ISTANBUL, Turkey — A little before midnight on a blindingly blue, strobe-lit dance floor in Istanbul, a dark and dapper 24-year-old named Nicholas took a swig of vodka tonic and pressed up against a blue-eyed man, laughing against his neck.
Their hands interlaced and their hips swayed as Lady Gaga’s anthem of fierce abandon, “Born This Way,” blasted through the club’s speakers — an apt soundtrack to a Saturday night of lustful reverie. While in some places this kind of evening is commonplace, it’s anything but in a country like Turkey.
“You can’t be fully normal when you’re gay in Turkey,” Nicholas said, smoking a cigarette with friends on the club’s stairs, festooned with rainbow-colored balloons. The almond-eyed hairdresser has yet to “come out” to his family. He strummed through his text messages, hovering over his correspondence with the Turkish doctor he’s casually dating. The fun comes with a slight hitch: the doctor is married with a wife and children, unable to come out and living a double life.
“There are so many people living lies because you cannot be yourself,” says Yasemin Oz, a prominent LGBT activist, lawyer and lesbian. “This is a patriarchal society with a government that is financing conservatism… I worry the next generation will become only more conservative and less tolerant.”
Unlike in most Muslim-majority countries, being homosexual or transgender is legal in Turkey. In Istanbul, there are pulsating nightclubs, boisterous pride parades, a robust market of doctors specializing in sex reassignment surgery as well as a dedicated roster of organizations and publications. On Saturday nights, some streets morph into cobblestoned cutouts of San Francisco. In this month’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 7, a transgender woman is running for the first time, one of four openly LGBT candidates. If any of the four were to win, it would be another first.
But the country’s increasingly vocal and visible LGBT community still faces an uphill battle in a country rooted in masculine nationalism and led by a socially conservative party with Islamic roots.
No official statistics are available regarding crimes committed against lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, but according to LGBT groups, between January 2010 and June 2014, at least 41 hate murders were reported of individuals who self-identified as queer. According to LGBTI News Turkey, an online watchdog news portal, seven transgender women were attacked last month alone, with only one arrest being made. Activists say such a dark climate has also led to an increasing rate of suicides in the community.
One evening last January, a 19-year-old transgender woman, Eylul Cansin, ended her life by jumping off the city’s iconic Bosphorus Bridge. “Many people were my friends but they turned out not to be my friends,” she wrote in a suicide note and wept on a video she recorded on her mobile phone. “I couldn’t do it anymore, that’s what I’ve learned. I’m doing the thing everyone wants [me to do].”
What everyone wants
Turkey, a European Union aspirant, is often regarded as a model country for more restrictive neighbors in the region. Over the past decade, the country’s city centers have transformed into sparkling amalgams of social conservatism and cosmopolitanism. Shiny Range Rovers buzz like beehives outside new luxury condominiums and mega-malls patronized by a veiled Muslim bourgeois. It’s a model the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling power for more than a decade, flaunts as progress: a distinct brand of Turkish piety and modernism.
But critics say the party has institutionalized conservatism, sidelining women and minority rights.
Turkey currently has no law that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. In May 2013, Binnaz Toprak, a Turkish parliamentarian from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), put forward a historic motion to launch an inquiry into the situation of LGBT individuals and to provide legal protection.
Her motion was denied by the AKP majority. Parliamentarian Turkan Dagoglu defended the party’s stance with an argument drawn from research published in the United States in 1974. She argued that homosexuality is an abnormality and that same-sex marriages would lead to “public corruption.”
The reality is a far cry from a 2002 television program in which now-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the LGBT community should be protected by law. Only one year later, his spokesperson said, “homosexuals cannot be members [of the ruling party]…They can establish their own.”
But many of them can barely establish an adequate place in society.
In 2009, a gay football referee was banned from officiating football matches. In 2014, the Interior Ministry defended the dismissal of a policeman due to his sexual orientation on grounds that the law stipulates “the weeding out of these kinds of public servants.”
The country’s military service, compulsory for all Turkish men between the ages of 19 and 40, poses yet another obstacle. Because homosexuality amounts to a “psychosexual disorder” under the law, homosexuals are considered unfit to serve. But in order to obtain exemption, men are often required to “prove” their homosexuality.
