A Gay His­tory of Gezi Park

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Oray Egin

In the sum­mer of 2013, hun­dreds of thou­sands of young peo­ple marched the streets of Turkey in what has be­come the big­gest up­ris­ing in the coun­try’s re­cent his­tory. It be­gan when a hand­ful of pro­test­ers went to Gezi Park on May 28 to pro­tect a sin­gle tree from be­ing cut off in or­der to pave way for a shop­ping mall project. Word-of-mouth rapidly drew thou­sands there, and for a very short pe­riod of time, Gezi Park be­came a sym­bol of re­sis­tance and hope.

Gezi Park will take its place in his­tory among many oth­ers like Zu­cotti Park, where the frus­trated young raised their voices, but for me and other gay men, it ac­tu­ally sym­bol­izes some­thing else. Gezi was our very own cruis­ing ground. One would per­haps ex­pect a Stonewall-like up­ris­ing to be born at Gezi Park, but it was fit­ting that first large-scale protests in re­cent years erupted there. For one thing, the park had evolved from a gay cruis­ing area to a ready-to-be-de­mol­ished site for the greedy con­struc­tion mag­nets, whose rev­enues in­creased beyond any rea­son due to the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment’s de­vel­op­ment-friendly poli­cies. But much more than that, Gezi, in it­self, rep­re­sents what was taken away from us.

In my younger years, I watched the park morph into a mecca of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion. In the 80s, Turkey was a more closed so­ci­ety. There was only a sin­gle tele­vi­sion chan­nel run by the state, no pri­vate ra­dio sta­tions, and even in­ter­na­tional travel needed to be ap­proved on a case-by-case ba­sis by the gov­ern­ment. Bü­lent Er­soy, a trans­sex­ual singer, was banned from TV after go­ing through a sex­change op­er­a­tion in London.

Tak­sim, the dis­trict at the cen­ter of Istanbul, was almost an is­land of mis­fits. It was the en­ter­tain­ment hub of the city, but it was also home to the home­less, the de­viants, the ne­glected, and the abused. Gays also found so­lace around Tak­sim, with its few bars, and, of course, Gezi Park. Even the word gezi can be loosely trans­lated as cruis­ing; it lit­er­ally means strolling.

Like many of my peers, I grew up with tales of Gezi Park. It wasn’t al­ways Ro­man­tic; at times it could be bru­tal, and sto­ries of vi­o­lence ap­peared in news­pa­pers with some reg­u­lar­ity. But there was also some­thing ap­peal­ing about it. Even with­out fully un­der­stand­ing the cor­re­la­tion be­tween op­pressed groups and pub­lic spa­ces, the younger me al­ways won­dered what was go­ing on in Gezi. I was told by older and wiser brethren to en­ter Gezi Park at my own risk. This same ad­vice was re­it­er­ated in guide­books, such as Spar­ta­cus, which I’ve first came across much later (I’m 35 now).

It makes so much sense to me, now, why the LGBT ac­tivists were the first to ar­rive at the Park for the 2013 protests to save the tree. They were there not only re­act­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s op­pres­sion,

but also to claim what was taken away from us. It was his­tor­i­cally ours, and the gay com­mu­nity was there to de­fend it. But the gays had long been kicked out of Gezi.

My friend Yig˘it Karaah­met, a jour­nal­ist for the Turk­ish daily Taraf, men­tions that over the years, green spa­ces were grad­u­ally lev­eled and the light­ing in­creased in the park, leav­ing no blind spots. The bushes were trimmed, leav­ing no place to hide and hook up like in the old days. An over­pass, con­nect­ing the meet­ing area to the des­ig­nated hook up area of the park, was de­mol­ished ear­lier this year. On top of all this, the po­lice pres­ence in­creased. In fact, the park has be­come a de facto hub of the Turk­ish po­lice over­see­ing the Tak­sim area.

When I first vis­ited the park in the 90s, its cruis­ing glory was dy­ing out but not to­tally fin­ished. It wasn’t an open-air sex club like I was told. What I re­mem­ber was a hand­ful of gay men look­ing for a quick fix and a few boys who were more than happy to hand it to them. But I don’t re­mem­ber any po­lice, or any dis­tur­bance of any kind. It was almost an un­writ­ten con­sen­sus that the park was re­served for the gay com­mu­nity and was off-lim­its at night.

I did cruise in the park, but I think I was too afraid to meet or hook up. I don’t re­call a sin­gle mem­ory of an en­counter with a stranger in the park, but I re­mem­ber be­ing drawn to it nu­mer­ous times. I only un­der­stood the ap­peal of Gezi Park, when I vis­ited its in­ter­na­tional sis­ters like Ørst­ed­parken in Copen­hagen. But while we were be­ing kicked out of Gezi, the city of Copen­hagen was pro­vid­ing lube and con­doms for cruis­ers.

I don’t want to sound too bold, but it would be im­pos­si­ble to find any­one (or should I say any gay) who hasn’t cruised through the park in its glory days. We’ve all been there. And cruise we did. “I’ve been through so much there, even got robbed,” says Bar­baros S˛an­sal, a 56-year-old Turk­ish fash­ion de­signer, who used to live steps away from the park un­til re­cently. “Po­lice would reg­u­larly raid the area, beat us up, and some­times force us into hav­ing sex with them. I’ve seen gays get ar­rested in groups, their heads force­fully shaved.”

