As a Muslim country, Turkey reveals a very different attitude than most other Islamic countries toward lesbigay life. Progressive and highly western, Turkey allows gays to have a measure of freedom of expression and as well access to fulfilling careers and romantic intimacy. But many Turks resent and fear any recognition of “Gay Life in Modern Turkey” or allowing gay rights.
by Richard Ammon
Revised March 2012
This story is in memory of Ahmet Yidliz, a person naturally born as a gay self, grown into a compassionate citizen, educated teacher, domestic partner and much-loved friend. He was murdered by his father in a homophobic honor killing only a few months after I met him in Istanbul. See story and memorial. In 2011 two friends of Ahmet’s produced a film about his life and death: Zenne Dancer; also see the website for the film).
Modern urban Turkey is an east-west culture that has become infused, for most of the 20th century, with European life. Indeed, after the defeat of the 700-year-old Islamic Ottoman Empire in World War I, England and France pretty much split up Turkey between themselves for several years. That European flavor has never faded. Western humanitarian, economic and political standards have prevailed as well as countless Victorian, art-deco and neo-classical style buildings, along with clutching traffic jams and independent newspapers.
(A pleasant ‘east-west connection’ occurred my first day as I strolled past a Moorish-style piano store from which emanated beautiful live excerpts of Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto being performed by the proprietor.)
Modern Turkey is sourced back to a distinct year, 1923, when the charismatic and powerful military leader Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ (center. in photo) declared the country to be an independent country. He led his troops to victory against the occupying Europeans. Within ten years Ataturk had infused his lethargic agrarian homeland with progressive modern ideas, values and standards.
Women were given education and the right to vote, the fez hat was outlawed, and the old Arabic alphabet was swept out and replaced with the Latin alphabet (used in most the western languages). Respect for ‘humanism’ and individual differences was prized along with a regard for advanced science and technology.
It was Ataturk who was mostly responsible for separating Islam and state in Turkey. In doing so he softened the suffocating religious pale over legal and state affairs. Indirectly, it also lifted a curse over homosexual truth. By dissolving the fierce authority of Islam, same-sex desire became a cultural and secular consideration, not a religious matter. Rule of law replaced inconsistently administered moral religious codes–and that has made all the difference for the (slow and gradual) emergence of today’s lesbigay community.
Not that Turkey has become a Holland of the south. Being gay here is still a shadow identity. But in recent generations, building on Ataturk’s original humanism, there’s been a persistent gay subculture making its voice heard. Mainstream culture is slowly realizing that gay men are not necessarily effeminate outcasts; many high positions in society, commerce, politics and media are competently occupied by gays and lesbians without their being overtly identified.
‘Parisian’ life and social masks
Gay life in modern urban Turkey can be a hard if you are a transvestite/transsexual; it can be be distressing and lonely if you are a closeted bureaucrat or corporate worker; and it can be daunting if you are an activist. Or, gay life in modern Istanbul can be relatively comfortable if you are discreetly ‘out’ and select your friends carefully.
For many lesbigays, life can be easy not because of protective laws or liberal attitudes, but because it’s a well-disguised lifestyle interwoven into a culture that allows for easy cover. This is a society with a high level of male/male and female/female camaraderie: Turkish men hang out with other men; they touch and caress and walk arm in arm.
By the thousands, in cafes, in every city or village, with their chums they hover over dominoes or backgammon, drink tea or coffee, smoke lots of cigarettes and schmooze about local politics, olive crops or the day’s soccer games. Women have even easier access to one another, as is common in Muslim cultures, where the genders are usually segregated in public.
Just how far this camaraderie goes is a matter of ambivalence and opinion. Ask any straight man privately, and he will deny that sex between guys happens. But ask a gay man and he’ll say that in fact it’s not unusual—gay or straight. Both, however, will agree that it’s not discussed, not labeled and definitely not considered ‘gay’ among most men who have done the deed.
My Istanbul friend Caner, a ‘modern’ gay Turk, claimed that despite this lack of (straight) admission “it’s rare to find a Turkish man who gets married and is a virgin—and not because he’s been with a woman.” Although some young Turks turn to available prostitutes for fun (some of whom are transvestites or transgendered) there are more than a few who have been open, past or present, to the heat of other men.