Until recently, such proof sometimes involved a forced anal examination or photographic evidence of the individual engaged in gay sex (The German newspaper Der Speigel claimed that the Turkish military has the largest archive of gay pornography). Now, according to Firat Soyle, a lawyer for LGBT organizations, the military generally asks for a family member or close friend to vouch for the man’s identity.
“Still, we have a long way to go,” Toprak said, ticking off a laundry list of grievances held by not only the LGBT community, but many of the country’s minorities. “There’s economic exclusion from the workforce, social exclusion from society and family….the fight will be long and not easy.”
In that fight, changing mindsets — and the nation’s psyche — might be the most difficult challenge. AKP aside, Turkey’s society is conservative. The brave Turkish solider, embodied by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, has been touted as the masculine ideal. Motherhood is hailed as the highest duty for women.
A 2012 survey showed that a majority of the population supports the criminalization of homosexuality, with just 11 percent opposing. In the 2011 World Values Survey, 84 percent of Turks polled said that they did not want to live with LGBT neighbors.
Such sentiments have birthed a heavy sense of distrust and fear among Turkey’s LGBT community. Many interviewed by The GroundTruth Project asked that their full names not be published.
But the wall of silence isn’t entirely made of concrete. The rise of the AKP and political conservatism over the past decade has actually advanced the LGBT movement in some ways by catalyzing a rise in advocacy.
The annual Gay Pride Parade — an oft-referenced indicator for the growth and success of the movement — has mushroomed. In 2003, the pride march in Istanbul included only 30 people. In 2014, tens of thousands marched proudly throughout the city.
Last year, LGBT activist Sedef Cakmak was elected as a city council member of a large municipality in Istanbul, making her the first elected openly LGBT politician in Turkey (though none yet serve in parliament).
“There have been gains, but as a society, we are still torn between being conservative and being modern,” she said. “I can see the struggle even in my parents, in many Turks.”
Some activists like Murat Renay, a writer and founder of GZone Mag, said the challenges are often exaggerated, obscuring the gains. “Five years ago, there wasn’t even an identity for gays… ‘Gay’ was something you did in your bedroom," he says. "Now it’s an orientation. We are in a new phase.”
Still, Renay, employed by a large Turkish company, refuses to use his real name when talking about the work he’s dedicated his life to. It’s not a function of shame or self-loathing, he says. It’s purely rational.
“In America, there’s a gay community where people look out for each other. But we don’t have that here yet,” he explains. “Turks are busy struggling and dealing with their own identities.” He cites a recent example in which a close gay friend refused to give him a professional contact for fear his own sexuality would be exposed.
“We’re just not there yet,” he said, before walking off to DJ at a gay club, a quick hit of oxygen after a week of clipped breathing.
Someone else’s body
Malatya sits in Turkey’s southeast — almost 700 miles from Istanbul and a universe away from the country’s photogenic showcase of relative liberalism, skinny designer jeans and cold-pressed juice. The province is known to most for its apricots and conservatism. There aren’t blue strobe-lit gay clubs there. In fact, if you talk to the local branch of the AKP, “there aren’t really any gay people.”
“We respect everyone…we think everyone can live their lives…but Malatya is a place where people want to live with their traditions. So these things are a bit distant to us,” says Mehmet Sanem, the deputy head of Malatya’s AKP youth branch. “We don’t want young people to be affected by gay people or influenced, so if this happens….we will react. We won’t kill them…there won’t be physical violence, but we want to keep them away from us.”
A 10-minute drive from the party’s office, “they” gathered in February for a one-day conference organized by 24-year-old Emir Coban, the head of Malatya Youth Initiative Against Transphobia. While he doesn’t consistently dress as a woman, he identifies as a woman who is attracted to men.
Just five years ago, Coban says such a gathering in Malatya would have been unthinkable. And yet such far-off provinces are where he says the difficult grassroots work needs to happen.
“If you want to change the minds of people, you need to start in small cities,” said Coban, before engaging with scores of participants, mostly LGBT individuals from nearby conservative Southeast provinces, in a discussion about Turkish politics. “There are no LGBT movements in Malatya…it should start here.”
But Coban wasn’t always in the front seat of Malatya’s budding LGBT community, much less his own life. Three years ago, his university roommates went through his room and found magazines published by LGBT organizations. “They asked me, ‘Are you like that?’ he recalls. He said yes, hoping for a slow but steady acceptance.
