Another Struggle: Sexual Identity Politics in Unsettled Turkey








What happens when almost 3,000 men, women and transgender people march down the main street of a major Muslim metropolis, chanting against patriarchy, the military and restrictive public morals, waving the rainbow flag and hoisting banners decrying homophobia and demanding an end to discrimination? Or when a veiled transvestite carries a placard calling for freedom of education for women wearing the headscarf and, for transsexuals, the right to work?

If the city is Istanbul, it seems, nothing much. Apart from the anxious glances of a few young male bystanders caught up in the demonstration and the occasional cheers of onlookers, only the presence of riot police at the Istanbul gay pride parade on June 29, 2008 would have reminded the observer that this was a politically sensitive event in a deeply troubled setting. Yet, in contrast to their aggressive tactics against peaceful demonstrators on May Day, the police were remarkably restrained as well.

June 29 marked the largest gay pride event ever to be held in Turkey, and indeed the largest in the immediate neighborhood of southeast Europe, where similar, if smaller, processions were attacked by right-wing extremists and members of the general public. The march’s dispassionate reception was surprising, particularly considering that it took place as Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by politicians with Islamist origins, faced an existential threat in the country’s highest court. The legal challenge to the AKP’s right to participate in politics, mounted by defenders of the state secularist legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and dismissed by the Constitutional Court on July 31, could have escalated into all-out war over Turkey’s future. Yet no one used the gay pride parade to pose as champions of public morality. There was no hate campaign, and indeed there was benign neglect, in both the Islamist and secular sectors of the mainstream press. Coverage in the left and liberal press was sympathetic; only newspapers close to the extremist Islamist Felicity Party featured a smattering of incitement. Was this an indicator of growing acceptance of gender non-conforming lifestyles in Turkey, a sign of a more tolerant, outward-looking society, affirmation of a more progressive cultural climate?

There is wide consensus that Turkey is a "hinge state," a hybrid of the political and also sexual regimes and ideologies of Europe and the Middle East.[1] Turkey’s neighbors to the east have considered homosexuality a punishable offense for the better part of a century, due to British or French mandate-era civil codes or conservative interpretations of Islamic law; its neighbors to the west have followed restrictive Communist legislation or conservative Orthodox Christian legal mores to the same conclusion. But homosexuality has not been an issue of criminal justice in Turkey since the modern nation-state emerged in the 1920s. The only territory under Turkish control where homosexuality is banned is northern Cyprus, where British anti-sodomy laws were incorporated into the Cypriot and, later, the Turkish Republic of Cyprus penal code.

Yet as liberal and cosmopolitan as Istanbul and other cities in western Turkey look in comparison to cities in nearby countries, Turkey remains a deeply conservative — if highly heterogeneous and regionally differentiated — society gripped by a patriarchal and militarist state ideology rooted in the foundational myths of Kemalism. If many gays and lesbians prosper as professionals or within the arts and media sectors, and some gay rights activists carve out spaces of interaction protected to a degree from state intrusion, transgender people are exposed by both the visible manifestations of their sexual orientation and their engagement in sex work. As Elif Shafak argues, the Kemalist modernization project "required the mapping of gender roles and public-private zones, as well as the redrawing of the boundaries in between."[2] Kemalist and Islamist responses to transgender individuals are equally negative, but the former is probably more hateful: The transsexual condition is particularly threatening to the ideological constructs of modern Turkey’s very essence, the clearly, albeit differently, circumscribed roles for men and women in the public sphere. But the loud and public advocacy of all gender non-conforming people, gays and lesbians included, for equal rights throws into question key tenets of the republic: militarism, male hegemony and de-feminized femininity, a concept exemplified by the female doctors, nurses and teachers, who were expected to subordinate their sexuality to the ideal of selfless service of the nation.

