AND LESBIAN LIFE AND GAY CULTURE IN TURKEY
Europe's door yet on the threshold of Asia, Turkey is truly
a land of contrasts. Here you can scale the icy heights of
remote Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark, cross the
historic Euphrates and Tigris rivers, follow in the
footsteps of St Paul or simply relax on the golden
Mediterranean sands of Patara beach. Vibrant Istanbul,
straddling the blue waters of the Bosphorus separating
Europe from Asia, beckons with its skyline pierced by
countless minarets, chaotic bazaars and a history redolent
with harem intrigue and despotic Sultans.
Europe's door yet on the threshold of Asia, Turkey is truly a
land of contrasts. Here you can scale the icy heights of remote
Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark, cross the historic
Euphrates and Tigris rivers, follow in the footsteps of St Paul
or simply relax on the golden Mediterranean sands of Patara
beach. Vibrant Istanbul, straddling the blue waters of the
Bosphorus separating Europe from Asia, beckons with its skyline
pierced by countless minarets, chaotic bazaars and a history
redolent with harem intrigue and despotic Sultans.
In Turkey, you can also cruise along more than a thousand
kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, past secluded coves,
rocky headlands and pretty fishing villages, or explore a
hinterland rich in the wonderfully preserved remains of Graeco-Roman
cities such as Ephesus. For the adventurous, the austere beauty
of the Anatolian plateau, the surreal rock-chimney landscape of
Cappadocia and the atmospheric ruins of the enigmatic Hittites
await discovery. Here, too, is the unique experience of watching
the dervishes whirl in pious Konya.
With a code of hospitality nurtured by their Islamic beliefs yet
with a remarkable tolerance of other customs, the Turks offer a
warm welcome wherever you travel - be it sipping sweet black tea
or thick coffee with friendly villagers or sharing a bottle of
raki over mezes (hors d'oeuvres) with cosmopolitan Istanbul
Understanding Turkish Gay Culture
Gay action in Turkey is still
mainly based on active-passive relationships as it was
during Ottoman time.
For the gay
people who have not visited Turkey before, the first step should
be getting familiar with the gay culture. The gay culture of
Turkey is fairly different than western countries, as is the
case with the general Turkish culture. Being situated at the
intersection of Europe and Asia geographically, Turkey was
influenced by both the Eastern and the Western civilizations.
Turkey is the only Muslim country in the world where
homosexuality is not illegal since the republic was founded in
1923. There has not been any significant political pressure on
homosexuality during Ottoman Empire period also. This makes
Turkish gay life unique in the world. This unique gay culture
might be favorable or aversive depending on expectations, but
one thing is for sure: It is very vivacious and very colorful.
It needs to be emphasized here that there is already a
misunderstanding about Turkish culture in the western countries.
Surprisingly, some people still think of Turkey as a very
typical and traditional Middle-Eastern country and some of them
even think Turkey is just like other Arabic countries and the
religion is dominating everything. In reality, Turkey is a
strictly secular country and has got a special culture of her
own, much closer to the Western culture if compared to the other
neighborhood Middle Eastern countries - except her incorrigible
To understand the origins of gay culture in Turkey, let's
analyze two Turkish words: "ibne" and "oglan". Actually, both
words literally mean "boy" although they are now being used as
expressions of insult. "Ibne" is originally exported from Arabic
and it is being used with a meaning very close to "fag" in
contemporary Turkish. Although "oglan" means exactly "boy" in
formal Turkish, it is often being used to mean something like
"gay" or "homo" in slang language. Their present meanings got a
historical background. As we know, a boy is not a man, not
hairy, without beard, has a high-pitched voice, a smooth skin
etc... As you can easily notice, these are all characteristics
of female gender. It is usually expounded that, especially at
times when religion was stronger, a (gay) boy could easily be a
good substitution of a woman in man-to-man environments (such as
bath houses). So it was actually pederasty culture rather than
homosexuality. This might be a key to understand the remains of
the history in modern Turkish gay culture.
