Kaya Genç

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Sex Changes in Turkey

On the night of Septem­ber 27, 2017, Derin Oy­lum, a twenty-year-old Turk­ish graphic de­sign stu­dent who is in the early stages of tran­si­tion­ing from fe­male to male, met with his girl­friend, Emine, in the small Aegean town in Turkey where they both live. The cou­ple climbed a hill, en­joyed the views of green fields, and talked about their re­la­tion­ship. Fif­teen min­utes later Emine’s brother ap­peared on a mo­tor­cy­cle. Derin says the boy punched him to the ground and kicked him sev­eral times in the face. He was head-butted twice; his right cheek­bone was frac­tured. “Are you lovers?” the at­tacker asked as he choked Derin, called him a les­bian, and tele­phoned Emine’s fa­ther for as­sis­tance. Half an hour later the fa­ther ar­rived. He be­gan punch­ing Derin in the face, threat­ened him with rape, and pushed him to­ward the edge of a cliff. Luck­ily, shrubs on the cliff pre­vented Derin’s fall. The at­tack was bru­tal but by no means iso­lated. In a coun­try where men and women are of­ten rel­e­gated to strict gen­der roles, those who have a gen­der iden­tity that is the op­po­site of their as­signed sex or who are tran­si­tion­ing from one gen­der to an­other can find that their lives are in great peril.

Turkey, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion Trans­gen­der Europe, has the high­est rate of mur­ders of trans­gen­der peo­ple in Europe. Since 2008 forty­four have been re­ported. There is also wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion: in the past three years trans­gen­der peo­ple have been de­nied en­try to a ho­tel on sus­pi­cion of pros­ti­tu­tion and to a univer­sity dor­mi­tory, re­fused ser­vice at a no­tary in Ankara and at a tea­house, and not been al­lowed to board a public bus in Istanbul. Land­lords of­ten charge trans­gen­der ten­ants twice the nor­mal rent. Seventy-one per­cent of trans in­ter­vie­wees had been ar­rested at least once, a study from 2015–2016 found. An­other alarm­ing trend is sui­cides among Turk­ish peo­ple who are tran­si­tion­ing from one gen­der to an­other. The re­cent deaths of a seven­teen-year-old trans kick­boxer and a twenty-three-year-old trans sex worker—both killed them­selves af­ter post­ing so­cial mes­sages about their im­pend­ing sui­cides—have un­set­tled Turkey. Many Turks be­came aware of the plight of trans peo­ple af­ter see­ing posts on Twit­ter and Face­book; some held protests in sol­i­dar­ity. A cer­tain am­bi­gu­ity has de­fined Turk­ish at­ti­tudes to­ward gays, cross­dressers, and peo­ple who have a fluc­tu­at­ing gen­der iden­tity since long be­fore the foun­da­tion of the Turk­ish Repub­lic in 1923. The Ot­tomans tol­er­ated ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in public spa­ces, de­spite the Ko­ran’s com­mand­ment: “How can you lust for males, of all crea­tures in the world, and leave those whom God has cre­ated for you as your mates. You are re­ally go­ing beyond all lim­its” (26:165–6). In Aleppo un­der Ot­toman rule, only one man was brought to the sharia court for sodomy. He was forced to leave his neigh­bor­hood but was oth­er­wise un­pun­ished. In the nine­teenth cen­tury, a sec­u­lar­ized ver­sion of sharia law be­came the civil code, and in 1858 the Ot­tomans de­crim­i­nal­ized sodomy. The Turk­ish lan­guage doesn’t have gen­der pro­nouns. When the lu­mi­nar­ies of Ot­toman po­etry wrote verses about beau­ti­ful boys, read­ers were left in the dark about the gen­ders of their po­ems’ sub­jects, and so de­ci­pher­ing ref­er­ences to male beloveds it­self be­came a fea­ture of Ot­toman po­etry. In the sixteenth cen­tury, po­ems called şehren­giz (city

