Omar Sharif Jr. Carries Weight of Arab World With Substance, Dignity
BY Thom Senzee
August 19 2014 6:00 AM ET
Omar Sharif Jr., 30
At only 30, Omar Sharif Jr. has the weight of a civilization on his shoulders. Imagine being the only public figure from one of the world's major cultures to come out as gay. Now imagine that the reason you're the only public figure from your home country and culture who has come out is that doing so brings with it the threat of death or imprisonment.
"I believe I am the only Arabic public figure to come out as gay," Sharif tells The Advocate. "Fear keeps others from coming out — fear of not being accepted by their families and fear of being rejected by society."
Although he told ABC News at the time of his public announcement about being gay in early 2012, that his "parents will be shocked to read it, surely preferring I stay in the shadows and keep silent, at least for the time being,” Sharif's family has not rejected him for being gay. But at first, many of the young Egyptian's countrymen did.
"For a while, I was trending on Yahoo! and Twitter and being called 'pedophile' and 'deviant,'" Sharif recalls. "Because that's what 'gay' means to some people. But then I started getting messages of thanks and support from other LGBT people in the Arab world."
What was even more encouraging, he says, was that parents of LGBT youth in the Middle East eventually started sending him words of encouragement.
"They said things like, 'If Omar Sharif's grandchild is gay, maybe it's OK if my child is gay," Sharif recalls.
During the events of the Arab Spring in 2012, Sharif wrote about his coming-out experience and his decision to come to the United States but called his fellow Egyptians' struggle in those days "heroic." At the same time, his personal journey is deserving of that same adjective — though Sharif would never say so himself.
These days, in addition to developing a burgeoning acting career, Omar Sharif Jr. is advocating for the rights, equality and dignity of LGBT people in America and abroad. He argues it is difficult to overstate the power and potential of Hollywood to change attitudes — even in very conservative, religious societies such as those of the Muslim world.
"Growing up, I didn't have gay friends, relatives, or role models," Sharif says. "But I had Will & Grace."
For Sharif, the difference between a world where watching positive portrayals of gay characters, such as Will and Jack — and even the show's not-so-positive (however, funny as hell) gay characters like Beverly Leslie — versus a world in which he never saw anyone portrayed as gay is like the difference between night and day. In fact, he says, it's not hard to imagine it being the difference between life and death to some LGBT youth.
"People in Egypt are poor," he says. "They may not have a roof on their house, but for some reason, everybody has a satellite dish. Now LGBT Egyptians have shows with gay characters like Glee and Modern Family and many other great shows."
Sharif recognizes how fortunate he is, both in terms of being able to be openly gay and still be loved and accepted by his family and in terms of his economic status and his educational opportunities.
And educated he is. He earned a master's degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. He is fluent in several languages, including English, French, Arabic, Yiddish, Hebrew, and "conversational Spanish."
"My story isn't remarkable — it's just more well-known," he says. "Every day I receive requests from help from LGBT youth across the Middle East. I am lucky. I have a family that loves me unconditionally."
Sharif unabashedly applies his status as a high-profile public figure, his natural talents, and the skills he gained while earning a prestigious degree on behalf of GLAAD. He is a national spokesman for the organization, and he is supremely passionate about its mission.
"GLAAD is the only organization that has always been doing global work," Sharif says. "American media is syndicated and consumed across the globe. Culture is America's biggest export, and the promotion of progressive and inclusive culture is what I'm all about."
But Sharif is not only a part of the American media machine by way of his work with GLAAD. Like his movie star grandfather and his grandmother, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (who may be even more famous in Egypt than his grandfather and namesake, Omar Sharif), Sharif Jr. has the acting bug.
In addition to a filmography that includes big-screen and television titles such as The Traveller, Hassan wa Morcus, and Virginie, he appeared onstage to present an Oscar at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards in 2011.
As he considered whether or not to announce publicly that he was gay, Sharif knew the best-case scenario that would follow coming out was becoming an Egyptian expatriate. He now lives in the United States.
Nonetheless, he is cautiously optimistic that someday Egypt and other Arab countries will grow to accept their own LGBT citizens.
"I do think that will happen," he says. "It will just take time."