Out in the World: The power of LGBTQ stories is demonstrated in books and a documentary

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday November 9, 2023
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Anjali Rimi, co-founder and president of Parivar Bay Area and the subject of a new biofilm about her life and activism, "Belonging: An Indian Trans Immigrant Story," is greeted in India by a transgender community. Photo: Courtesy Amir Jaffer/"Belonging"
Anjali Rimi, co-founder and president of Parivar Bay Area and the subject of a new biofilm about her life and activism, "Belonging: An Indian Trans Immigrant Story," is greeted in India by a transgender community. Photo: Courtesy Amir Jaffer/"Belonging"

Three books and one short documentary will give people reasons to give thanks this holiday season and inspiration to act heading into 2024.

"A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring," is a memoir by gay Egyptian Canadian Omar Sharif Jr. The actor and model details growing up as the namesake of his famous grandfather, celebrity Omar Sharif, being the half-Arab and half-Jewish only child of divorce in Montreal, Canada and Egypt's capital Cairo, and his painful journey coming out and into his own.

Award-winning Novaya Gazeta Russian lesbian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko's book, "I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country," is part memoir and part a love letter to the country. It gives readers a tour of Russian life and culture and insight into being LGBTQ there.

Gay Lebanese Canadian Salah Bachir provides readers with some levity, guiding them through his memories of famous people he's worked with and their activism in his memoir, "First to Leave the Party: My Life with Ordinary People ... Who Happen to be Famous."

"Belonging: An Indian Trans Immigrant Story," is a 40-minute film by gay Pakistani American documentarian Amir Jaffer exploring pansexual transgender Kinner Anjali Rimi's evolution. The documentary chronicles Rimi's life in India, her journey to the United States and Canada, and ultimately her transition to becoming a transgender activist, co-founding and leading Parivar Bay Area. Parivar is a San Francisco Bay Area-based South Asian queer trans organization. Parivar means family in English.

"Belonging" will be featured at the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, Thursday, November 9, at 9 p.m. at the Roxie Theater.

The showing comes before Diwali (the Festival of Lights), November 12, which celebrates good overcoming evil and is celebrated throughout India and the Indian diaspora around the world.

The film festival comes a week ahead of Transgender Awareness Week, November 13-19, and Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20.

Each activist in the books and film faced long and painful journeys within themselves and out in the world, where they experienced extreme brutality and great suffering. Telling their stories is the manifestation of them ultimately coming to a place of purpose and strength.

The Bay Area Reporter spoke with Sharif and Rimi about their experiences telling their stories as queer immigrants in Canada and the United States, and speaking out for LGBTQ rights in the face of adversity.

The B.A.R. attempted to arrange an interview with Kostyuchenko for this article, but Penguin Press's publicist suddenly cut off communication. The B.A.R. also tried to interview Bachir, but there were schedule conflicts. Kostyuchenko and Bachir's books both hit store shelves October 17. Sharif's memoir was published in 2021. Last month he spoke at Pride on the Page, Palm Springs's LGBTQ book festival. Jaffer's film premiered at Frameline, San Francisco's LGBTQ film festival, in June.

Omar Sharif Jr.'s memoir "A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring."  

Telling their truths
Sharif, who will turn 40 later this month, said one of his main reasons for writing his memoir was to "reclaim my own narrative." In 2012, the Los Angeles-based actor and model wrote a groundbreaking op-ed, publicly coming out in the Advocate in the wake of the Arab Spring, which erupted in Egypt and spread throughout the Middle East as hopes of democracy surged in 2011.

He immediately became the queer Middle Eastern face for GLAAD and other LGBTQ community organizations, speaking out for queer rights, especially for queer Arabs and immigrant issues.

The article also immediately exiled him from Egypt and any of his inheritance in the country, and put a target on his back as it caused a media frenzy. Death threats and hate messages streamed through his communication outlets, from email to social media, and proliferated online.

"People had said so many bad things about me when I came out in the Middle East," he said. At the same time, he said he freed himself.

In more than a decade since he came out the death threats and hate messages haven't stopped. Sharif, who considers himself an Egyptian patriot, hasn't been able to return to the country. He was forced to watch both grandparents' funerals on his laptop rather than be present by his father's side in Cairo. The threat of being arrested and jailed, and the anti-LGBTQ violence that has escalated following the Muslim Brotherhood's brief reign and the military coup d'état led by current Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is too great to risk returning to Egypt, he said.

That hasn't stopped him from wanting to help LGBTQ Egyptians and people in the Middle East. He hasn't given up on Egypt and still hopes to return home someday, he said.

Sharif doesn't purport that other Arabs should come out as he did. It's their choice. He also sees small wins as big gains in the Middle East, such as the highest religious authority for Muslims in Egypt, the Grand Mufti, publicly stating that people do not have the right to harm LGBTQ people for being gay, despite it being against Egyptian law and Islam. Men who are caught face up to three years in prison. Saudi Arabia, which continues to criminalize same-sex relationships, including by imposing the death penalty, is slowly opening dialogue with Sharif about LGBTQ issues, he said.

"It gives you hope because if some of the more conservative places can change, everywhere [can] change," he said.

Like Sharif, Rimi, 43, who uses she/they pronouns, has also been on the receiving end of hate due to her activism.

"I do get a lot of hate as much as I get love," Rimi said. She's learned to push through the negativity, and the years of abuse and rapes that she endured, drawing strength from her activism and community in the Bay Area.

