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Interview | Omar Sharif Jr. on being a role model for the Arab LGBT community

By Will Stroude

This interview was first published in Attitude issue 276, November 2016.

When he learns of his Attitude Inspiration Award, Omar Sharif Jnr’s reaction is characteristically humble: “My story is not unique, it’s just better-known,” he says. But as the first high-profile personality to come out as gay in the Arab world, not to mention being the grandson of legendary Egyptian actors Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama, that is something of an understatement.

It’s certainly a story that qualifies him to be an inspiring figure. In 2012, the actor, media personality and campaigner used his public profile to come out as both gay and half Jewish, through a poignant letter in Advocate magazine. On its own, coming out in his native Egypt takes an immense amount of courage. Homosexuality isn’t specifically outlawed, but there are morality laws in place, carrying a sentence of up to up to 17 years in prison and, in recent years, the LGBT+ community has been the target of a fierce state-sponsored crackdown. Fearing persecution if he stayed, “Egypt’s favourite son” (as he was often called) was forced to leave Cairo and seek sanctuary in America.

It would have been easy to retreat into the safe, relative obscurity his new home offered, but instead he recognised his platform and used it. He’s spent time as the national spokesperson for LGBT+ media watchdog GLAAD, he’s championed the rights of Iraqi refugees at the UN and, last year, he made more history by becoming the first openly gay man to discuss his sexuality on an Arabic news programme. Not only was it his first appearance on Arabic TV, it was probably the first time many of those watching would have heard directly from a gay man.

And yet, despite all of this, Sharif still doesn’t consider himself an activist.

“To some degree I think everyone who has a story and chooses to share it is an activist, and in that sense maybe I am one,” he says. “I’m sharing my story when asked but there are so many people on the ground doing the hard, day-to-day work that true activists do, that I don’t think I merit that distinction.”

Activist or not, he’s undeniably inspiring many across the Middle East. His coming out launched him into the spotlight as one of the few Arab LGBT+ role models in the mainstream media; something distinctly absent when he was growing up. Through social media, Sharif has received thousands of messages from LGBT+ youth in the region (and beyond), messages of gratitude, admiration, respect and, more often than not, struggle.

While he’s enamoured with the appreciation, responding to people’s struggles – particularly those in regions which criminalise homosexuality – is something he approaches with trepidation, worried about the repercussions of poorly advising someone in an especially precarious situation.

“I get them daily across all social media, just pleads for help,” says Sharif, who will be 33 in November. “I’m always nervous to respond because I’m not a mental health professional. So I’m very humbled to receive this award, but I think I would dedicate it to all those who have similar stories because mine certainly isn’t unique.”

Sharif’s story may not be unique in principle. but in terms of impact his narrative bears huge significance. Although he was born in Canada, he grew up in Cairo – isolated, closeted, struggling to accept his sexuality – and lacking a gay role model he could identify with, either in his personal life or in the media. He had no voice and no place in his country.

“In Egypt the LGBT+ community isn’t visible,” he says. “I didn’t have friends or family members, I didn’t have anyone to look to in the media. I didn’t see a reflection of myself on TV.”

In the end, he looked closer to home to draw inspiration. “In terms of inspiration it was certainly my grandmother and my grandfather,” says Sharif. “My grandmother, she was an actress from the age of eight, sort of like the Elizabeth Taylor of Egypt. Back in Egypt where women didn’t have rights – they didn’t have the right to divorce, they didn’t have the right to choose who to marry – she chose to take on roles specifically around that issue and I think she moved the needle significantly.”

His grandfather and namesake, lauded for his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, is widely acclaimed for doing the same for religious tolerance. Sharif Jnr may have lacked a gay role model growing up, but in his grandparents he found kindred spirits willing to take risks for the sake of social change, no matter how small. It’s a trait he’s inherited in abundance.

“They taught me that the status quo is meant to be challenged and I think that’s been my inspiration,” he says. And when he did challenge the established way of things, his family supported him – although they were a little uneasy about his methods.

