” the neighborhood looks, Sabat exclaims: “What are you talking about? I got beaten here. I almost got killed.” Both continue to strategize on how Sabat will call Menem the moment he gets to his father’s house because he has threatened to poison him if Sabat “do[es] go back to the way [he was].” Shortly thereafter, Sabat, Menem, and Hassino are talking at Samer’s apartment. During the conversation, Hassino explains how difficult it has been for him to become an effective gay rights campaigner: “First, I tried a resettlement campaign. Forbidden! They hate refugees in Europe.” He then describes how even the New York City-based organization “All Out” (that focuses on political advocacy for rights of LGBTQ people) did not think it enough of “an emergency” to help when a “gay Syrian was killed in Turkey.”

In addition to reactive, inconsistent, and unsustainable migration policies,[16] violations of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) continue to occur. Part of the bilateral agreement meant to protect basic human rights and political freedoms in Europe, Article 3 specifically prohibits torture and maltreatment, underlining the notion that freedom from torture is “recognized as a fundamental human right in international law.”[17] However, as we may see from both the previously described scenes in Mr. Gay Syria and from concurrent studies,[18] enforcing Article 3 in its direct legal phrasing is not as common as it may be expected. At the same time, it is also crucial to remember that while Hussein, Omar, Nader, and the rest of the social actors in Mr. Gay Syria sought to obtain asylum in West European countries, this does not mean that crimes against both refugees and LGBTQ individuals do not exist within the European Union – or that countries like France, Germany, and Norway are to be portrayed as the ultimate saving destinations for an individual who has lost an entire life, both geographically and abstractly.[19] Toprak remarks that although all of the original participants are no longer in Istanbul (residing in Norway, France, and Canada, among other countries), they still experience “persistent worries” and encounter daily hardships as part of their new negotiations of belonging.[20]

Survival within Survival

Among the most vulnerable of the Syrian refugee population are individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. The large majority of LGBTQ refugees first experience violence and abuse by family and community members, state actors, and militia groups. The second traumatic event comes in the form of fleeing their home country while the third set of traumatic occurrences is a combination of hardships common to most refugees (such as finding employment and language barriers, for example) and possible continued discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in first-asylum states such as Turkey and in second-asylum states as part of the European Union. The persecuting tendencies of sovereign governments and private citizens against LGBTQ individuals therefore incentivize them to seek asylum, and in some cases, to do so continuously.[21]

Ayşe Toprak’s Mr. Gay Syria captures this vital, yet significantly overlooked refugee experience that became an exception within the exception – a story of gay Syrian refugees who must simultaneously survive twice through both war and homophobia. The French, German, and Turkish co-production successfully constructs a transatlantic, celluloid space that depicts a doubly marginalized group as multi-faceted human beings who are active and influential members of the societies in which they reside or through which they pass. Although it was in Istanbul that Hussein Sabat and others experienced adversity through physical abuse, it was also in the space of that same city, in the small theater Asmali Sahne in the Beyoğlu district, that they participated in the first Mr. Gay Syria competition, and told their stories to a Turkish documentary filmmaker. Highlighting both the unpredictability of modern rapid migration and the unfinished, unforgiving nature of this inherent part of human behavior, Mr. Gay Syria ultimately positions the consequences of a politically dis/United Europe alongside individuals who successfully reach across official constellations, “against all odds.”

Ljudmila Bilkić is a Visiting Assistant Professor of German Studies at Kansas State University. Ljudmila works at the intersections of refugee studies, critical geographies, post-imperial biopolitics, and visual cultures. She is completing a manuscript that historicizes constructed notions of cross-border movement, specifically hyper-visuality, refugee camps, and networks of migrant communities as the new logic in contemporary globalization.


Alessi, Edward J, Sarilee Kahn, Leah Woolner, and Rebecca Van Der Horn. “Traumatic Stress Among Sexual and Gender Minority Refugees From the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia Who Fled to the European Union.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 31, no. 6 (2018): 805-815.

Arai-Yokoi, Yutaka. “Grading Scale of Degradation: Identifying the Threshold of Degrading Treatment or Punishment under Article 3 ECHR.” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 21, no. 3 (2003): 385-421.

Ayşe Toprak (director, Mr. Gay Syria), in discussion with the author, February 2019.

Azose, Jonathan J., and Adrian E. Raftery. “Estimation of Emigration, Return Migration, and Transit Migration between All Pairs of Countries.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 116, no. 1 (2019): 116-122.

Benček, David, and Julia Strasheim. “Refugees Welcome? A Dataset on Anti-Refugee Violence in Germany.” Research & Politics, no. 4 (2016): 1-11.

Castles, Stephen, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration. International Population Movements in the Modern World. 5th ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2014.

King, Loren. “Ayşe Toprak on her Groundbreaking Documentary Mr. Gay Syria.” The Credits. Profiles Below the Line, March 26, 2018.

Koroutchev, Rossen. “The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe.” Journal of Liberty and International Affairs 1, no. 3 (2016): 26-37.

Mr. Gay Syria Crowdfunding Teaser. YouTube, January 30, 2017.

Toprak, Ayşe. “Making Mr. Gay Syria in Istanbul.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): 242-245.