Fighting for Pride

Traditional forms of homosexual and homoerotic interaction, including the dances of males performing in women’s clothes (zenne and köçek), were tolerated in the Ottoman Empire and, for much of its history, in the Turkish Republic as well. Transsexuals performed on stage and as sex workers in private rendezvous houses; veterans recall with nostalgia being treated by clients in a "gentlemanly manner." All this, of course, happened behind closed doors, protected from the public gaze. Then the military coup of 1980, the central rupture in Turkey’s recent political history, unsettled this balance between reluctant toleration and enforced invisibility.

The putschists destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of young men and women and imposed a militarist, religiously conservative mindset in educational and other state institutions as part of their war on communists and other leftists. But the generals also declared war on individuals they deemed morally deviant. Literally storming nightclubs and music halls across the country, military commanders ordered transsexuals to be removed and imprisoned.[3] After undergoing torture and compulsory haircuts, the dancers were forcibly relocated to provincial cities. Contemporary witnesses remember transsexuals being dragged onto trains and trying to escape by jumping off the carriages bound for Eski?ehir, a town in west-central Anatolia. At the same time, famous transsexual singers like the "Sun of Art" Zeki Müren (1931-1996) and Bülent Ersoy were banned from stage, radio and TV, over which the state had monopolies at the time.

Following the destruction of the socialist left, however, the late 1980s saw the cautious emergence of new social and identity movements, ranging from feminists to the liberal left, from anti-militarists to Kurdish rights groups. In this environment, gay, lesbian and transgender people, and their sexual and political identities, became increasingly visible. The turning point was an aborted gay pride week in Istanbul in 1993, initially authorized by the governor, but banned after a campaign of libel in the mainstream media. Gays, lesbians and, increasingly, transgender people reacted to the reversal by organizing themselves in the associations Lambda Istanbul and Kaos GL in Ankara.

The rest is a story of unprecedented achievement. In 1994, Kaos GL began publishing a monthly "gay-lesbian cultural magazine," and soon became a focal point for the emergence of a self-identified gay community in Turkey. Annual gay pride events occurred in Istanbul and Ankara, even if only in cultural centers and theaters. In 2001, members of Kaos GL joined in the May Day demonstrations in Ankara, paving the way for the first gay pride parade, in Istanbul in 2003. "The first time we were out in the streets," remembered one activist, "we were about 20 or so people." Yet another breakthrough came in 2007, when the parliamentary election campaign, moved up by the AKP government after Kemalist politicians blocked a vote on the AKP’s candidate for president, coincided with the pride parade. Around 1,500 demonstrators hit the streets, inspired by the slogan of independent candidate and professor Baskin Oran that society can only change when the disenfranchised bust out of the confines of identity politics and act in solidarity with each other. Oran’s words captured the outlook of Kaos GL and Lambda. The result was broader coalitions of gay rights groups, socialist and feminist activists, human rights organizations and representatives of the liberal left.[4] The simple, remarkable fact is that, in the space of 15 years, Turkey’s gay and lesbian rights movements have created the conditions for the emergence of a conscious cultural and political gay identity, a better informed and less homophobic mainstream media, and a community of thousands of active supporters who do not fear to make a public stand.

"Cleansing" the Neighborhood

Yet to what extent does this success translate into concrete amelioration of homophobic practices in public institutions and the legal system? Paradoxically, at least at first glance, discriminatory practices in state institutions are widespread and homophobic behavior is on the rise. Hate crimes against members of the LGBT community are rampant, as dramatized by the July 2008 murder of gay rights activist Ahmet Yildiz, dubbed the first gay "honor killing" because the killer is allegedly a member of the extended family.[5] Much of the rise in incidents of homophobia may be due to better reporting. Yet the change seems to be structural: A war rages within the republican establishment over the right way to be a "Turkish citizen" and a "Turkish man." It is fought in police stations, courts and military barracks, and seems to target members of the transgender community with the greatest violence.

