World·In Depth

Being transgender in Turkey: Some say they live in 'empire of fear'

It is not illegal to be gay or trans in Turkey, but acceptance is not easily achieved. Nil Köksal speaks with leaders in the country's LGBT community about their fight.

Activists say they have to fight for right to work, be who they are

Transgender activist and sex worker Oyku Ay helped raise money to keep Turkey's first LGBT shelter open in Istanbul. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

They don't know much about Caitlyn Jenner, Orange is the New Black or the growing mainstream movement in North America to better understand transgender realities.

But they do know how to fight for their right to be themselves. And the leaders of Turkey's trans community are constantly, it seems, having to fight.

"Abuse, assault, hate murders. These are what we're dealing with," says Oyku Ay.

Ay's body is deeply scarred, "a map," she says, of attacks she has survived. 

The activists say there were at least five attacks against LGBT Turks in a week this spring alone. Two more assaults, including an alleged rape in July, pushed the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to express "deep concern" about LGBT rights in Turkey.

There are some safe spaces. Ay and her friends often gather at an LGBT club that sits atop an aging building near Taksim Square in Istanbul.

On one wall, there's a mural of bright red lipstick being applied to an angry mouth. A rainbow-coloured cover hangs over the terrace. The chairs and benches inside are upholstered in vinyl covered with images of models on Vogue and Cosmopolitan magazine.

Transgender women in Turkey gather at an Istanbul bar in May 2013. (Nil Koksal/CBC )

At 40, Ay is a mother figure to many in the trans community. She fights tears talking about the subject. Though her relationship with her mother is good, Ay says she can't visit or walk openly with her in her hometown. Cultural and religious pressures are part of it. It is clear from speaking to her that shame is thicker than blood in many communities.

Ay is a sex worker, despite being trained as a teacher. There is an irrational fear, she says, that a trans teacher could "turn" students gay or trans.

Ay covers her hair, as many devout Muslim women do. She was living in a conservative neighbourhood when she adopted the attire, partly for survival and partly as an act of faith.

"When I wore the hijab, no one called me a boy or a faggot," Ay says.

"They saw that I was a harmless person because in Turkey people think trans are bogeymen. No. We are all people. It's like people are trying not to see that."

Selective vision

It is not illegal to be gay or trans in Turkey, but the latest pride parade in Istanbul shows how tenuous acceptance can be.

After years of peaceful gatherings, police blasted participants with water cannon. This year's parade coincided with the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam.

Damla, an 18-year-old transgender woman who lives in Istanbul, hopes to be a contestant in the Angel of Turkey trans beauty pageant. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

There is a double standard, though, that infuriates LGBT activists. Acceptance is offered, but only to a few. 

Perhaps sexuality and gender identity are easier to accept, or overlook in many cases, when talent and fame are involved. In some minds, differences can be ignored, chalked up to role-playing or what they believe are so-called eccentricities of the rich and famous.

People in Turkey's LGBT community often point to two of Turkey's most famous entertainers to illustrate what they feel is a dangerous hypocrisy.

Zeki Muren was visually equal parts Elton John and Liberace and one of the most beloved singers in Turkish history. Muren was gay, but never spoke publicly about his sexuality. Despite homophobic attitudes, he was awarded Turkey's version of the Order of Canada.

Imagine the crowds outside Buckingham Palace for the last royal wedding and you'll get a sense of how many people went to his funeral in 1996.

The Turkish people, they applaud the ones on stage and stone the ones on the street.- Oyku Ay

Pop star Bulent Ersoy, known to her fans as the "Diva," first achieved fame in the 1970s and transitioned from male to female before anyone knew to use the word transgender. She performed as a man early in her career and never changed her name after her transition. 

"The Turkish people, they applaud the ones on stage and stone the ones on the street," Ay says.

There are also vivid examples of the stoning Ay alludes to.

A shaky cellphone video taken to document the aftermath of one recent attack shows a young trans woman curled up on the floor over pools of her blood. She is a sex worker and survived being stabbed by two clients.

In early July, well-known trans activist and sex worker Kemal Ordek was robbed and raped, he says, by several men. 

Eylul Cansin, 24, took her own life last January. She was living as a trans woman, but wasn't able to live her life as completely as she'd hoped to. Sobbing in a video she posted before her death, Cansin said she wanted to work and had dreams but that "people wouldn't let her."

Safe space

The suicides and attacks are part of what fuels Ay and her colleagues, including Asya Dilovan. She helps run the Miss Trans Turkey beauty pageant, now in its second year.

Niler Albayrak, a trans woman trying to break into Turkish politics, wears a tattoo in tribute to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. (Nil Köksal/CBC)

"It was so magnificent. Trans people for the first time in their lives felt special," she says.

From that pageant, a trans fashion show emerged. Thousands of dollars raised on that runway helped expand an LGBT shelter in Istanbul, the first in Turkey.

It takes up two floors of a dreary building off a busy Istanbul street and is a home for up to 20 people who have nowhere else to go.

Rami, 23, fled Syria, where he says being openly gay is not an option. He would be beheaded, he says, swiping his finger across his neck.

Seda, a trans woman in her 40s, says she was beaten on the street and turned away by her family. "I wouldn't be alive if this place didn't exist."

Setbacks and progress

The acceptance trans people are fighting for is something that is a reality in many ways for gay men like Mehmet Ates.

"Can I live comfortably as a gay? Yes, I do," he says. Holding hands in public is still taboo in most places, but he says he no longer feels he has to hide who he is.

Dr. Aylin Pinarertas, who transitioned two years ago, records a video in support of Turkey's LGBT community. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

But Niler Albayrak says for trans women like her, Turkey still feels like "an empire of fear." 

She refuses to bow to that fear. She has the name of modern Turkey's founder — Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — tattooed on her arm and is one of several trans Turks who've entered politics and are trying to win election.

Others are challenging trans stereotypes, too.

Aylin Pinarertas transitioned two years ago and is a doctor. People "see one thing if you are trans," she says.

"You're a sex worker or you're going to be a pop star. So maybe I'm a rare person in that respect."

Back at the LGBT club, the women are gathered to shoot videos for this year's pageant and fashion show.

Damla, 18, sits in the corner, fidgeting nervously. She hasn't lived the horrors of the women surrounding her. She says her mother was understanding, allowing her to start her transition earlier. While it may never be a seamless transition for anyone, hers will be much smoother than others.

"It will be easier for you," another woman whispers to her. "No one will be able to tell."


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.


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