“I don’t think they liked the way I came out,” says Sharif. “I think they would have rather I had approached them and talked to them, rather than blasting it across the media sort of in the way that I did. It was a very dangerous time in the country. It was a time of significant change, political and cultural. So they might have felt I painted an unnecessary target on my back, but ultimately they were very supportive and they loved me unconditionally.”

Privilege is a term Sharif has often used to describe himself; it’s an odd word to use about someone who has had to uproot and leave his country and family behind. But the unconditional support he received from his family – not to mention the fact he was granted asylum in the US and has been able to build a successful career since – is something not everyone in similar situations benefits from.

“I’m very fortunate; I have a family that loves me unconditionally, I was able to leave I was able to land on my feet, after coming out.”

It’s a word he uses to describe his heritage, too. “I’ve been privileged to have a very diverse background,” he says. “My grandparents were Arab and Muslim actors, my grandparents on the other side were Jewish and survivors of the Holocaust. I think it’s the confluence of backgrounds that made me who I am and contributed to my world view. It’s certainly comes together and manifests itself in my world view today: completely inclusive.”

Sharif has now come to accept and draw strength from all his identities, but it wasn’t always that way. After the Orlando massacre he felt “a new division in my mind, between being LGBT and Arab”; on the one hand he felt victimised as a gay man, on the other he felt compelled to express that what the attacker did was not reflective of the majority, peace-loving Arabs. It wasn’t helped by the upsurge in those seeking to create division between the gay and Arab communities in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“It’s a shame the way the media covers these issues,” says Sharif. “I started to see parallels [between] homophobia in the late Eighties and Nineties and Islamophobia today: that false correlation between LGBT+ people and HIV/Aids, and Islam and terrorism. It’s a false correlation, but one which is so easy to made.

“At the end of the day, we’re natural allies because we have that same experience… there are so many LGBT+ people of faith and there are so many pro-LGBT+ people in the faith communities. So there isn’t that false duality, that dichotomy.”

It’s this message that Sharif is using his platform to spread, starting with his homeland. Since the removal of the former Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, the LGBT+ community has been victimised by the country’s “morality police”, as the country’s new president, Adbel Fattah el-Sisi, seeks to shore-up support from conservative elements within Egyptian society. Human rights workers estimate that at least 150 LGBT+ people have been arrested seen he took office.

The persecution of Egypt’s gay community attracted international attention at the end of 2014 when 26 men detained in a bath-house raid after a journalist, Mona Iraqi, claimed it was used for “group perversions.” Although later acquitted, their arrest after a sting set by a pro-government TV network, highlights how dangerous it is to even be suspected of being gay.

It’s a dire situation, but in 2016 there has been at least one green shoot of progress starting to show. In August, the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest official of religious law, stated that while it’s unacceptable, homosexuality does not mean a person should be injured. It may be stating the obvious, but his stature in Egyptian society ensures many viewed it as a significant milestone in the state’s path towards LGBT+ acceptance.

“He certainly didn’t say that we’re equal,” says Sharif. “But he said we should not be privy to violence or hatred or anything like that. So it’s a small step, it’s the lowest common denominator to be that we shouldn’t be killed, but it’s a step that I welcome.”

Sharif himself has seen the small signs of progress in his own capacity. When he first came out, his social media posts and videos were a hotbed of negativity and aggressive homophobia. Now when he browses the comments – something he admits he should probably refrain from doing – there’s more positivity and at least some degree of balance.
“Whereas it used to be overwhelmingly negative, it’s still not positive, but it’s more split; we can see attitudes are changing,” he says. “I think [it’s] the fact that more and more Western media is getting through. People are poor in Egypt, they don’t have a roof over their homes but more often than not they have a satellite dish…they’re getting these words and images — and attitudes are changing.”

Sharif is confident Egypt will, in time, grow to accept the LGBT+ community. Whether that happens in his life time is another matter. For now, without assurances that he won’t be arrested as soon as his plane lands on the tarmac, a return to his homeland is out of the question but that hasn’t dampened the self-declared patriot’s love for his country.

“Egypt is an amazing country with amazing people and I’m proud to call it home.” he says. And when asked whether he believes he will return one day, his response is as resolute as it is emphatic. “Absolutely.”

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