According to Pinar Selek, one of Turkey’s most prolific sociologists and feminists, this ideological war is compounded by strategies of inner-city beautification and rent generation predicated upon the removal of those who disturb decent, ordinary folk.[6] The suburb of Eryaman is one of Ankara’s many new high-rise residential areas that supply affordable and relatively well-appointed accommodations to the lower middle classes. Many transsexuals have moved there in recent years. Apart from the odd quizzical look, they have had few problems with their neighbors, even if the fact that some of them engaged in sex work did raise concerns. All this changed, however, in April 2006, when a group of young men known to be members of the semi-fascist Hearths of the Ideal (Ülkü Ocaklar?) attacked the flats of transsexual tenants. In the ensuing days, transsexuals were rounded up, abused and beaten, under the noses of silent neighbors, as well as local policemen who declined to intervene.[7] In some cases, the far-right attackers were joined by plainclothes officers identified as members of the "Sledgehammer" unit, which is tasked with ridding Ankara of sex workers and transgender people.[8] The assailants are now on trial for forming an armed gang to engage in criminal activity. While this case is the first prosecution for attacks on transsexuals, the judge intends to reduce the charges to inflicting bodily harm. Whatever the outcome, the initial goal of "cleansing" Eryaman of gender non-conforming people, thereby precluding a slump in housing prices, has been achieved.

Unlike tightly controlled Ankara, Istanbul is often assumed to be more welcoming toward sexual minorities. Yet here, as well, the police have effectively declared transsexuals fair game, leaving no doubt that they will receive no assistance when they fall victim to crime. In fact, transsexuals are often beaten up when they enter a police station in central Istanbul. At the heart of Istanbul nightlife, and particularly in Beyo?lu, transsexuals remain visible, some of them living together in a side street off Tarlaba?? Boulevard with the ironic name of Bayram, the term used for the feast at the end of Ramadan. Once a largely Greek and Armenian enclave, the area now accommodates illegal migrants, refugees, poor Kurds and Roma, as well as transsexuals. Bayram is the last such area of collective transsexual habitation, many others having been "cleansed" by police and local vigilantes in the 1990s. As per Selek’s analysis, Bayram is the scene of a major urban transformation project seeking to replace cheap, substandard housing with an upper middle-class neighborhood. According to activist accounts, the residents of Bayram have been given one year’s notice by a private developer: Leave, or we will make you leave. In a tragic turn, the transsexuals of Bayram, together with their Kurdish, Roma and African neighbors, will soon face involuntary removal from their homes, in an echo of the eviction campaigns targeting Armenians and Greeks before them.

Public Morals and Authoritarian Values

A malign symbiosis of security forces and ultra-nationalist vigilantes has been a periodic feature of Turkish politics since the 1950s. All of the recent high-profile political murders — Father Andrea Santoro in 2006, Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007, three evangelical Christians in April 2007 — were carried out by members of groups of a nationalist and, to some extent, Islamist persuasion, either with the tacit knowledge or the outright logistical support of security personnel. The ongoing court case against the Ergenekon network, composed of retired generals, active-duty army and police officers, judges and other Kemalist establishmentarians, is likely to reveal more such vigilantism and intimidation of minority groups.

The courts, however, play an ambiguous role in that many judges seek to interpret current law, which is less draconian than in the past thanks to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, in the authoritarian and socially conservative spirit of the founding years of the republic. These jurists often employ notions of public morals rooted in the penal code of fascist Italy, as well as notions of decency based in Islamic legal norms.[9]

A court case against Lambda Istanbul, organizer of the 2008 pride march and Turkey’s most prominent gay rights group, resulted in a verdict rejecting Lambda’s application for the status of formal association on the grounds that the words "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual" in the group’s name are "against the law and morality" and infringe upon the constitutional protection of the "Turkish family."[10] The fact that the court of first instance decided against the application shows, above all, the socially conservative worldview of many local judges, coupled with ignorance of international legal norms and European human rights law, which they are obliged to implement. The jurists also disregarded a key Turkish precedent: Kaos GL once faced almost exactly the same allegations. In that case, the public prosecutor confirmed the group’s official status as an association when he decided that there was no reason to suspect the association of "immoral" activities. The governor, Muammer Güler, an AKP appointee, will have to register Lambda Istanbul eventually, either by decision of Turkey’s Supreme Court, to which Lambda activists have now appealed, or failing that, the European Courts of Human Rights. In the meantime, Lambda’s status remains in limbo, placing constraints on the group’s activism and making it difficult for new members to join.

