Today we honor and celebrate a man who made a bold statement merely through his honesty. Omar Joseph El Sharif was born in Montreal in 1983. He is the grandson of renowned actor Omar Sharif; as such, he had a privileged upbringing, spending his youth as a socialite. Wanting more, he obtained a Master’s in Comparative Politics from Queen’s University in Canada. Also bitten by the family acting bug, he obtained a role in an Egyptian TV program and tried stand-up comedy. Fluent in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish (his maternal grandparents are Jewish Holocaust survivors), Omar continues to seek out roles internationally. In 2010 Sharif moved to Los Angeles, California to study at The Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre and Film. He also participated in the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, joining Kirk Douglas in a skit.
Earlier this year, Sharif raised eyebrows when he was interviewed by The Advocate. He spoke out about the need for civil rights free from religious dogma, specifially referring to the Egyptian revolution. Two weeks later, he published an impassioned editorial in the magazine entitled Coming Out Story: We’re Not in Cairo Anymore. He discussed his reasons for moving from Egypt, perhaps permanently, including this great passage:
One year since the start of the revolution, I am not as hopeful. [...] The vision for a freer, more equal Egypt — a vision that many young patriots gave their lives to see realized in Tahrir Square — has been hijacked. The full spectrum of equal and human rights are now wedge issues used by both the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Islamist parties, when they should be regarded as universal truths.
I write this article despite the inherent risks associated because as we stand idle at what we hoped would be the pinnacle of Egyptian modern history, I worry that a fall from the top could be the most devastating. I write, with healthy respect for the dangers that may come, for fear that Egypt’s Arab Spring may be moving us backward, not forward. And so I hesitantly confess: I am Egyptian, I am half Jewish, and I am gay.
That my mother is Jewish is no small disclosure when you are from Egypt, no matter the year. And being openly gay has always meant asking for trouble, but perhaps especially during this time of political and social upheaval. With the victories of several Islamist parties in recent elections, a conversation needs to be had and certain questions need to be raised. I ask myself: Am I welcome in the new Egypt? Will being Egyptian, half Jewish, and gay forever remain mutually exclusive identities? Are they identities to be hidden?
The entire article is worthwhile reading, showing how articulate and insistent Sharif is and how dedicated he is to social justice. He is still finding his voice as an activist and advocate, but with a start like this, great things may come. The courage he demonstrates in outing himself in the face of religious and political exile is powerful. He sums it up in a way that many Americans should remember:
And yet I speak out because I am a patriot.