How Gay Syrians Are Using Pride to Fight Intolerance (and ISIS)

© Les Films d’Antoine, Coin Film, Toprak Film
Mahmoud Hassino in 'Mr. Gay Syria'

The documentary 'Mr. Gay Syria' looks at the plight and persecution of homosexual refugees in the Middle East.

Can you fight ISIS with high heels and a mankini?

Mahmoud Hassino thinks so. Angered by the violent abuse against gay men in Syria — ISIS killed countless homosexual men by throwing them off buildings — the Berlin-based journalist and gay-rights activist decided to use pride to fight prejudice.

He organized a competition — complete with cat walk, dance numbers and, yes, tight-skinned leather mankinis — among Syrian refugees in Istanbul to elect a “Mr. Gay Syria” to represent the war-torn country in the Mr. Gay World beauty pageant.

The idea was to raise awareness of the persecution of gays in the Middle East. (Donald Trump's travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries provides exceptions for persecuted religious minorities, but makes no mention of people facing persecution for their sexual orientation.)

Scene from 'Mr. Gay Syria': a contestant selects his outfit before the show.

Hassino's story, and that of Husein, the 23-year-old who won the title (and in so doing came out to his family), is told in Ayse Toprak's Mr. Gay Syria, a documentary being produced by France's Les Films d’Antoine and Germany's Coin Film.

The film, made on a shoestring budget, celebrates the struggle and bravery of men who face real and daily persecution.

“Husein's father has threatened to kill him since he came out,” director Toprak told The Hollywood Reporter. "And two of the men in the film have actually been murdered in hate crimes since we finished filming.”

Scene from 'Mr. Gay Syria': Turkish police break up Istanbul's Gay Pride Parade.

With no support from the Turkish government, which doesn't approve of the subject matter —Turkish police regularly harass gay men, and events like Istanbul's Gay Pride Parade are often disrupted by riot police. The filmmakers have turned to crowdfunding on online funding site kisskissbankbank to finish postproduction. They have so far raised more than $18,000 of the $37,000 they need.

“The support we've received has been incredible,” says Toprak. “Every comment, every retweet, has been inspiring for us. We are going to finish this film, no matter what.”