Whether it’s a one-time experiment, an occasional fun time, a youthful romance, a confused hunger or an emerging gay identity, the outward act often appears the same, but it‘s all safely masked by a mindset of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’. You play and go on with your life: get married and keep your secrets or be quietly gay and mingle in the restrained queer social scene. It’s your own business. The norm that surrounds any intimate male contact throughout much of this ancient and checkered culture is prudent silence.
Further cloaking for homosexuals in Turkey is the general absence of hostile homophobia. It is virtually unheard of that individuals or gangs of straight men go out looking to bash some queers. This could well be an artifact of the muted presence of gays or, more likely, a general indifference stemming from a lack of religious zealotry. Homophobic fundamentalists do not command much public influence in secular Islamic Turkey as they do in Christian cultures so young people are not exposed to overt messages that gays are sinners worthy of punishment.
It also helps that in Turkey there are no specific legal statutes that incriminate homosexuality. Although there is certainly little respect from the police and local authorities, including the occasional bar bust, lesbigay folks cannot be summarily arrested and charged with queerness. More commonly, police action is taken against illegal violations (drugs, under-age alcohol) or inappropriate behavior (sex in public) on ‘morals’ charges which can apply to anyone.
Another cover for gays in this changing society is provided by a shift in family expectations. In previous generations, an unmarried man over thirty five and an unmarried woman over twenty eight could expect a household of pressure to get married, but today that attitude is changing, especially in the highly westernized major cities of Turkey, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya or Tarsis. Young people are choosing not to marry early and even to live with a same-gender friends to go to school or to work and save money. In Istanbul two guys or gals living together is no longer a suspect situation.
Still another shield for lesbigay folks in these large cities is anonymity. Istanbul, as the prime example, is a huge ‘Parisian’ city of ubiquitous cafes, clubs, bars, saunas, discos and over twelve million people. It absorbs and blends many lifestyles which facilitates living a lesbigay life without fear or rejection from family or prying neighbors or scorn from the local mullah.
Not surprisingly, LGBT places come and go in Istanbul. One long-time survivor is Sugar Club Cafe, a small nondescript cafe in a small alley off the pedestrian Istiklal Street in the Beyoglu tourist district. As well the Marmara Hotel Cafe has been a popular gay-friendly place for some time. These days (2008) the Tekyon Bar is the happening place, also in Beyoglu. “But really, there are no gay-unfriendly places here,” said Caner. Couples and friends can eat or drink anywhere now.
“Things have changed quite a bit in the past five years here; being gay–or seeing gay people–is much more common especially among young people. It’s not an issue for them. A lot of straight people like our gay places such a Cahide (pronounced ‘Jahida’) bar-cabaret-restaurant (drag shows every night -book in advance). Cahide originally started as a local gay bar but its popularity has spread across Turkey. ” Caner says this is reflective of the general change in Turkish society in the 21st century.
Rebels with a Cause
Such a position is, of course, debated by activists who argue that comfortable secrecy is not acceptable. Some feel it reflects personal homophobia and surrendering of one’s authenticity to public ignorance and political prejudice.
Part of the answer to this challenge can be found in the language. Self-identifying as ‘gay’ in modern Turkey is inhibited by the fact that the term has another common usage: it means ‘transvestite’ with which few homosexual Turkish men or women associate themselves. (Some have wondered aloud why the Turkish word ‘escinsel’—homosexual–is not used instead.)
The transvestite/transsexual community is separately identified; it’s more troubled and discriminated against by the mainstream population. It takes a lot of courage to be a Turkish ‘tyranny’ because they break the code of sexuality in this macho country where men clearly play the dominant role of ‘fuckers’– they run the government, drive taxis (aggressively) and go to war to defend the land of Ataturk.
Attitudes about trans folks are generally negative. Scorned and harassed by police and straight people, they usually cannot find regular work in mainstream business so most become prostitutes plying their trade on the back streets of Beyoglu, the trendy tourist nightclub district (where numerous gays venues are also located).
One transsexual, Sevval Kilic, said that for years the gay trannies and other sex workers had been pushing for legalized brothels. Now, Turkey is the only Muslim country with sanctioned state-supervised prostitution. Currently, the obvious next step being negotiated bothers some and pleases others–whether to let transsexuals work in the same brothels.