The only public body in Turkey that explicitly discriminates against homosexuals is the military. According to the Turkish Armed Forces Health Requirement Regulations, people with "high-level psychological disorders (homosexuality, transsexuality, transvestism)" are to be barred from military service.[11] At the same time, military doctors and psychological commissions set high thresholds for men to be identified as homosexuals, subjecting them to a series of humiliating and degrading tests based on outdated conceptions of human psychology. Once they are recognized as gay, they are dismissed as unfit for service, with possible repercussions for their job prospects and employment in state institutions. Conscientious objectors, especially but not only if they are gay, as in the case of Mehmet Tarhan, are treated with particular scorn: They are subjected to torture and ill treatment in military prisons and to recurrent prosecutions that amount, according to another case seen at the European Court of Human Rights, to "social death."[12] Remembering the armed forces’ role in enforcing militarism and conservative social norms after the coup of 1980, it would be fair to say that the military is the most powerful combatant in the war over the definition of the values of society in general, and the norms governing the "Turkish man" and, hence, the Turkish nation, in particular.

Individuation

The common idea that Turkey is polarized between "secular" and "Islamist" camps obscures more than it reveals about social dynamics. Ever since the 1980 coup, despite the military regime’s promotion of a "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" and despite the war in the Kurdish southeast, Turkey has been undergoing a process of individuation, the exploration of and struggle for identities beyond those permitted by the state or the community. Once, even critical intellectuals conformed in one way or another with the identities officially sanctioned by the Kemalist state. The few available avenues of resistance, such as radical leftist or Islamist politics, suppressed the individual as much as the praetorian state, whose policies were prescribed, above all, by the military and the civilian bureaucracy.[13] In the 1980s and 1990s, however, social change slowly created the conditions for individual identity choices. The country urbanized rapidly; levels of wealth and education rose; a socially responsible bourgeoisie investing in liberal institutions emerged; transnational networks of Alevi and Kurdish diasporas grew; and Turkey was exposed to global institutions and their norms, culminating in the process, now in abeyance, of accession to the EU.

The process of individuation led to clashes with both state- and community-approved identities. Hence, identity-based movements, whether Kurdish or Alevi, feminist or gay, lesbian and transsexual, experienced both pressure from the state and ostracism by society at large, albeit in varying measures. The ostensible paradox, that a conservative backlash strikes Turkey at a time when a growing number of individuals are losing the fear of coming to terms with their own history and identity, appears in the end to be dialectical rather than paradoxical. In the original condition of state authoritarianism, homophobia and hatred of Kurds were not explicit, because gender non-conforming individuals and Kurds were denied visibility and deprived of a safe political or social space. Now that these identities have become visible as well as audible — even unavoidable — the reaction to them is also manifest.

What complicates this tableau, which is otherwise quite similar to the European historical experience, is not so much Islam or even Islamism, but the modes of governance of the praetorian state. Without the state’s extra-legal manipulation, far-right extremists and hardline Islamists might still attack transsexuals, gays, African immigrants, Christians or other "others." Yet they would not be capable of terrorizing society at large, carrying out assassinations and murders in broad daylight, were they not sanctioned and utilized by the security forces, treated with leniency by the courts and protected by the subliminal adoration of militarism and male supremacy that is constantly reproduced by many private media outlets.

