Information about gay life in Turkey

Istanbul Gay Beach

Knocking at 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 'city slickers'.

Understanding Turkish Gay Culture
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 economy probably.

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 metropolitan cities..

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
Generations in 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 society.

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 and Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) in Ankara which is specifically fighting for by transvestite and transsexuals rights. In Istanbul another LGBT group was formed by people separated from Lambda in 2007 and named themselves Istanbul LGBTT. In 2011 a third LGBT organization called SPoD was founded in Istanbul. After 2010 many new LGBT groups and organizations was formed in comparatively smaller cities such as Adana, Diyarbakir, Malatya, Mersin, Kocaeli, Trabzon etc. Many LGBT student groups was also established in major Turkish universities some of which were even officially recognized by the university administrations. As of 2015 there are about 50 different active LGBT solidarity groups in Turkey. (You can see a complete list of these groups with their Website / Facebook links on this page on this webpage in Turkish).

KAOS 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 own words.

“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 plastic bags.

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 prostitution!

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.
Transsexuals 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 women:
Gender roles 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 ‘cured’

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 to lesbians.

Queer Subjectivity and Mass Media in Modern Turkey
Discourses 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.
An average, 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.
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.
During the 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 rise recently.

Turkish Gays and Lesbians on Internet.

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. The new generation Turkish LGBT people who grew up with internet are much more open about their sexual orientation compared to their elders. Internet has also helped the rest of the society to get in touch with gay culture more than ever before.

References: (April 9, 2007- Safak Timur – Turkish Daily News)