A recent newspaper story reported about 3,000 transvestites and transsexuals are thought to live in Istanbul. With such hostility aimed at this gender-bending community, it’s no wonder why non-trans homosexuals are reluctant to rally around the ‘gay’ flag. (For more about the woes of trannies, see Turkish News Reports in the Index.)
Seeking a Middle Way
Between these two polarities of confidential discretion and iconoclastic code-breaking is a gay organization that tries to bridge the gap. Lambda Istanbul is a volunteer “liberation group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in Turkey” according to their web site.
Meeting once a week, it’s the largest LGBT group in Turkey started by a group of gays and lesbians as a result of a police ban on Christopher Street Day celebrations in 1993. “Since then, Lambda, Istanbul has grown in membership and aims to raise its voice on behalf of the gay communities in Istanbul.”
Its services offer a telephone help line, a bimonthly magazine ‘Kaos GL’, safe-sex information for gay men and a monthly fund-raising party at chic Istanbul clubs. It also organizes semi-annual meetings with other lesbigay organizations from around the country. It also hosts a well respected annual anti-homophobia conference in Ankara.
The most outstanding demonstration of their courage and determination is the now annual Gay Pride parade staged each year in June by Kaos GL (based in Ankara) in the heart of Istanbul. Thousands participated in the 2007 march–without any interference from police or government authorities.
This is a big change since 2001 when there were only thirty marchers, mostly supported by family and friends. Wearing pink triangle armbands, they were applauded by some spectators and ignored by most others. The important thing then was that they were not stopped by anyone. Said Caner, “In fact such events are neither forbidden nor free–just like all other things in Turkey.”
And change they have. See a film clip of the large 2007 parade at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGUC0zEMEcU
Spurred on by the relative success of the parades, Lambda Istanbul is determined to “keep on developing ourselves, working against our society’s prejudices and homophobia for a more democratic Turkey with respect to each human being”. Lambda continues to test the limits for more presence and voice despite some government legislators who attempted and failed to close down the Kaos GL magazine in 2007-08.
Visibility and audibility are now important keys to the future of LGBT citizens in Turkey. Being gay and living veiled within traditional social standards is all too common. Breaking that mold with colorful and noisy gay events threatens the straight-male-dominated Muslim order of things. Today’s activists and community members are more and more willing to be unmasked in this ancient-modern Euro-Asian country; it takes great strength and courage, given the social consequences, but the parade participant numbers are solid proof the movement is definitely in forward motion: 30 marchers in 2001; 3000 marchers in 2007.
Breaking the Mold
One of the outspoken and respected torchbearers for the lesbigay-trans community, 38 year-old Demet Dimir was given an award for advocacy by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 2001.
In her acceptance speech she cut to the heart of darkness for many disenfranchised lesbigays in Turkey: “it was only me who knew about my sexuality. I had to hide my emotions and it was very difficult. I was a prisoner everywhere…it was hard to survive in a Muslim country and patriarchal, feudal society. I thought a lot about what I was guilty for but could not find an answer. It was impossible to match my life with religion because Islam rejects all gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Islam, with all institutions, is one of the most important factors that darkens life for homosexuals.”
Recounting her earlier life, she told her audience,”I was put into prison in 1982. I stayed in prison for eight months. In prison I was excluded by my leftist friends because I was a faggot and I had no right to live…The only way the transgendered can earn their living in Turkey is prostitution. And they are trying every way to prevent us from prostitution. But how are we going to survive? There is no right to live if you are different…But we are not daunted by all these things and we are still actively working in many different areas.”
In her closing comment, she reasserted her courageous determination to continue her important human rights work on behalf of her stigmatized cohorts: “In Turkey, so far, many homosexuals were killed and police could not find their murderers. Police do not care to look for the murderers because they think homosexuals are not worth it. We have a lot of problems in Turkey and we want to live the way the heterosexuals do. I will keep on struggling for every right. Yesterday I started as a child and I am going on as a mother today. And tomorrow I will go on as a grandmother. I do not care if they kill me or put me in prison again.”