Before the June 29 demonstration in Istanbul, Kaos GL and Lambda Istanbul organized a series of conferences, panel discussions and cultural events dedicated to the rights and the politics of members of the gay, lesbian and transsexual community. In Ankara, where some of the events took place on university campuses, hundreds of students took the opportunity to converse with gay rights activists. No ugly incidents occurred. Despite administrative hassles and occasional police interference, gay rights groups are now showing up beyond the metropolises, from Eski?ehir to Antalya. Piramid GL, based in Diyarbak?r, is the country’s first Kurdish gay rights organization. Turkish Cypriots, too, have formed the Northern Cypriot Initiative Against Homophobia. As one panelist at the conclusion of the Istanbul pride week remarked, "Three years ago, we were only 40 people; last year we were 1,500." In 2008, they were almost twice as many.

Turkey might have avoided a political meltdown when the Constitutional Court decided not to outlaw the AKP, as the chief prosecutor of Turkey, a Kemalist stalwart, demanded. Yet the government’s drive for reform, given impetus by belief in the possibility of integration into Europe, has lost considerable momentum. The AKP’s social conservatism is omnipresent, whether in the censorious ban of cross-dressing on TV or in the promotion of a model of family relations that leaves no space for dissent or non-conforming gender roles. What is less likely, however, is the reversal of the societal process of individuation, which would require a level of state violence and a renunciation of basic democratic principles unimaginable at the current juncture. Even in the worst-case scenario of direct military intervention, Kurds will not resubmit to the delusion that they are "mountain Turks," families of survivors of the 1915 atrocities against Armenians will not deny their ancestry[14] and transsexuals will not turn into "Turkish men."

Even the generals of the 1980 junta managed to ban Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren from the stage for only a few years. When they were allowed to perform again, they returned with a vengeance: Ersoy had a sex change operation and Müren appeared in ever more colorful and feminine dress. The Sun of Art baffled almost everyone once again when he died in 1996, receiving a state funeral. He had bequeathed his belongings to the Mehmetçik Foundation, which provides pension funds for Turkish soldiers wounded or killed in combat.

Notes

1. Tarik Bereket and Barry D. Adam, "The Emergence of Gay Identities in Contemporary Turkey," Sexualities 9/2 (April 2006).

2. Elif Shafak, "Transgender Bolero," Middle East Report 230 (Spring 2004). See also Deniz Kandiyoti, "Transsexuals and the Urban Landscape in Istanbul," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

3. The tragicomic film Beynelmilel [The International] captures the brutality of the gender and cultural policies of the 1980 military regime. In a key scene, an army unit storms a gathering of local men, who meet to drink and sing with a köçek despite a curfew, and arrests all men present.

4. Bianet.org, July 3, 2007.

5. Independent, July 19, 2008. Activists say they have evidence for at least one comparable murder in the southeastern town of Maras.

6. Pinar Selek, Maskeler, Süvariler, Gac?lar, Ülker Sokak: Bir Altkültürün D??lanma Mekan? (Istanbul: Istiklal Kitabevi, 2007).

7. Kaos GL, LGBT Bireylerin Insan Haklari Raporu 2007 (Ankara, 2007).

8. Human Rights Watch, "We Need a Law for Liberation": Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights in a Changing Turkey (New York, May 2008).

9. See Kerem Öktem, "Revolution of Islamic Law: Eighty Years of the Swiss Civil Code in Turkey," H Soz U Kult, October 20, 2006, online at http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=1356.

10. Human Rights Watch, p. 92.

11. Ibid., p. 80 ff.

12. Andreas Speck, "Conscientious Objection in Turkey: Struggling to Emerge," Peacework (December 2007).

13. Ahmet Insel, "Pretoryen Devlet ve Sahipleri," Birikim 218 (June 2007).

14. See Fethiye Çetin, My Grandmother: A Memoir (London: Verso, 2008).

Kerem Öktem is a fellow at the European Studies Centre of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

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