Omar Ayuso of “Elite” Is the Queer Muslim Role Model He Never Had
Omar's queerness makes him one of television’s only queer Muslims. In fact, Ayuso's role as a gay Palestinian character in a successful Netflix series makes him one of the few Palestinian characters on TV, let alone those who are also queer.
The Spanish teen drama series “Elite” (2018 – ) returned to Netflix on Oct. 20 for its seventh season. The show, set in a fictional high school called Las Encinas, continues to feature murder and intrigue. In addition to introducing a bevvy of new characters, the show brought back Omar Ayuso, who played Omar Shanaa in the show’s first five seasons. Ayuso’s return for the seventh season makes him the “Elite” cast member who has appeared in the most episodes.
Ayuso's role as a gay Palestinian character in a successful Netflix series is noteworthy, as there are relatively few Palestinian characters on TV, especially those who are also queer. Also notable — Omar's queerness makes him one of television’s only queer Muslims. His journey of self-discovery, culminating in a difficult coming out to his conservative Muslim family, is a crucial part of his storyline.
“Elite” has been acclaimed for addressing topics like sexuality and identity over its previous six season, tackling heavy topics such as sexual health, sexual assault and the criminal justice system. The show highlights the differences between scholarship students and the wealthy classmates they struggle to fit in with in a Madrid private school. The seventh season of “Elite” focuses on mental health; Omar and the rest of the cast are struggling to cope after the significant loss of leading man Samuel Garcia (Itzan Escamilla), who died in Omar’s arms at the end of season five.
Recently, Ayuso sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his return to “Elite” the significance that Omar holds for Muslim communities, LGBTQ communities, and the intersection of the two.
While Ayuso initially had personal reservations about returning to “Elite,” he ultimately jumped at the opportunity to return as a positive role model for gay men with Arab backgrounds in Spanish society — a trait that he and his character both share. “The reality is that I’m closer to [my character] for other reasons [than our shared first name],” Ayuso said. “I’m gay, I come from a small town, I have an Arab background, my father is from Morocco … Even though my family isn’t as conservative and I didn’t have such a hard time coming out, I can relate to many things from that character.”
When asked about his feelings about audience response to his groundbreaking character, Ayuso said that while there is “great beauty” in the feedback he has received from fans, he feels a “moral responsibility” when playing Omar. “You do feel a responsibility as an actor,” Ayuso said. “You have to start from an honest point, especially if you’re talking about a minority that has been marginalized over time. Everything you do has to help [queer Muslims] eventually get to a better place.”
Ayuso added that he is also serious about his personal responsibility as an out Arab actor. “When building your character, you are actually building an audiovisual role model in fiction on a national and international level,” he said. “Being an openly gay actor that is free in real life and in fiction is something that we need so much while growing up and also in our lives as adults. It’s role models that I didn’t have as much when I grew up … Being able to be that role model and to play that role model is something that is really special.”
Ayuso’s portrayal as Omar has been groundbreaking in terms of his intersectional identity as a queer Muslim man. Arab representation on the show has generally been robust — the portrayal of Omar's family and his relationships with his parents, who have strong ties to their homeland, has been a significant aspect of "Elite." While earlier seasons faced criticism for leaning into Islamophobic stereotypes in their depiction of Omar's rigidly conservative father, later seasons have been more deliberate and diligent in portraying Omar’s family in a more nuanced and multi-dimensional way.
In 2022, Palestinian anthropologist Sa’ed Atshan wrote about Omar and Ayuso for the Los Angeles Blade, praising “Elite” for challenging Islamophobia in Spanish and Western societies through its portrayal of the Shanaa family. Atshan noted that Netflix's continued development of Omar's character has been a positive step for the global queer Palestinian community. As recently as last week, Rolling Stone referred to Omar as “the queer Palestinian character changing TV.”
Carlos Montero, the series' creator, explained that the “Elite” team invited Ayuso back due to his past contributions to the show. “He always pulled out all the stops,” Montero told The Hollywood Reporter. Speaking of Ayuso’s character’s elevated role as a protagonist this season, Montero said, “We love his character very much and we wanted to give him the importance we think he deserved.”
All seven seasons of “Elite” are now available to stream on Netflix.