Help and Hope From Afar
Curiously, Demit may eventually get her wish for equal respect and tolerance, not through any spontaneous change of heart from the Turkish populace or from the government’s sympathy. Rather, more circuitously from (1) the separation of state and mosque, (2) Turkey’s application to join the European Union, and (3) the advent of the Internet.
(1) Islam and State
For many gay individuals and couples in Turkey able to afford a middle class lifestyle, homosexuality blends into the culture for the reasons described above. It also blends easily because Turkey is constitutionally and structurally a secular society, not an Islamic ruled society–despite the fact that most citizens are Moslems and the muezzins rouse people to prayer starting at 5 AM (although, only the the most devout show up then). This separation of mosque and state makes a profound difference for gays.
In virtually all Islamic lands gay culture is probably the most closeted populace. It will be a long time before there is anything remotely like a self-identifying gay movement in that vast swath of Islamic countries stretching from Morocco through Egypt and across to Pakistan and India.
(In the autumn of 2001 a highly publicized trial of some 52 alleged gay men happened in Egypt. They were charged by the authorities for various degrees of ‘immoral’ and un-Islamic behavior in an alleged gay club. The first sentence handed down was to a 15-year-old boy who was given three years of hard labor (reduced to probation three months later). Despite international protests, 23 more guilty verdicts were handed down along with 29 acquittals; that is, after having been humiliated and shamed in public, more than half were found innocent and acquitted of the charges!)
However, in this regard, Turkey stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the Islamic world. In the founding years of modern Turkey (1923-30) the new leaders, under Ataturk, were powerful enough to overthrow fourteen centuries of rule by Islamic sultans and caliphs and put religion outside the halls of legislature. Individual thought and behavior was given more freedom and respect and laws were enacted to administer justice (for the most part) in a fair and equitable manner.
So for most of the 20th century and into the 21st, Turkey has forged ahead with a strong leaning toward western lifestyles, commerce and justice. Despite some occasional interference—or ‘stabilization’ according to some—from the military, Turkey has progressed further than any other Muslim country in improving the standard of living for most of it 70 million Muslim citizens. In so doing, it has also given some breathing room for homosexual Turks to live and gather without the specter of religious persecution.
(2) European Union
Continuing in that vein, in September 2001 the Turkish legislature in Ankara began the process to make 37 alterations to the federal constitution. These changes ranged from technical provisions governing political activity to a few rules governing human rights.
The motivation for such changes comes from Turkey’s desire to become part of the European Union in an effort to strengthen and stabilize its fragile economic condition. But as part of the conditions of membership in the Union, there are clear and unambiguous human rights standards which must be accepted and regarded. One of these policies is non-discrimination toward all minority groups included those with variant sexual orientations.
Laws in all European Union member nations must be adjusted to conform to the ‘Code of Amsterdam’, a set of guiding legal policies (not laws) adopted by the member EC nations. These ‘legal codes’ have been adjudicated by the European Court of Justice including those concerning human rights policies.
It is clearly stated that all citizens shall be treated with “equal treatment” under the law. This has meant the elimination of archaic and draconian statutes, once approved by paternalistic and heterosexism lawmakers throughout Europe which discriminated against racial, sexual and gender minorities.
With these constitutional changes Turkey has shown a reluctant readiness to take on the politically daunting task of stepping even further away from its more Islamic-minded neighbors. No doubt that these new attitudes and regulations will strain relations with such conservative states, but the balance, Turkey believes, is economic stability and prosperity. Although the government cannot bring itself, yet, to consider gay marriage rights, the lesbigay community in Turkey will eventually see benefits and legislative protections which can only be dreamed about by those behind the Islamic curtain.
(3) Hi-Tech Revolution
As in Asia, the most revolutionary changes in the lesbigay world of connectedness in Turkey have been made possible via the Internet. Indeed, communication via www. and http// throughout the Islamic world has created an entirely new and vital source of hope and validation for many isolated folks.
A glance at any search engine reveals dozens of references to Turkish lesbigay sites and sources. Since many Turks speak English fluently, their outreach has been extended literally all over the world to Turks living abroad who support and advise gays at home. Additionally, numerous ex pat Turks living abroad have started a variety of web sites to support their comrades everywhere.