But one day soon after, he was attacked after class by a group of men whom he identifies as nationalists. After 30 minutes of enduring beating and verbal abuse, he says his friends arrived and saved him. He was too scared to go to the hospital, for fear he’d face further discrimination. He soon spiraled into a dark cycle of depression, which kept him out of school for four months. It wasn’t Coban’s first encounter with depression, he said, but merely an extension of decades of dejection.
When Coban came out to his parents in high school, they took him to a hospital in Istanbul. Doctors said he was simply suffering from depression and that he was gay because of “childhood issues.” He was subjected to weekly therapy, anti-depressants and testosterone pills. Such “conversion therapies” are popular in Turkey. Just recently in the US, President Obama called for an end to similar therapies aimed at “repairing” gay, lesbian and transgender youth.
While Coban tried to resist the treatment, he was routinely subjected to emotional and sometimes physical violence from his father, who would often forbid him from leaving the house.
“In Turkey, the family is the most difficult challenge in coming out,” says
Sahika Yuksel, a renowned Turkish psychiatrist specializing in counseling LGBT individuals and the former head of Turkey’s Psychiatric Association. “There’s guilt and anxiety as to what society will think.”
In 2008, Metehan Ozkan, an LGBT activist and homosexual, set out to chip away at this challenge. He started LISTAG, a support and advocacy group for parents of LGBT individuals.
“People here live according to other people’s perceptions, not their own,” says Ozkan. “That’s why one of the most famous Turkish expressions is El alem ne der, ‘What would the world say?’”
At the time of founding the organization, Ozkan hadn’t yet come out to his own mother. When he did, she didn’t talk to him for nearly a year. It wasn’t until one of the LISTAG mothers talked to her, leading a tear-filled breakthrough, that she eventually accepted him. Now, his mother is something of an activist and accompanied Ozkan to a gay pride parade in Rome where “she rode on top of a float, waving to the crowds like Queen Elizabeth.”
“She just needed to see that she wasn’t the only one dealing with his,” he says. “She just needed to see that many others exist.”
And to this day, Coban’s family doesn’t fully accept him. In fact, he hasn’t talked to them in six years.
“Of course, it breaks my heart,” he said, while a group of burly men in leather jackets, thought to be plain-clothed state security officers, watched over him and others at the conference. “I am alone. I have no one to take care of me. I have no family.”
It wasn’t until he met Ege, a 21-year-old transitioning transgender woman in Malatya, through a Facebook group that he began socializing again. She provided support and courage, as she had already come out to her family.
“She saved me,” he explains.
But it hasn’t been an easy road for Ege either, or most of the country’s transgender community.
Back in 1981, the government prohibited men from wearing female clothing in pubs and nightclubs, which led to the banning of famous transgender singers like Bulent Ersoy from performing. In 1988, Turkish law recognized transgenderism, but as an illness, with sex reassignment surgery viewed as a corrective medical procedure.
The process to undergo reassignment surgery in Turkey is relatively easy, explains Yuksel. Three psychiatrists must write the patient a report. People who apply to court with the report are then given permission to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The person then applies to the court a second time with a document proving that he or she has undergone the SRS surgery and the gender is then changed on the individual’s birth certificate.
“Being homosexual is more difficult than being a transgender in Turkish society because the latter is considered a sickness with a medical solution,” says Yuksel. “So as long as the person has the surgery, everything is fine. Homosexuals don’t have that same medical fix.”
Still, the transgender community faces widespread discrimination in the labor force and many are often relegated to the night, forced to become sex workers.
“All routes are closed when you are transgender in Turkey,” says Esmeray, a former sex worker turned famous transgender activist and actress. “When you are LGBT, especially back then, you are alone.”
While Ege says her family is relatively open-minded, her parents didn’t initially accept her identity as a woman. It wasn’t until years of therapy that finally one psychiatrist accepted that such confusion wasn't something that needed or could be fixed.
“After years of trying to change me, he finally told my mother... ‘You don't have a son, you have a daughter.’” Ege hopes to become the first person in Malatya to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It’s a decision her parents now fully support, wanting her to do so right away.
"Families will often push their transgender children to get the reassignment surgery immediately so at least they know there’s a clear identity,” says Yuksel. “No one likes dealing with the unclear, the in-between.”
