Since coming out as gay in 2012, actor Omar Sharif Jr, the grandson of legendary Egyptian film star Omar Sharif, has become an outspoken activist for his country’s beleaguered LGBTQ community.
He is said to be one of the first public personalities to come out in the Arab world and he was vilified by the media in Egypt for it. He received death threats, contemplated suicide and remains fearful of returning to his homeland.
The son of a Muslim father, and a Jewish mother, Sharif is a rising star in Hollywood. He’s using his growing fame to speak out against the continued human rights abuses against LGBTQ people in Egypt.
The need for this activism has only increased in urgency since September last year, when the act of waving rainbow flags at a music concert in Cairo sparked a viscous media and state hate campaign against LGBTQ people.
Dozens are reported to have been arrested in the ensuing clampdown. In November, 17 people were sentenced to three years in jail. In January, nine men were arrested in Alexandria on charges of “debauchery” and “homosexual activity” following a raid on a private apartment.
During a recent visit to South Africa for the Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg, Sharif spoke to Mambaonline about the challenges facing Egypt and how he hopes to use his celebrity status to make a difference.
What motivates you to speak out about what’s happening in Egypt?
The reason I keep speaking around the world about LGBT rights in Egypt is because so few other people are willing to. And I believe that the most effective way to create change is by sharing our stories…. having people realise who we really are as a community. That we’re not just facts and figures and statistics, but we’re people. I wish I could find more people to share their stories in Egypt and come out but I can’t ask people to be cannon fodder for my ideals. Very few people come from families of the same liberalising experiences that mine did in Egypt: working on Hollywood TV shows and films. And so I feel a responsibility to stay visible, to keep the conversations going… so that youth back home consistently see representations that they can relate to in the media.
How does that help to make a difference on the ground?
Every day I wake up to messages from LGBT youth across Egypt that find it difficult to go on, fight another day… many of whom wish to flee. Just knowing that they are not alone, that different isn’t bad and that there’s a community that loves and supports them… That creates a world of difference. Every day I receive messages that people are going to take their lives, they don’t know how they are going to continue. I don’t know how to respond to them other than by trying to be the best positive example and live my life as openly, authentically and happily as I can. And assuring them that progress is inevitable. The tide of tolerance is inevitable in any country. Our goals in Egypt are modest. We’re not looking for marriage equality right now. We just want to live free from the terror that the slightest gesture or glance will betray us, that we’ll go to jail, that we’ll be subjected to persecution… those are our goals. So just getting people to hold on till that becomes an eventuality is my sole goal.
Coming from a very public family, a well known family in Egypt, what considerations did you have when coming out? Did you know that it would have an impact wider than just the people around you?
I had no idea. Everyone always says that ‘it was very brave that you came out’ and I thought, was it bravery or stupidity? I didn’t expect the reaction or the backlash. Egypt was in the midst of a political crisis, the economy was crashing, the security situation was totally destabilised, our pound was being devalued… We had real issues and so I thought this would fly under the radar. And so I came out in what I thought was a positive optimistic, hopeful way. But what I didn’t take into consideration was that sometimes when there are so many problems people focus on a distraction. I did not expect to get headline stories for over a week, given the situation that was happening.
How did you react to the response to your coming out?
It was very painful. I regretted it and probably had suicidal thoughts. I took it very hard, going from one of Egypt’s favourite sons and, right after I came out, I remember reading one of the national newspaper headlines saying “public enemy number one.” But ultimately, you started seeing messages of support trickle through, you started seeing messages from the LGBT youth, and conversations happening online that you’re included in. Those encouraged me, and helped me put into perspective the fact that I made the right decision, and that, hopefully, that will yield something.
And your family?
I’m very fortunate that I have a family that loves me unconditionally. I come from a legacy of not only acting and fame, but also activism. My grandmother, who was one of the most well-known actors in Egypt, spoke up for women’s rights and created a film that highlighted women’s struggles. My grandfather spoke against the rules imposed on religious minorities. So speaking out on social injustices has always been critical to my upbringing.
And in terms of how the family is perceived in Egypt? Were there repercussions because of your actions?
I think that there were. I think I was treated like an outsider, like I am more of a stain on my family. A lot of people liked to point at my western education and upbringing and the fact that my mother is not Egyptian. So that side of the family was seen as a problem.
This concept that the west “exported” homosexuality into Africa is a huge issue in Egypt and the rest of the continent. How do you respond to that?
I argue that homosexuality has existed in Egypt for centuries. If you look back on the empire, the reigning warrior class mostly practised homosexuality. So it definitely was not imported into the continent. If anything, I would say, we are importing hate into Africa. I think that Evangelicals and Christians who are losing the culture wars in western democracies are exporting that hate to Africa. I think historically there were higher rates of acceptance and support.
Where do you see the potential for some kind of social change and LGBTQ acceptance in Egypt?
I have to believe that with stability and security, the LGBT community’s goals are the same as everyone else’s. We want economic stability, we want security and we want to live our lives freely. These are not radical ideas. Unfortunately for everyone in Egypt right now, there is no security and there is no stability. Hopefully, if we rebuild our economy, if we see a more secure political system then it will be extended to all communities.
What is fuelling the most recent crackdown in Egypt? Is it politics, religious fundamentalism?
There are so many LGBT people of faith and so many faith leaders that are in support of LGBT people. I think people are rightfully frustrated by the slow and painful pace of progress, and a community that is forced to live in the shadows, like the LGBT community, are the perfect faceless villains.
Is there a strategy among political leaders to use the raising of the LGBTQ rainbow flag in Cairo to distract people from other issues?
I think it’s no different from anywhere else in the world. I think motivations are all the same throughout the world. It’s just a matter of, ‘we’re targeting this group over that group.’
Are you still afraid of going back to Egypt?
I would really love to go back. My family is there, and I couldn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral and that was really difficult for me. I don’t know what the situation would be when the plane would land. Likely, I would be subjected to the same level of prosecution… I have no idea. I came out because I am a patriot, and patriotism to me means giving your full self to your country and the only way I know how to give to my country is by giving who I really am.
Have you found any conflict between your acting and your activism?
They integrate well and I think it is really important to have that visibility, especially in Egypt. It hasn’t been a [career] problem since I came out, because I have been fortunate enough to work with very amazing directors, especially in the past year. What hurt me was when I came out and people accused me of trying to get media attention for my acting career. There is no advantage that comes with coming out. Hopefully things will change, hopefully we will see more examples of LGBT actors playing LGBT characters. I think all actors should be activists, because you are given a platform and when you have a voice, you have a responsibility to use it.
What do you think people outside of Egypt can do to make a difference in Egypt?
I think the best thing people can do globally is to not just hear our stories but to listen to them and have the stories inspire them to create a better situation at home for their LGBT community. LGBT acceptance is a global issue and nowhere is perfect yet. While people are being cast out of their homes and transgender women are the number one victims of violence globally, and there is the spread of HIV amongst men who have sex with men, the work has not been done anywhere.