For example, the largest Turkish community outside Turkey lives in Berlin, Germany (mostly in the former eastern zone) where many once cut-off Turkish gays had no way to connect with their homeland friends or indeed each other under the communist regime.
That has changed greatly, and perhaps no greater symbol of that growth is the recent gay-themed film ‘Lola and Bilidikid’ (photo on left), “the story of a journey of a young Turkish-German boy finding about himself”. Due to the international popularity of the film, it now has its own web site.
As well, the Lonely Planet guidebook web site has a ‘Thorn Tree’ message forum for lesbigay travelers which receives messages from Turkey–as well as other Muslim places such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Egypt and Morocco.
Building upon these legal and technological steps of progress, over the past and future years, Turkey will likely provide Demet and her companions, and the entire homosexual population, with such ‘natural’ provisions and privileges that are long overdue.
Alive, Cheerful and Gay in Turkey
Mehmet and Caner have been a committed couple for fifteen years since they introduced themselves to one another on the Internet. They have consolidated their lives and live in a thoroughly modern and fashionable apartment in the Asian sector of Istanbul. Their neighborhood and the nearby waterfront cafes and promenade could be in an upscale area of any major European city. Busy executives, professionals, merchants, creative artists—male and female—sport the latest cars and fashions. Little old women in black sweeping their steps are also part of the ‘hood. Mehmet works for an international advertising company and Caner has been a designer in the clothing and fabric industry.
For both of them, there is a lifelong awareness of their own sexuality and, now, a mutual fulfillment of their desire for intimacy, passion and nesting in their home. “I knew I would have this life because it was the only kind I wanted”, said Caner. He had dated a couple of times but did not like the bar and café scene. Istanbul has several gay bars and mixed cafes where gay singles and couples mix easily with non-gay Turks.
Mehmet did not have time to go out much except occasionally with a friend. His career has kept him pre-occupied and often out of the country, so he is very familiar with the cultures—gay and straight —around the world. “I also knew the kind of life I wanted, but I was not in a hurry. My job introduced me to a lot of people and I knew I would meet someone I wanted to be with,” he said with a pleasing smile at Caner.
Both attended university and speak fluent English; they have traveled in the west enough to have a clear sense of the style and quality of life they want with each other. “We are very western in our minds but we feel fortunate to be part of a culture which has a rich Muslim heritage… despite the September ’01 attack in New York and Washington, it is a peaceful religion,” Mehmet said. Both are Muslim by birth but do not actively practice the faith. Curiously, Mehmet is light-haired and blue-eyed like many other Turks whose families came from the Balkans generations ago.
Until 2007 their parents had not fully acknowledging of their sons’ relationship, out of ignorance or denial. But that has changed for the better after some serious talks. For these heterosexual parents and grandparents whose lives have bridged the span from old east to new west, their own ‘coming out’ to the modern variety of their sons’ lifestyles has taken considerable time. Social traditions and Muslim attitudes don’t loosen easily especially when there’s no larger social attitude or political leadership willing to forge new thought.
An evening out with Caner and Mehmet took us first to the apartment of close (straight) friends whose balcony offered an panoramic view of the entire glistening harbor and old town with its illuminated mosques glowing in in the night. Casual conversation included straight and gay gossip, the buzz about happening social events and the bi-annual arts festival. After a dinner under the stars, we taxied to the trendy Taksim Square Cafe for a drink with an Anglo-Turkish gay couple. As we chatted about jobs, homes and the hurdles of bi-lingual romance, several other lesbian and gays friends of Caner’s and Mehmet’s came by for a quick hello. The atmosphere was easy, relaxed and stylish–like any other upscale watering hole catering to post-modern gay/straight clientele.
These were not apprehensive or cautious folks, but rather energized ‘guppies’, busy with careers and friendships. Our hosts Caner and Mehmet, both in their thirties, were moving ahead with optimistic plans for their professional, social and private lives. Caner was looking for a new location to expand his design work; Mehmet was planning a series of international trips and ad campaigns. Their friendship network, which includes membership in the Turkish Bear community, expands continuously and their lives behind less-closed doors widens further as they face opportunities and obstacles of Turkish life in the 21st century. For them, and Turkey, there is no turning back.