For members of the LGBT community, a life lived and lodged between is often the de fault — not just between genders, but also between one’s sexuality and one’s religion (and subsequent culture).
Several people within the community speak of their “midway” friends — those who are married with wives but meet men through gay social media apps (Grindr, a popular gay social media app, was banned in 2013), those who post Facebook pictures in solidarity with the now banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but go to gay clubs. Those who have sex freely, but never during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
For Yusha (not his real name), a 24-year-old, self-identified Muslim gay working toward a doctorate in Islamic studies, the duality isn’t so much contradictory or a duality at all. He says it is just a personal, albeit changing, negotiation.
“Islam doesn’t forbid homosexuality….there’s no evidence in the Quran,” he says, recalling a conservative upbringing in a southern Turkish province. When he came out to his mother, she called him a son of a bitch and refused to talk to him. “Muslim people, not Islam, forbid homosexuality.”
If anyone is symbolic of this tug-of-war, whether real or manufactured, it’s 28-year-old Melih Meseli, a handsome businessman who supports the AKP.
During last year’s mayoral elections, he set out to create a virtual space for people like him to catch up on election news and support the party, so he started an LGBT, pro-AKP Facebook group. While the group only has a few hundred members online, Meseli says the group has grown to thousands offline.
“People soon saw they could be religious, conservative and gay,” he said. “People tell us thank you all the time.”
Meseli chides LGBT groups for conducting marches during Ramadan, which he says shows a lack of respect and inclusion.
“We joined an AK Party rally during presidential elections with rainbow flags. We thought we’d have a negative reaction, but fellow AK Party supporters understood that we were gay and they cheered us on,” he said. “The only negative reactions we received were from LGBT groups.”
Like many AKP supporters, Meseli praises the party for their achievements in expanding social services and transforming the economy.
“People say Erdogan is a dictator, but if he were a dictator, we would not be here,” he says. “The LGBT community would not survive. If I met him…I would kiss him. I admire him like a father.”
On a Saturday night, Meseli held a party at the same gay club where Nicholas, the 24-year-old who is dating a married doctor, was dancing with friends to Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Many of Meseli’s friends, including Nicholas, poke fun of his political allegiances, likening his affection for the AKP to a helpless drug addict’s. Still, while Meseli dances and flirts freely, sporting a huge hickey above his crisp designer collar, he says he can’t completely be himself.
“Sometimes I ask myself, is this a perversion?” he later contemplates at a quiet café, huddled in the corner where few can hear him. “Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I fear I will die alone. In the Quran, they say if one has sex with someone of the same sex, it is a sign of Doomsday…so sometimes I think I’m a sign of Doomsday.”
He continues in a near whisper, “Even though we smile, we have psychological pressure,” he says. “We have weight on our shoulders.”
Back down in Malatya, Coban’s conference swelled with lively discussions among a cross-section of Turkish society. Gozde Demirbilek, a 19-year-old bisexual, discussed her award-winning poetry. Because Turkey is a patriarchal country where women are still fighting for equal rights, lesbians and bisexual women often face compounded discrimination.
One 51-year-old transitioning transgender woman showed off her budding “new boobs” and discussed her now open relationship with her wife, with whom she had two children. And 24-year-old Husrev talked about growing up in Konya, a conservative Turkish city, and listening to Turkish musician Zeki Muren — a gay icon often compared to Liberace.
When Husrev was younger, he thought he and Muren were the only two gay people in all of Turkey.
People often walked up to Coban in Malatya, draping him with hugs and selfies. He sat determined but reserved like an unrealized hero, too deep in his own dark battle to share light, but too deep in his own dark battle not to try to build a ladder for himself and others.
“Life puts two paths in front of you: you either adapt to the way things are and bow your head or you refuse to adapt. If you refuse to adapt, you will struggle,” he said, wrapping a rainbow flag around his shoulders. “And if you struggle, you will not lead a comfortable life, but you will do it for the coming generation.”
Before the last of daylight disappeared, Coban took down the LGBT flags he had hung triumphantly in the hotel’s conference room and trundled back out into the quiet town: a land of people in between. El alem ne der? What would the world say?
This story is part of an ongoing series by The GroundTruth Project called "The Other," supported by the Ford Foundation. Tugba Tekerek contributed reporting.