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Amid Horrors of War, This Man Held a LGBT Beauty Pageant for Syrian Refugees

Les Films D'Antoine/Coin Film/Toprak Film

By Anna Pujol-Mazzini

LONDON, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From arrests to honour killings to cold-blooded murders, when Mahmoud Hassino saw the rights of Syria's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community trampled in the brutal civil war, he wanted to find a way to tell the world.

In the midst of war, Hassino set out to find Syria's "Mr Gay" to send to an international beauty pageant.

Hassino, a Syrian journalist and gay rights campaigner, saw LGBT people targeted by all sides in Syria's six-year-old conflict. And women disproportionately bore the brunt of the violence.

"With the war, gender-based violence reached a peak," said Hassino, 42. "Women suffered and the LGBT community as well. Any kind of gender expression is not possible during any war."

His quest to find Mr Gay Syria is now the subject of a documentary directed by Ayse Toprak, a Turkish journalist for whom Hassino worked as a fixer.

The documentary, to be screened at the Sheffield documentary festival in Britain on Tuesday, depicts the lives of gay and bisexual Syrians in Istanbul as they compete for a place in the Mr Gay World competition.

NOT JUST ISLAMIC STATE

When anti-government protests started in cities across Syria in 2011, Hassino hoped one of the outcomes would be more freedom for LGBT people.

The uprising sparked hopes of more rights for minorities in a country where homosexuality is illegal, and people started coming out about their sexual orientation, talking about gay rights and women's rights, Hassino said.

During the first few months of the civil war that ensued, it seemed as though Hassino's hopes had come true.

"It had become easier for LGBT people because people weren't targeted systematically," Hassino told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Berlin, where he now lives.

Read More: Rape Survivor Now Comforts Other Syrian Refugee Sex Abuse Victims

But soon, they became a target for all groups involved in the conflict. In the most notorious example, rights groups have accused Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq of killing dozens of gay men by throwing them from buildings or stoning them.

Gay men in Syria can face arrests, "honour killings" at the hands of family members, or murder by Islamic State and other militant groups.

BEAUTY CONTEST

Hassino, who had worked in Syria with Iraqi sexual and gender minorities, decided to shed light on the abuses by sending a Syrian to the Mr Gay World beauty pageant in Malta last year.

"I had the idea of trying to create a media buzz around the situation which also highlights the Syrian LGBT refugee problem," Hassino said.

Even though the competition's winner, Husein, did not make it to the event because of visa restrictions, Hassino himself traveled to Malta to raise awareness of the persecution gay Syrians face.

He says the film will document their experiences for future generations.

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"As a journalist, I think documentaries are more important than beauty pageants," he said.

Hassino now works with LGBT refugees in Germany - many of whom were targeted and beaten up in refugee camps. His hopes for a swift change in attitudes to LGBT people have ebbed away.

"Maybe after the war ends we'll talk about rights. But not now."

(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org).