Mahmoud Hassino, a Syrian journalist and gay blogger who works at a refugee shelter in Berlin, answers the question.
Can you tell us a bit about your work?
I started blogging in 2006, in an effort to help Iraqi lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) refugees. I had to stop eventually, after being interrogated by the Syrian regime. After demonstrations broke out in Syria in 2011, I started blogging again, using a pseudonym. Later that year, I left Syria for Turkey. In 2012, I made several trips to northern Syria, where I noticed that foreign jihadists had started gathering. That's when I set up my Arabic online gay magazine, Mawaleh.
In late 2014, I received an invitation to come to Berlin, where I took the chance to apply for asylum. In 2015, the German gay rights organisation Schwulenberatung Berlin started a Queer Refugees Project, and I got a job in their day centre. We receive LGBT refugees there, and help them with their asylum procedures.
Is there anything about being gay in the Middle East that would surprise people?
This is a big topic: I can speak about Syria. I have been out since 2003, although I never adopted the mainstream Western idea of a 'gay lifestyle'. Living as an openly gay person in a country where homosexuality is criminalised was hard. Nonetheless, people were more open-minded than I imagined. Most Syrians knew about homosexuality, but they tended to avoid speaking about it openly. I was fortunate to have the support of my mother and close friends. It was always amazing to have that love around me.
Sadly, the situation has drastically changed since the violence escalated in late 2012. It's become impossible for LGBT Syrians to cope with the homophobic attacks, violations, and murders perpetrated by all sides of the conflict.
What was it like to grow up gay in the Middle East?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia, so you can imagine how hard it was. I realised I didn't believe in God before I even started exploring my sexuality. Both would have got me killed in Saudi Arabia. I actually witnessed the public beheadings of two gay men when I was 15. When I moved to Syria to start university, I had the chance to explore everything more freely. In the 1990s, Aleppo was a great city, where I met many gay men.
How have things changed for gay people in Syria since the conflict?
The situation for LGBT people in Syria is very complicated, but I will try my best to give an idea. Before the conflict, the Syrian regime authorised many raids on gay cruising areas. In 2011, it started a homophobic campaign through semi-official TV channels owned by Assad’s relatives and loyalists. Since 2011, gay men have been verbally and physically abused at regime checkpoints. Many think that these LGBT human rights violations are not as dangerous as other attacks committed by radical Islamic groups. But I find them even more insidious, as they are state-sponsored and systematic.
In late 2012, eyewitnesses spoke about similar attacks in opposition-held areas. Although they weren’t as systematic as the regime’s abuses, radical Islamic groups like Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham had also started targeting homosexuals. When the so-called Islamic State arrived in Syria, they started a gay killing spree in northern Syria. Of course, homosexuals are just one of many minority groups attacked by ISIS. Civil society activists are also targeted. Many of my heterosexual friends have been killed by ISIS, just because they wanted a secular Syria. They were really helpful and supportive when I started working on my online magazine, Mawaleh.
Has social media affected the experience of being gay in the Middle East?
It has. Our Mawaleh Facebook page is more active than our website, as people find it easier to like and follow something on Facebook. They also find it easier to communicate through Facebook messages. Most gay men in the Middle East prefer to use mobile apps, as they provide a more private means of communication.
What is it like to be a gay refugee?
Most LGBT refugees escaped their countries because of the risks they had to deal with there. They cannot be placed in refugees’ shelters with the same people they are running away from. Even if other refugees turn out not to be homophobes, LGBT asylum seekers often arrive deeply traumatised by their experiences. They can't deal with this additional fear.
When staying in a shelter myself, I witnessed groups of homophobes and transphobes banding together to support each other’s attacks on gay and transsexual refugees. I've heard similar experiences from the LGBT refugees who come to ask for our help at the day centre where I work in Berlin.
Have any stories particularly touched you?
One Iraqi asylum seeker asked me to help him find his boyfriend who was out of touch for months. Unfortunately, they lived in an area that was now controlled by ISIS, so there was no way to find his boyfriend. Another client from Kurdistan in northern Iraq had been stabbed by his brother. His mother helped him to flee with his boyfriend to Turkey, then to Europe. They wanted originally to go to Sweden, as they have friends there. But they were separated during their escape, and ended up stranded in two different countries. We don't know if there is any chance for them to be reunited again.
Do you remember the first time you saw LGBT characters on screen?
The first time was a very long time ago. I was about 14 or 15. It was an Egyptian comedy where the protagonist had to do some sex-work to raise money. The film depicted an encounter with a gay client. I remember I was just happy that the issue was discussed, even though it was a comedy. I wasn't offended by it. A few years later, I saw another more serious Egyptian film depicting the relationship of a gay man who was forced to marry a woman, and how those things affected them. These films were produced in the late '70s and early '80s. I can't remember when I first saw a Western gay character on screen, but I followed the US version of the Queer as Folk television series, which I thought was pretty good.
Do we need to see gay characters on screen?
Yes, I think it is important. I don't think that most homophobes are driven by hate. I think most are driven by fear and lack of contact with gay people. Film and television can treat these misconceptions by making viewers familiar with the lives of gay people. However, in the Middle East and North Africa, I think it is more important to see real-life documentaries about LGBT people, as I do not agree with how the region is often presented in fictional films.
One of the major issues that creative LGBT people have to deal with is the lack of proper funding to get film projects off the ground. We faced this problem with the documentary about our Mr Gay Syria competition, as some funders had stereotypical views about what it means to be gay and from the Middle East. There should be more resources to tackle such stereotypes, whether they come from within our own countries or from the West.
What would you say to young LGBT people in the Middle East who might read this?
Don't give up hope. It might be true that most people in your country don't know what it means to be gay. But being scared of them might prevent you from getting to know them better.
I work with LGBT refugees from all over the world, but when I talk to LGBT Syrians, sometimes I feel like they’re talking about a different Syria. Unlike me, many of them believe that all Syrians are homophobes. I was never afraid of other Syrians, and that's allowed me to meet amazing people who have loved and supported me. Look for those kind people in your country, make friends with them, and together you can make a change. Having said that, you don't have to copy other LGBT people’s experiences. Do what's best for you.
Mahmoud has been included in the fiveFilms4freedom 2016 Global List - 33 inspiring people promoting freedom, equality and LGBT rights.