Toprak, Ayşe, dir. Mr. Gay Syria. 2016; Paris, France: Les Films d’Antoine, Cologne, Germany: Coin Film, Istanbul, Turkey: Toprak Film, 2017.

Witschel, Michael. “Human Rights in Times of Crisis: Article 3 Prevails – Examining how LGBTQ Asylum Seekers in the European Union are Denied Equal Protection of Law.” American University International Law Review 32, no. 5 (2017): 1047-078.

[1]Mr. Gay Syria, written and directed by Ayşe Toprak (Paris, France: Les Films d’Antoine; Cologne, Germany: Coin Film; Istanbul, Turkey: Toprak Film, 2017), protected Vimeo link provided by World Sales Taskovski Films Ltd.

[2] Ayşe Toprak, “Making Mr. Gay Syria in Istanbul,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): 242,

[3] Toprak, “Making Mr. Gay Syria,” 242-43.

[4] Ayşe Toprak in discussion with the author, February 2019.

[5] Mr. Gay Syria Crowdfunding Teaser, (YouTube, January 30, 2017),

[6] Loren King, “Ayşe Toprak on her Groundbreaking Documentary Mr. Gay Syria,” The Credits. Profiles Below the Line, March 26, 2018,

[7] Mr. Gay Syria, written and directed by Ayşe Toprak.

[8] Rossen Koroutchev, “The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe,” Journal of Liberty and International Affairs 1, no. 3 (2016): 27,

[9] Koroutchev,”The Syrian Refugee Crisis,” 31.

[10] Koroutchev,”The Syrian Refugee Crisis,” 32.

[11] See also Koroutchev,”The Syrian Refugee Crisis,” 33 for an example of a reactive measurement in strengthening borders and playing into a xenophobic approach: “reduc[ing] the flow of refugee arrivals [to] provide better reception conditions and better integrate them, thus avoiding the growth of xenophobic parties and events due to the increasing presence of refugees.” Improving living conditions (and envisioning mechanisms for long-term integration) of Syrian refugees in first-asylum states such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey seem to be an after-thought as “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria.”

[12] Ayşe Toprak in discussion with the author, February 2019.

[13] Mr. Gay Syria, written and directed by Ayşe Toprak

[14] See also Stephen Castles, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller, The Age of Migration. International Population Movements in the Modern World, (5th ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2014), 1-24 for a detailed discussion.

[15] See also Jonathan Azose and Adrian E. Raftery, “Estimation of Emigration, Return Migration, and Transit Migration between All Pairs of Countries,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 116, no. 1 (2019): 116-122, for the most current percentage estimates showing that global migration rates, including those for rapid migration, have remained stable globally. Since 1990, for example, the total number of individuals migrating internationally has oscillated solely between 1.13 and 1.29% of the global population. There are fluctuations in refugee numbers depending on the conflict in question, but these changes are within the aforementioned percentages. Out of the total world population (approximately 7.7 billion people), 3% (231 million) are international migrants (defined as an international move followed by a stay of at least one year). Out of 7.7 billion people, less than 0.3% (23.1 million including Palestinian refugees) are refugees. Out of < 0.3% of refugees worldwide, 86% remains in “developing” countries – the large majority of Syrian refugees, for example, stays in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

[16] Koroutchev,”The Syrian Refugee Crisis,” 33.

[17] See also Yutaka Arai-Yokoi, “Grading Scale of Degradation: Identifying the Threshold of Degrading Treatment or Punishment under Article 3 ECHR,” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 21, no. 3 (2003): 385-86 for parameters of protections under Article 3.

[18] See also Michael Witschel, “Human Rights in Times of Crisis: Article 3 Prevails – Examining how LGBTQ Asylum Seekers in the European Union are Denied Equal Protection of Law,” American University International Law Review 32, no. 5 (2017): 1062. for an instance in which Article 3 failed to provide adequate protection: “In M.K.N. v. Sweden, for example, an Iraqi asylum applicant contended that he was unable to return to Iraq because he would be at risk of persecution for being homosexual.  The applicant explained further that his partner had already been executed by the Mujahedin.  The Court held that deporting the applicant would not violate Article 3 because the security situation in Iraq was “slowly improving.” The Court reasoned further that even if subject to persecution in his home city of Mosul, the plaintiff could reasonably relocate to other regions of Iraq wherein he would face no such persecution.”

[19] See also David Benček and Julia Strasheim, “Refugees Welcome? A Dataset on Anti-Refugee Violence in Germany,” Research & Politics, no. 4 (2016): 1-11. for a descriptive analysis of patterns of right-wing violence and unrest against refugees in Germany in 2014 and 2015.

[20] Ayşe Toprak in discussion with the author, February 2019.

[21] See also Edward Alessi, Sarilee Kahn, Leah Woolner, and Rebecca Van Der Horn, “Traumatic Stress Among Sexual and Gender Minority Refugees From the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia Who Fled to the European Union,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 31, no. 6 (2018): 805-6. in which a 2018 study that investigated how traumatic stress shaped the migration experiences of LGBTQ refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) shows that 89.2% of participants reported their most distressing event as having occurred prior to departure while 64.9% met criteria for a provisional diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Photo: Watercolor rainbow. Watercolor LGBT flag. Tolerance day card Pride template. Vector illustration | Shutterstock
Published on April 2, 2019.


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