Legions of older women and gay men up and down the nation undoubtedly swooned at the silver screen performances of cinematic legend and stalwart, Omar Sharif. The Egyptian actor is a famous face from the golden age of Hollywood, appearing in a plethora of blockbuster films - perhaps most notably, "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Funny Girl." And yet, the grandson that carries his name, Omar Sharif Jr., has found a rather different calling - LGBTQ political activism.
Although a successful actor and model in his own right, Sharif Jr. is perhaps better known for his outspoken activism, both here in the United States and abroad. Indeed, by his own admission, he considers himself as something of an ’actor-vist,’ Sharif Jr. was thrown into the public eye last spring, and caused quite a stir, after ’coming out’ as both gay and half-Jewish in a passionate letter to The Advocate.
Furthermore, the articulate Egyptian-Canadian activist recently secured a position as national spokesperson for GLAAD, one of the nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy groups. EDGE caught up with Sharif Jr. ahead of his appearance in Provincetown, Mass, this Saturday (July 20th), where he will be hosting a fundraising soirée for the HIV/AIDS research and activism group, the CRI. After some mutual grumblings about the stifling heat wave that is brutalizing the East Coast, we jumped into a discussion.
EDGE: So tell us more about your background, you are obviously the grandson of Omar Sharif - what was it like growing up in such a famous family? And where did you spend your formative years?
Omar Sharif Jr: I actually grew up going back and forth between Canada and Egypt, and I even went to school in Europe. My formative years were sort of displaced, but always in the right place.
EDGE: And what was it like growing up, spending time in Egypt, and realizing that you were gay? Can you explain more about the social climate there in terms of LGBTQ rights? Have your family been supportive?
Omar Sharif Jr: My family is very supportive of me, unconditionally, which makes it easy. However, that obviously isn’t the case for so many people.
Growing up, it was never even a thought process or question for me, because it was never really visible in Egypt - you didn’t really have any examples of that way of life. For example, you still don’t see it in the media there at all. By the time I realized that I was gay, I was already at school out in Canada.
EDGE: You came out in a moving letter published in The Advocate last spring - what prompted that decision?
Omar Sharif Jr: I was really scared of the direction the country was going in (Egypt). I didn’t believe that the new government was going to be inclusive like they were promising. I believed that they were just placating people, and placating Western governments. And I sort of used myself as a litmus test, to see how they would react. You know, I was told that I was the first openly gay Egyptian public figure, and the first openly gay Arabic public figure ever, which I was shocked by.
EDGE: How have you felt about the response to your admission? It has certainly been a mixed bag in terms of reactions - both in North America and Egypt.
Omar Sharif Jr: Absolutely, it has been, but with every fifty negative comments comes one positive one from a marginalized LGBTQ youth somewhere in the Middle East, and that makes it all worthwhile. For that reason, you have to focus on the positive stuff.
EDGE: Certainly, your activism is having a significant impact in the Middle East. That said, you currently live and work in the United States, do you feel as though you could ever safely return home?
Omar Sharif Jr: That’s correct. Right now I live in New York City, working as the national spokesperson for GLAAD. But I absolutely think I could return home to Egypt. I mean, we will certainly have to see how things turn out, because right now is a tumultuous time, but I think I like the direction the country is heading in.
Unrest in his homeland
EDGE: You have spoken openly about the political unrest in Egypt, what are your thoughts on the current situation with the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi?
Omar Sharif Jr: I am just going to repeat what a lot of pundits have said on the news - democracy is about more than just elections, it is about being inclusive, and it is about conciliation. Indeed, it is about opening up the door and not closing it to a narrow few. I mean, he was only elected with 51% of the vote, so he didn’t necessarily have a mandate not to be inclusive.
EDGE: Coming off of that, do you think an LGBTQ friendly Egypt is possible in the future?
Omar Sharif Jr: You know, I do. I really believe in the transformative power of the media to help create that cultural change. And that’s what happened here in America, it took 20 odd years for it to happen, but there are so many examples nowadays in the media, and that helps effect change. In Egypt, it may take 50 years, or it may take 100, but I do think it will happen.