thrillers) chron­i­cled hand­some boys in dif­fer­ent towns. Class dis­tinc­tions were unim­por­tant—sons of butch­ers, hal­vah mak­ers, muezzins, and oth­ers were all de­picted in ho­mo­erotic verse. Bath­houses and Is­lamic lodges were pop­u­lar ho­mo­sex­ual des­ti­na­tions. Mean­while the Ot­toman court, which pro­hib­ited women from danc­ing on­stage, was en­livened by cross-dress­ing males known as köçeks who were raised to per­form in fem­i­nine at­tire un­til they lost their youth­ful beauty. Sul­tans sup­ported them. Troupes spread the tra­di­tion to other cities and among the less priv­i­leged. In the early 1800s cross­dress­ing dancers were an at­trac­tion in Istanbul tav­erns. Ac­cord­ing to Reşat Ekrem Koçu, a pop­u­lar his­to­rian of Istanbul, ev­ery tav­ern in the city had its own köçek: “Some köçeks came from Greek is­lands, es­pe­cially Chios; oth­ers were gypsy boys raised at Istanbul lodges. Names of those boys are for­got­ten to­day, but their nick­names sur­vived.” Among the most fa­mous of them was a gypsy boy, İs­mail, known in Istanbul as “Freck­led.” Other famed köçeks in­cluded “Egyp­tian Beauty,” “Ca­nary,” and “Moon­light.” Köçeks, ac­cord­ing to the his­to­rian Metin And, “wore skirts and im­i­tated girls in both ap­pear­ance and de­meanor, but some­times per­formed as men, wear­ing trousers and con­i­cal caps.” Janis­saries, elite in­fantry­men of the sul­tan’s house­hold troops, en­joyed watch­ing köçeks at cof­fee­houses and at times fought among them­selves over their sex­ual fa­vors.

Ot­toman law made a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween sexes, but among his­to­ries of Istanbul one also comes across ref­er­ences to rough men, well built and mas­cu­line, be­ing pen­e­trated by less vir­ile men. Sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions could al­ter for a few hours of plea­sure, and gen­der flu­id­ity was not un­com­mon. But in the late nine­teenth cen­tury, the West­ern­iza­tion of Ot­toman cul­ture ac­cel­er­ated, and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and gen­der flu­id­ity among Turk­ish men be­came a prob­lem for mod­ern­iz­ers. West­ern­iza­tion, in its na­tion­al­is­tic, mus­cu­lar, Ger­manic form, fil­tered into Turkey through the Ot­toman mil­i­tary, not un­like Ja­pan’s mil­i­tarist mod­ern­iza­tion. Volk in Waf­fen (Na­tion in Arms), a trea­tise ad­vo­cat­ing in­creased mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in public life, be­came pop­u­lar at the Im­pe­rial Mil­i­tary Academy af­ter its au­thor, Col­mar Frei­herr von der Goltz, trained Ot­toman of­fi­cers there be­tween 1883 and 1895. It in­flu­enced the think­ing of young ca­reer sol­diers, in­clud­ing En­ver Pasha, a leader of the Young Turk rev­o­lu­tion in 1908 that laid the foun­da­tions of the Turk­ish Repub­lic.1 Un­der Euro­pean in­flu­ence, Turks came to be­lieve that they were al­low­ing de­gen­er­ate, even crim­i­nal acts in their do­min­ions, and ho­mo­pho­bia be­gan to take root.

The founders of mod­ern Turkey and their mod­ern­iz­ing leader, Mustafa Ke­mal Atatürk, dis­liked the Ot­tomans’ per­mis­sive­ness about sex­u­al­ity, which they found re­gres­sive and non-Euro­pean. In New De­sires, New Selves, Gul Ozye­gin, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and gen­der at the Col­lege of Wil­liam and Mary, ex­plores the change in Turk­ish at­ti­tudes to­ward sex in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury and quotes a Ke­mal­ist his­to­rian who de­scribed the Ot­toman Em­pire as “gov­erned by plea­sure and per­ver­sity, a world that rec­og­nized no moral bound­aries . . . a per­verse space where the vo­ra­cious and de­bauched sul­tans com­mit­ted all kinds of abom­inable acts, in­clud­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.”2 Turk­ish mod­ern­iz­ers de­signed the Repub­lic as a place where gen­der iden­ti­ties were strict and un­am­bigu­ous: the pow­er­ful woman who de­votes her life to fam­ily and the athletic man who works for the good of the na­tion. The ed­i­tors of Gen­dered Iden­ti­ties, a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles on gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ties in Turkey, con­tend that pa­tri­archy and sharply de­fined gen­ders have shaped mod­ern Turkey and de­fined its found­ing prin­ci­ples. They write that Turkey’s “gen­dered cit­i­zen­ship regime” is re­spon­si­ble for putting “tran­sex­u­als at the bot­tom of the so­ci­etal struc­ture in the con­text of the so­cial Dar­win­is­tic men­tal­ity.”3

In their ac­count, Turkey’s repub­li­can ide­o­logues con­sid­ered cross-dress­ing a rem­nant of a dead cul­ture, and in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury köçeks went into hid­ing. They were threat­ened less by the ide­al­ized Turk­ish fam­ily, which was nu­clear, na­tion­al­ist, and het­ero­sex­ual, than by the Repub­lic’s de­ci­sion to turn its back on tra­di­tional Ot­toman cul­ture. Through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, köçek dancers con­tin­ued to per­form pri­vately for small au­di­ences in apart­ments in east­ern Turk­ish cities.