Today, the dominating life style for the gay people living in
Turkey is still based on active-passive relationships between
two groups of people. The "active" ones are called "kulampara"
or "oglanci" both meaning something like pederast but not
necessarily older in age than their partners and they would not
even like to be called "gay" and are probably bisexuals at
varying degrees. The "passive" ones belong to the second group,
real gay guys who are expected to take the role of a woman
during sexual contact. For example, one of the first questions
to be asked after meeting a gay-related person might very
possibly be "Are you passive or active (bottom or top) ?"
Consequently there is a big transgender culture in Turkey, who
are sometimes more visible than the gay and lesbian people in
Spreading use of the English word "gay" also is an indication of
changing gay culture in recent years. Straight people are also
slowly getting more conscious about gays and lesbians and
accepting their different sexual orientation more easily in
comparison to several decades ago. But still there's a long way
to go, and maybe it's questionable which life style is better.
These different cultures might be considered as an advantage for
gay people in Turkey in a way, since they have at least two
alternatives to choose from.
Development of Turkish Gay Life in Recent Years
Late singer, Zeki Muren who
dared to sing with a man's body in women's clothes and
make-up in 1950's Turkey. When he died in 1996 he gathered
thousands of people for his funeral, more than any
politician could in recent years.
Turkey grew up with the fabulous voice and around 200
compositions of the classical Turkish music performer Zeki
Muren, who dared to sing with a man's body in women's clothes
and make-up in 1950's Turkey. Turks called their first Golden
Record awarded artist the ‘sun of art', never openly referring
to him as ‘gay' but rather as ‘extraordinary.' Muren was not the
only one with different sexual tendencies and was followed by
Bulent Ersoy, whose approved talent in the same art competed
from time to time with her transsexual identity.
The children of
this country grew up unaware of the existence of gays and
lesbians, but they were condemned by their parents -who rarely
talk about sex- for not enjoying Ersoy or Muren's music. Just
until the development of Turkey's own gay-lesbian-transgender
movement, ‘extraordinary' sexual tendencies continued to be
lived behind four walls, as reflected in Ersoy's choice to call
the ban on her for taking stage because of her transsexual
identity after 1980 military coup as ‘the internal affairs of
our country', in an interview abroad.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in Turkey
accelerated by the 1990s. Today, it has reached to a level that
gay and lesbian university students can apply for an official
student club. The movement itself prefers to use the
abbreviation LGBT, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender; instead of ‘homosexual', due to its negative
connotation as a disease rather than a sexual tendency.
Although Turkey's LGBT activists generally emphasize that it is
the patriarchal system behind sexual discrimination, which is
found worldwide, they mainly acknowledge that Turkey stands at
the beginning of the road to gain LGBT rights, with a need to
fight more strongly against sexual discrimination than their
counterparts in the West. According to Turkish LGBT people the
way is more open in the struggle against homophobia in the West
and making society more conscious, as they have gained legal
rights. They acknowledge the laws are important to transform the
society but the laws alone cannot eliminate homophobia. They
think it is more critical to break the prejudices of the
Turkish LGBT organizations. At
the beginning of the 1990s, two local LGBT organizations were
founded: Lambda Istanbul in Istanbul in 1993 and Kaos
GL in the capital, Ankara in 1994. From the beginning, these
organizations worked to effect changes not only in their
immediate social environments by organizing activities,
publishing manifestos and LGBT related information, but also in
society at large through their interactions with lawmakers and
experts from various fields. LAMBDA Istanbul first came together
to organize the Gays Pride Week in Turkey in 1993. Not giving
up, the volunteers continued to meet for 9 years and became
officially registered last year. The aim of LAMBDA Istanbul is
to provide more visibility for LGBTs. “You are neither
alone, nor wrong,” is the slogan of the organization. After
2000's several other local gay, lesbian and transgender
organizations and groups emerged in Turkey such as
Siyah Pembe Ucgen Izmir which was formed by local LGBT
people in Izmir, Pembe Hayat
(Pink Life) by transvestites and transsexuals in Ankara,
MorEl (Purple Hand) by LGBT people in in Eskisehir.
In Istanbul another LGBT group was formed by people
separated from Lambda in 2007 and named themselves
They had considerable media coverage with their protest against
Head Police Officer of Istanbul, who is said be encouraging
policemen to apply an irrelevant law to fine transvestites
streets only because they wear women dress. The group leaders
described this incident as a "witch hunt" and compared it with
the persecutions of Hitler regime.