Things only be­came worse un­der Re­cep Tayyip Er­dog˘an’s reign, Turkey’s Is­lamist prime min­is­ter who has been in power for the last 12 years. Op­pres­sion of gays reached a point where prom­i­nent drag queens had to give up their iconic cos­tumes to ap­pear on TV. Club own­ers parted ways with trans­ves­tite show troupes that orig­i­nally at­tracted pa­trons ev­ery night. The pri­mary duty for the city’s gay club own­ers had be­come find­ing a way to deal with the po­lice to avoid nightly raids. Last year, a mem­ber of the rul­ing party de­clared ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity an ail­ment dur­ing a speech in Par­lia­ment.

One of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for build­ing a shop­ping mall on Gezi Park was that it was a home for de­viants, “marginals” (a term that com­monly im­plies gays in Turk­ish), and drug ad­dicts, and that “it had to be cleaned out.”

It wasn’t just gays who were emotionally at­tached to Gezi Park. For many years, it also served as an ad hoc sleep­ing area for peo­ple who had gone out on a week­end to spend a night out at Tak­sim. Mind you, Istanbul is a mas­sive city with an in­ad­e­quate pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem that halts ser­vice be­fore mid­night. From 4am, when the clubs close, un­til early morn­ing, when buses re­sumed ser­vice, it at­tracted a di­verse crowd. In Tokyo, there are cap­sule ho­tels. In Istanbul, we had Gezi Park. For those who couldn’t af­ford to go club­bing, or chose to avoid be­ing spot­ted at gay venues for fear that their iden­tity would be dis­closed, Gezi was not just a lay­over, but the des­ti­na­tion.

The protests, though, didn’t men­tion even a hint of the Park’s un­writ­ten his­tory. The only rea­son the park has be­come a sym­bol of lib­er­a­tion for Turks

What I re­mem­ber was a hand­ful of gay men look­ing for a quick fix and a few boys who were more than happy

to hand it to them.

per­haps lies in the old­est for­mula in the book: Lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion. Er­do­gan’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian poli­cies–such as the ban on al­co­hol sales and ad­ver­tis­ing or is­su­ing large fines for TV chan­nels for broad­cast­ing mod­er­ate love scenes–reached a tip­ping point that peo­ple just had to rise up against. Then the gov­ern­ment set its eyes on Gezi, at the cen­ter of Istanbul, with its 606 trees. But the plan back­fired.

Ah­met Kaya, a spokesper­son for Istanbul Bears, tells me that all LGBT groups united un­der an um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion called the LGBT Bloc dur­ing the protests. For two weeks, as the pro­test­ers bat­tled with the po­lice’s ex­ces­sive use of gas bombs and wa­ter can­nons, vol­un­teers from the LGBT Bloc pro­vided oc­cu­piers with aid. The Gezi protests in­creased the vis­i­bil­ity of gays.

“The Gezi park up­ris­ing was a sort of a coali­tion of dis­parate groups, ask­ing for their ba­sic rights,” says Kur­sad Kahra­manoglu, a colum­nist for Birgün daily and a for­mer sec­re­tary gen­eral for ILGA. “[Gays] have never been taken se­ri­ously, and they want to be rec­og­nized. They are among mil­lions of peo­ple in Turkey whose ex­is­tence, views, and life­style choices are be­ing ig­nored.”

For two weeks, apart from oc­ca­sional po­lice in­ter­ven­tion, a sense of sol­i­dar­ity en­dured in the park. It be­came a venue for yoga ses­sions, math lec­tures, a li­brary, lit­er­ary dis­cus­sions, prayers, and the ex­change of goods with no money. “It was a park of lib­er­ties, where ev­ery mi­nor­ity came to­gether,” says S˛an­sal, “and rainbow flags waived ev­ery­where.” In­ter­est­ingly enough, soc­cer fans, fa­mous for their ho­mo­pho­bic slo­gans, em­braced gay pro­test­ers and ended anti-gay slurs dur­ing demon­stra­tions.

That year, the an­nual gay pride pa­rade in Istanbul at­tracted the largest num­ber of par­tic­i­pants ever. What be­gan with only 12 peo­ple in the early 2000s had swelled to ex­ceed 100,000 in 2014. In one of the more mem­o­rable scenes dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of the park by the pro­test­ers, the LGBT ac­tivists and an Is­lamist group known as the Anti-Cap­i­tal­ist Mus­lims stood in sol­i­dar­ity against the po­lice’s ag­gres­sive use of tear gas and wa­ter can­nons.

I went to visit Gezi Park for the first time since the protests broke in Au­gust of 2013. Although thou­sands fought against the op­pres­sive gov­ern­ment, they lost the bat­tle. And yet, a sense of vic­tory pre­vailed in the air at the park. It wasn’t turned into a shop­ping mall, and had since be­come more pop­u­lated than ever, com­pared to the past. It was no longer dom­i­nated by home­less or the po­lice, but every­day Istanbul peo­ple started to embrace the park, mak­ing stops there on a cof­fee break or just sit­ting on a bench.

That sum­mer the youth were almost di­vided into two groups: those who were at Gezi and those who missed it. For the for­mer, Gezi was a badge of pride. One high school se­nior told me he only left the park dur­ing the up­ris­ings be­cause of his fi­nal exams. Hav­ing missed the protests, be­cause they had erupted sud­denly, as protests do, I felt a sense of iso­la­tion in the city I was born in, from the park that helped me dis­cover the depths of my sex­u­al­ity.

Many were ex­pect­ing greater con­se­quences from the protests. A revo­lu­tion, a shift in pol­i­tics, a sud­den lib­er­a­tion of the whole coun­try. A year after what hap­pened at Gezi noth­ing seems to have been ac­com­plished ex­cept for the preser­va­tion of a green space. Turkey’s au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment is still in­tact and the up­ris­ings have had no im­pacts on pol­icy. The park wasn’t re­gained as a cruis­ing ground, but, hey, at least we made his­tory.

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