EDGE: As you mentioned earlier, you recently landed a job as GLAAD national spokesperson here in the United States, can you tell us more about your role, and what inspires you to fight so openly for LGBTQ rights?
Omar Sharif Jr: You know it is those 5 letters out of 5,000 that tells me that LGBTQ youth has never really had support, and that they have never really had an example to look up to - the reason I joined GLAAD in the United States is because I see the US as a shining beacon on a hill.
Certainly, it is Sir John Winthrop’s vision that the US should set an example for the rest of the world. Due to that, I believe that I can make a change working with the media here. I also believe that the work here can help instigate change around the world, including at home in Egypt. In terms of what I do for GLAAD - I speak to the media, I participate in news interviews on television and radio, I have speaking engagements and I also speak to donors in an attempt to get support for the organization.
EDGE: There have been some monumental victories in the United States recently concerning LGBTQ rights, with the fall of DOMA and Prop 8. Were you actively involved in securing those victories? And what do you think is next on the agenda in terms of achieving full equality?
Omar Sharif Jr: No I haven’t been actively involved - I think I joined on at the tail end of that, I mean, we are looking at a multi-decade process toward achieving those victories. Legislators, or lawyers in the Supreme Court didn’t secure those victories; they were achieved by shaping public opinion in this country over decades.
And that is what GLAAD has been doing for over 27 years, working with the media to help shape the culture at large, so that the general public would accept equality as mandated by legislators and by the courts. So it really has been public opinion that has been shaping that change.
EDGE: You are also an actor like your Grandfather - what position inspires and motivates you more, acting or activism? Or can’t they be compared?
Omar Sharif Jr: I think every actor should be an "actor-vist" on some level - every actor is given a platform, and I believe that we should use that for the greater good.
EDGE: You are appearing in Provincetown this Saturday (July 20th) for the Community Research Initiative, to celebrate its 10th annual summer party - ’Red Hot Jazz,’ at the Red Inn. Can you tell me more about the organization and the sort of work that they do, and why you are keen to support them?
Omar Sharif Jr: I think everyone should do their part to prevent HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and because of that, I am honored to be hosting the event, especially given the tremendous work that the organization has done. The CRI is an independent, non-profit, community- based organization, and it leads the way in clinical research and ensuring access to life saving HIV medication and health insurance coverage for those in need.
And it really is a great event that they are having out in Provincetown. They have a high fundraising goal, and hopefully I can help them achieve that by hosting the event. They are doing tremendous work in Boston and in research labs across the country, and around the world. I am also pretty sure that every HIV medication available currently has some origin or basis going through the CRI - so it really is an important organization.
A great cause
EDGE: It sounds fantastic -what sort of stuff can guests expect on Saturday?
Omar Sharif Jr: There will be a wonderful brunch- it will be thoroughly enjoyable. You know, I love Provincetown, because it symbolizes the opposite of all the negative gay stereotypes I was around growing up in Egypt. There will be some fantastic people coming together for a great cause, and I can’t wait to head out there. I’ll be giving a brief talk, and because of that I can’t really drink...well maybe I can have one or two!
EDGE: One or two drinks won’t hurt! ...You also just made the World Pride Power List, were you surprised?
Omar Sharif Jr: I was surprised; I was just in London giving a keynote speech there about it. I was definitely shocked, but it means a lot to me, because it is something that people vote for across the world. It was actually kind of surreal, because, ultimately all I did was ’come out’. There have been so many activists across the world that didn’t make the list, so it is quite humbling, especially because I think that there are people who are probably more deserving.
EDGE: Well thank you for your time Omar, one final question before we wrap things up, because a friend of mine is dying to know, do you have a favorite member of One Direction?
Omar Sharif Jr: ...you know, I am embarrassed to say that I can’t even name any of them! Now I must go and look them up, because I need to be prepared for this question!
From our media partner EDGE