The first and only gay lesbian magazine in Turkey:
GL, one among several LGBT organizations in Turkey,
publicized its struggle against homophobia in 1994 with Turkey's
first and only gay-lesbian magazine KAOS GL. Starting its life
through a photocopy machine, KAOS GL magazine has continued to
survive for 11 years as a ground for Turkey's LGBTs to say their
“Those 16 pages, copied in a photocopy machine will be
remembered as a turning point in the lives of those women and
men, who will take a shelter under the love of their own gender
and stand with this love even a hundred years later,” current
columnist in daily Radikal Yıldırım Turker wrote about KAOS GL
magazine in the 66th issue of the magazine Express in 1995.
The 28th issue of KAOS GL magazine which criticized pornography
was recalled with the accusation of obscene publication, and the
court decided that the issue had to be sold in a plastic bag and
its sale to minors under 18 was to be prohibited. The case is
now in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), because of
their appeal for the court's reasoning to put the issue in
KAOS GL is based in Ankara and has around 50 members officially.
But the real number of volunteers is greatly above that number,
as many still decline to disclose that they work for a gay
organization. Izmir also has a branch of KAOS GL. The
organization stands out with its legal struggle for LGBT rights.
From opposing sexually discriminating court decisions to
proposing to add ‘discrimination of sexual tendency' next to
‘gender discrimination' in the criminal code, KAOS GL struggles
to prevent hate crimes against LGBT people.
Turkish Transsexuals and Transvestites: No choice but
Country wide famous celebrity
Bulent Ersoy was already famous when she was a man, before
her transgender operation.
She now hosts TV programs in most popular TV channels.
and transvestites feel the oppression much more than gays,
lesbians and bisexuals since they are more visible. But they are
not aware of the rights they have, leading to a high degree of
abuse and discrimination.
LAMBDA Istanbul organizes education seminars for LGBTs to inform
them about their rights when exposed to violence. There are
several working groups under LAMBDA Istanbul, including the
transvestite and transsexual working group. The struggle of
transvestites and transsexuals focusing on legal issues and the
right to work is now a main concern. The oppression from police
forces is overwhelming according to Lambda Istanbul activists.
They raid homes of transvestites and transsexuals and collect
the condoms that the ministry of health distributed as evidence.
In and interview with Turkish Daily News one of the transsexuals
in Lamdda Istanbul explains why they had to form a separate work
group as this
“There are transphobic friends even in LAMBDA, and this makes us
sad,” She further said:
“They do not leave us any choice but prostitution,” 46 year old
Ebru said. She was working in Zonguldak municipality before she
acknowledged her transgender identity. “They fired me as soon as
they learned,” she said.
1992 Turkish movie Dus
Gezginleri (Dream Voyagers) is about an obsessive lesbian
love, ironically created by the social pressures.
Turkish Lesbians - Double discrimination against lesbian
make things more complicated for lesbians. Women are already
regarded as pretty much nonexistent, but it is a double
discrimination for lesbians. Gay women have different problems
and they took the back seat in the LGBT struggle in comparison
to male gays.
The pervasive prejudice within Turkish society puts lesbians
under a great deal of pressure. It is very difficult for a
lesbian, especially a young lesbian, to ‘come out’ to herself or
to her family or friends. Each lesbian has to find her own way,
without the help of a visible lesbian community or any sort of
support organizations. Forced marriages are very common,
especially in rural areas, and girls are brought up to believe
that there are no alternatives to heterosexual marriage. In big
cities, the incidence of forced marriage is not as high, but
younger lesbians are frequently sent to psychologists to be
Lesbians who have managed to live independently have a difficult
time reaching other lesbians. The Sisters of Venus, the first
lesbian group in Turkey, began meeting in July 1994. This group
began with three lesbians; it has grown to over 20 women, and
the membership continues to increase as more women learn of the
group’s existence. While the group is not yet strong enough to
be a political pressure, it is nonetheless able to offer support
Famous fashion designer Cemil
Ipekci surprised everyone by publicly supporting the ruling
party, and described himself as a "conservative homosexual".