She has also been able to return home to Hyderabad, India several times, but it has only been in recent years that she didn't hide her transition. Instead, she went back fully as she is today.

In 2021, Rimi traveled to 23 cities throughout India, 16 of which appear in the film. She met with transgender and hijra communities she's worked with since 2001 and that Parivar helped by sending supplies and money during COVID-19, she said.

Jaffer was unable to travel with Rimi due to his former Pakistani citizenship and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. He hired a cinematographer to travel with her through India to shoot footage for the film, he said.

Said Rimi, "It was liberating and equally was also very riveting to kind of think about my positionality and my privilege and how much more I need to do for my community back home in India." While Rimi initially did not want the film to be about her, Jaffer convinced her that her story was a key part of Parivar's story. Now fully on board, Rimi will return to India in December to shoot more footage to extend the documentary to a 60-minute film, Jaffer and Rimi said.

Jaffer, who started a new LGBTQ film festival, SF Queer Film Festival, met Rimi a couple of years ago at an event in conjunction with the screening of award-winning nonbinary Parsi Indian filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari's film, "Sheer Qorma," the B.A.R. reported at the time.

He became fascinated by Rimi's story.

"I just admired Anjali's courage" for what she went through coming to the U.S., Jaffer said, "and she created this organization that not only benefits trans folks here but also in India."

He noted, "The trans community has been in the back of the bus for the longest time in the United States and the West. The plight in South Asia — they're like subhuman. [They] are treated like garbage."

Rimi said, "There are people dying in my community back home in India. You have folks in this film that are not here to see it."

Jaffer said he wanted to show "how Parivar and Anjali actually have changed their lives and they're able to live a dignified life."

"The time has come for people to treat [the] trans community equally with love and respect," said Jaffer.

Coming into his own
In 2019, Sharif discovered his own brand of activism, his own value, and his own voice. It was his final rejection of being abused and mistreated, he said. From the years of being bullied in school growing up to being in the closet, and to being raped and abused by one of his employers, he said, "No."

Even as he said that from the outside his life was privileged, and he had the love and support of his family, but it didn't help him. He was fueled by fear, feelings of not being enough, and a desire to stand on his own.

"Let's understand that privilege isn't one thing," he said, noting that he had unconditional love from both his Jewish Canadian and his Muslim Egyptian families. He was exposed to both his mother's financial struggles and his grandparent's wealth and parties with world leaders. "At the end of the day, I still went through a really hard time at school. I still went through being sexually assaulted and trafficked. I still had to leave my country and have never been home. I still receive thousands of threats of violence and death to this day.

"What is privileged exactly about that?" he asked.

Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko has written "I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country."  

On the run
Kostyuchenko, the Russian journalist, also lost her country. She believes she was poisoned, and someone is out to kill her for her reporting on atrocities in Ukraine, reported the CBC. She also lost her media outlet, Novaya Gazeta, where she wrote for 17 years when a Russian court shuttered it for being a "foreign agent" in 2022. The newspaper's editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, received a joint Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. Muratov launched a legal campaign against Russia, suing the country in September, reported Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin uses the country's foreign agent law to criminalize anyone who is so-called "under foreign influence," especially his critics.

Muratov was awarded the Nobel prize with Maria Ressa, a lesbian Filipina American journalist, who is co-founder and CEO of Rappler, the Philippines' leading digital media company, according to the publication's website. The journalists were awarded the prize in 2021 for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace, according to The Nobel Prize website.

Novaya Gazeta broke the news about Chechnya's detainment and torture of mostly gay men in 2017. The independent Russian newspaper was known for its groundbreaking investigative reporting.

Kostyuchenko did not lose her desire to write about the truth, picking up other media outlets, like Medusa, nor her love for her country, as she writes about in her latest book, "I Love Russia." She also did not lose her partner who is on the run with her.

The book is a mosaic of vivid short stories about the Russians she grew up with, the people she met on assignments, and discovering her sexual orientation and coming out. She writes as if the reader is there with her witnessing the scene.

Kostyuchenko's other books are "Unwanted on Probation" and "We Have to Live Here."

Gay Lebanese Canadian Salah Bachir has written "First to Leave the Party: My Life with Ordinary People ... Who Happen to be Famous."  

Don't let the glittery title "First to Leave the Party" fool you that there is some salacious celebrity gossip in the pages. Bachir leaves the gossip to the tabloids (the use of pronouns on the cover should be a clue). The vignettes in the book are his experiences through the decades as an entrepreneur, executive, magazine publisher, producer, and patron of the arts, plus about his close relationships and acquaintances with some of the world's most famous people. Each story has a point. Each celebrity stood up for what they believed in — anti-racism, anti-colonialism, antisemitism, farm worker's rights, politics, and more — and sometimes paid a price for doing so.

A portion of the proceeds from the book sales benefit the LGBT Rights program at Human Rights Watch.

Telling the truth about their lives
"It's so important for us to share our stories because the stories are the way to open hearts and minds to build empathy," said Sharif, noting it's not just telling stories, "It's how we tell our stories."

The stories help people find "common ground" and "build empathy with people," he continued, stating "it's really important to document our stories," so "the more stories that are out there, the better it is."

"Writing is a weapon," he said, adding, "The way we choose to tell our stories is almost just as important as the stories themselves."

"We're empowered by our words. We're not victims," he said.

Tickets for "Belonging: An Indian Trans Immigrant Story" November 9 at 9 p.m. at the Roxie Theater are $17 per person, including taxes and fees.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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