Altered Lives–Life and Death
However, in 2009 Caner’s and Mehmet’s lives were dramatically altered. Ahmet Yidliz, a much-loved friend , compassionate citizen, educated teacher and domestic partner was murdered by his father in a homophobic honor killing, only a few months after I met him in Istanbul. See the story and memorial written in memory of Ahmet on another page of GlobalGayz. In 2011 Caner and Mehmet produced a film about his life and death: Zenne Dancer; also see the website for the film).
The Famous Turkish Bathhouse (hamam)
To fully appreciate Turkish customs, one afternoon I walked out of the modern tourist area of Taksim and into another world, another century of old Ottoman buildings hovering over narrow crooked streets. Tucked away were wooden shamble houses and small mosques. Yelping kids played soccer against rusty iron gates next to a timeworn antique shop full of the dust and remnants of previous generations.
The Cukurcuma “historical bath house” was on a tiny back street hardly wide enough for a car. With some hesitance, I entered the rather shabby building, but once I walked in I was immediately impressed with the authenticity of the place.
The entry hall was topped with a twenty-foot wooden ceiling wood from which a wrought iron chandelier hung down ten feet, level with the balcony balustrade running around all four sides. On the ground floor was a small desk with a smiling pot bellied manager named Samet who welcomed me (for an entry fee of $6.60) and asked where I was from. I replied and immediately he crossed two fingers and said in broken English that America and Turkey were together as one, referring to September 11–a sympathy expressed everywhere I went in Turkey.
Samet issued me a thin cloth waist wrap and a rather worn but serviceable locker where I stashed my clothes and kept the key.
To my surprise, the main bathing room was quite pleasing—it was clean and dripped with ancient authenticity. The moist walls and floor were lined with polished gray marble; thirty feet above was a domed ceiling with small round skylights. Spaced every few feet around the walls were carved marble basins about two feet off the floor each fitted with ornate fluted bronze faucets that fed each basin with hot and cold water.
I filled my basin with warm water and poured the soothing liquid over my head and body with a small plastic bowl (the original bowls would have been bronze or brass). As the faucets kept running, I doused myself with as much water as I liked; the drain water slipped away through small holes in the marble floor. I baked in the sauna for a while then returned to the bathing room to anoint my steamy self with cold water from the fancy taps. All the pouring was done sitting down next to the basins on a low marble step, not standing up.
Common to most hamams, in the center of the 25×25 room was a raised marble platform, about ten feet square on which attendants wash and massage customers. I had read about the wrenching pleasures of this Turkish ritual so I paid the extra $3.50 for the scrub and a massage.
My treatment was at the hands of a stocky mustached masseur. Instead of using the legendary eucalyptus leafy branches to beat me, he used the more common washcloth scrubber (slightly rough) with oiled soap over my major body parts (vigorously) then doused me with a few basins of hot water. This was followed by a no-nonsense strong-handed 15 minute massage on the same marble slab. After a final warm rinse, I felt thoroughly cleansed, relaxed—and relieved. The infamous legend turned out to be a pleasant purge.
For a while, afterwards, I sat there and looked around at this antique palace of purification–the marble detailing, the faucets and fountains, feeling the moist heat rise and studying the muscular dome and glassy-smooth platform where, no doubt, a thousand massages had been launched. Although this was an alleged gay hamam, few others were present since it was the off-hour about 8 PM. Mostly, the other men scrubbed and doused themselves, some glanced casually at one another while still others leaned against the basins and talked with friends.
All this evoked a timeless sense of history for me; this is how the ancients lived and bathed–communally, virtually naked, chatting while sweating in the steam room or cooling in the pool (some hamams have pools) probably talking about the day’s affairs, government policies, financial or family matters and problem children.
Others perhaps cruised some dreamy-eyed number named Demetrius or Claudius next to the corner basin—and perhaps even struck up a conversation that later developed into a love affair. Language and architecture might have changed, but human aims are pretty much now as they were then.
It seemed evident that here in modern and old Istanbul, history and eros were still keenly alive just a few streets off the beaten paths of taxis and Internet cafes. Slowly but surely gay and lesbian feelings are becoming less hidden in hamans, discreet clubs or in the shadows of night, more open to a new light of justice and respect.
Islam and Homosexuality
Online organization: https://about.me/turkgayclubhttps://about.me/turkgayclub