Queer Subjectivity and Mass Media in Modern Turkey
determine and reflect approaches to homosexuality in modern
Turkey, too. Just as other monotheist religions such as
Christianity and Judaism; Islam also has injunctions against
same sex desire. Turkish collective family structure in
traditional families also discourage non-heterosexual
orientations. As such, homosexuality is viewed in general as a
sin and an aberration. In addition, it is common knowledge in
the queer community that when parents find out that their
children are lesbian or gay, psychotherapy is usually their
first recourse, which shows how much medical view of
homosexuality as a disorder is accepted in the family. As for
civic and legal positioning of homosexuality, there is no
statute that condemns or outlaws it. However, parallel to social
denial and/or condemnation of homosexuality , there are no
anti-discriminatory laws that protect the rights of LGBT people.
In addition, being an out LGBT individual is viewed as adequate
grounds for dismissal from the Turkish army and other civic
service, and the local law enforcement officials have also been
known to be slow or completely inept in handling violations of
LGBT rights and gay bashings.
Effects of Mass media on Homosexuality in Turkey.
typical Turkish family's first encounter with queerness is
usually through Turkish mass media. Media coverage of queerness
usually takes two forms: 1) sensational headline news about the
fights between the police and a group of people indiscriminately
called “transvestites” by the mass media maintaining the
traditional gender dichotomy; and 2) entertainment shows that
feature queer celebrities and entertainers in drag. The very
famous celebrities in Turkey appearing on TV screens such as
transsexual singer Bulent Ersoy, drag-queen Huysuz Virgin (Seyfi
Dursunolglu), other queer entertainment singers Fathi Urek and
Aydin who all had their own TV shows, besides numerous gay male
entertainers working in chic nightclubs in bigger cities who
also appear on TV programs targeted to the general population.
Watch Bulent Ersoy in a TV
show. It is surprising to see how much she is esteemed by
the male singer hosting the program.
In spite of
such visibility in the mass media, the queerness of these
performers elicits a variety of responses from the public. Some
people either just do not see it, or, they ridicule the person,
or, even if they recognize the queerness of a particular artist
implicitly, they might still prefer not to talk about it at all
for various reasons. Actually, there has been a retrogression
after 2007 about the visibility of these queer shows and
homosexuality on Turkish televisions, because of the visible
pressure by the bureaucrats assigned to Radio Television Higher
Commission (RTUK) by the ruling conservative party which came to
power for a second time in 2007.
above mentioned interview with Turkish Daily News some LAMBDA
Istanbul activists declined to give their surnames, worrying
about effects of media exposure, for example, but then they
posed to the cameras after learning that the TDN is a daily in
English. The media, as the fourth estate, can unfortunately also
become a destructive force for LGBTs, by itching on sexual
prejudices in the society consciously or unconsciously. Some
media reports abusing LGBTs by using them as material for
entertainment or humiliation was among the activists' main
complaints, but they also acknowledged some respectful reports.
In 2008 a censor attempt was backfired and Huysuz Virgin's (Naughty
Virgin) very popular drag-show returned to TV screens after
severe public reactions supporting him. He was well
supported by the big media owners, possibly because his
long-lasting TV show always had very high ratings.
The story of Turkey's first gay-lesbian hotel in Mediterranean
town Fethiye is another example. The hotel was opened in 2005
and forced to be closed down next year, as it became known
through reports in a number of mainstream dailies and journals.
The reports on the media were reasonable, but problems started
shortly after. The military police came to the hotel several
times at night, it was claimed the the owner.
Gay venues and meeting points.
De facto queer neighborhoods. These are what can be called
“enclaves” that usually exist in big cities. Parks, public
baths, and other public places. These are de facto meeting
places, again mostly in big cities.
Lesbian and gay bars. In metropolitan areas, such as Istanbul ,
Ankara , and Izmir—the three largest cities in the nation—there
have been gay and lesbian bars, and their numbers are on the
Turkish Gays and Lesbians on Internet.
has helped gay groups around the country combine and expand
their activism efforts and has created a very liberal media for
Turkish gays and lesbians.
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To suit the Turkish government’s intolerance for gay people, the
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