Mr Gay Syria highlights plight of gay Syrian refugees

A refugee of the country's devastating civil war, Sabat hides his sexuality from his conservative family and has a child.

Syrian gay rights activist Mahmoud Hassino, the organiser of the Mr Gay Syria contest

In the documentary Mr Gay Syria, he explains why he chose to compete: "Since I was born, I've been wearing a mask. But now I need to show my real face. If I don't, I'll be in despair forever."

However, he adds: "I worry that I might lose my parents."

Sabat is one of an estimated 1900 lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees who live in Turkey – where homosexuality is not outlawed.

However, the community lives precariously as filmmaker Ayse Toprak suggests in her documentary, which shows police violently disrupting a Gay Pride parade.

"Rejected by both their own communities and by the Turkish society at large, they have difficulty finding housing and jobs," she says. "They live in shared flats, work at gay hamams, do night shifts at hotels, end up selling drugs or becoming sex workers. And sometimes all this can get life threatening. Last winter, for example, two gay Syrians were killed at their jobs."

Mr Gay Syria is one of 50 films from 20 countries that will screen in Australia's Antenna Documentary Film Festival in October.

Festival director David Rokach said the documentary sheds light on two important issues: "The common narratives we have about what is it to be a refugee and what is it to to be gay in the Arab world, are usually superficial and two-dimensional and I thought that Ayse did a great job painting a much more complex picture."

Mr Gay Syria portrays a community that had been overlooked, he says, "showing us these young people as they fight for the right to love and enjoy their lives".

The documentary depicts the lives of LGBTI Syrians in Istanbul as they compete for a place in the Mr Gay World competition in Malta in 2016.

The contest was organised by fellow Syrian refugee living in Berlin, Mahmoud Hassino, to highlight the plight of gay refugees.

Hassino was a gay rights activist and the founder of Syria's first queer magazine, who had been "out" publicly since 2005. He left Syria in 2011 fearing for his safety under the Assad regime, "but not because of my sexuality," he says. "It was because of my political involvement."

"As homosexuality is criminalised and since freedom of expression didn't exist under Assad's dictatorship, leaving was the only choice at that point," he says.

Sabat's victory in the Mr Gay Syria contest turns sour when he discovers the travel restrictions suffered by Syrian refugees prevent him from travelling to Malta.

Asked if he wants a tissue, Sabat replies: "I not going to cry."

Toprak says: "He was quite upset by it. But he also knew that regardless of the rejection, life goes on, and even if it gets more and more difficult, he'll pull through these tough times."

Hassino says the plight of gay and lesbian people in Syria differs according to which group is in control.

"In the regime-controlled areas, arrests against LGBTI people never stopped, but the situation got worse with the pro-regime militias, which extort, torture, and kill LGBTI people at checkpoints," he says.

"Before the Free Syrian Army lost its control over many areas, the LGBTI rights violations were almost non-existent there. Gay killings started with the Al-Qaeda and IS and also in Kurdish controlled areas. The Islamist groups killed in the name of religion and the Kurdish ones killed in the name of traditions."

Across the Middle East, Hassino says many LGBTI people suffered from hate crimes: "Even Turkey where there is no law against homosexuality but there are no anti-discrimination laws that can protect the rights of LGBTI people."

However, Hassino says hostility towards the gay community can be found in all religions, not just Islam.

"One of my uncles is married to a Christian white American woman," he says. "She keeps posting photos from the Bible to justify her homophobia and transphobia, while my religious Muslim mother loved and accepted me.

"I was as naive as those people in the west until my mother and family surprised me with their love and acceptance. I am seeing the same hostility towards homosexuality in all religions."