The public–pri­vate du­al­ity in sex­u­al­i­ties in mod­ern Turkey, Ozye­gin ar­gues in New De­sires, New Selves, was in­tro­duced by early repub­li­can ide­o­logues who asked women to be en­light­ened moth­ers at home but mas­culin­ized de­fend­ers of the Turk­ish state and its pa­tri­ar­chal in­sti­tu­tions in public; mean­while men had to be model cit­i­zens, with West­ern­ized gar­ments and Euro­pean man­ners. Only by root­ing out ef­fem­i­nacy and de­gen­er­a­tion could Turks be­come mas­cu­line, in­de­pen­dent, and West­ern. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, signs of gen­der flu­id­ity had to be sup­pressed for the good of the na­tion. Over the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, Turk­ish pa­tri­archy, fused with pa­ter­nal­ism, has so­lid­i­fied into a “gen­der con­sen­sus.”

Trans­gen­der and gay iden­ti­ties have gone through three stages in Turk­ish his­tory. Un­der the Ot­tomans, gen­der dis­tinc­tions were fluid; un­der the mil­i­taris­tic na­tion­al­ists, gen­ders had to be strictly de­fined fol­low­ing the mod­ern West­ern model; un­der Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, prime min­is­ter from 2003 to 2014 and now pres­i­dent, a com­bi­na­tion of con­ser­vatism and neo-Ot­toman tol­er­ance for gen­der flu­id­ity be­came wide­spread.

In what Er­doğan of­ten refers to as “the New Turkey,” trans and gay peo­ple have be­come more vis­i­ble—LGBTI News Turkey, a web­site that pro­vides

English trans­la­tions and sources on LGBTI Turks, lists forty-eight or­ga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to them; Time Out Istanbul has a bustling LGBTI sec­tion that lists weekly events—and con­se­quently they feel more vul­ner­a­ble. Trans and gay Turks are at times di­rectly de­mo­nized by politi­cians, as in Putin’s Rus­sia: the for­mer min­is­ter of women and fam­ily af­fairs Aliye Kavaf called ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity a “dis­ease” in 2010; the for­mer prime min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­toğlu said in 2015 that ho­mo­sex­u­als “caused the de­struc­tion of the tribe of Lot.”

Mean­while Er­doğan’s at­ti­tude to­ward trans and gay Turks has been cu­ri­ously am­bigu­ous. Be­fore he came to power, he promised lib­er­al­ism and gen­der equal­ity, and he pledged to stop dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBTI Turks. In­deed, the Er­doğan era be­gan promis­ingly in 2003. Dur­ing his first years in of­fice, he was a vo­cal critic of the ear­lier Turk­ish mod­ern­iza­tion. He pledged to over­turn the coun­try’s na­tion­al­is­tic foun­da­tions, and many Turk­ish lib­er­als be­lieved and sup­ported him. In their view, Er­doğan was a change from the mod­ern mil­i­tarists: he could po­ten­tially trans­form the pa­tri­ar­chal repub­li­can iden­tity that did not al­low gen­der flu­id­ity and a non­bi­nary sex­ual iden­tity, among other val­ues viewed by early repub­li­can ide­o­logues as threats to the Turk­ish na­tional char­ac­ter. In 2003, Er­doğan per­mit­ted a gay pride march in Istanbul, which was first at­tempted but sup­pressed in 1993. Thirty peo­ple at­tended the march in 2003, but the num­ber then grew: 5,000 in 2010, 10,000 in 2011, 20,000 in 2012, 50,000 in 2013, and 90,000 in 2014. Us­ing the rhetoric of fight­ing a ho­mo­ge­neous Turk­ish iden­tity, Er­doğan also soft­ened some of the pa­tri­ar­chal char­ac­ter of the Turk­ish Repub­lic. He abol­ished the oath cer­e­monies in which pri­mary and mid­dle school stu­dents were forced to pro­claim them­selves “hon­est, hard-work­ing Turks.” He did away with bans on the Kur­dish lan­guage and started a peace process with armed Kur­dish rebels.

But three and a half mil­lion Turks, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of whom ac­cused Er­doğan of be­tray­ing repub­li­can ideals, par­tic­i­pated in antigov­ern­ment protests in the sum­mer of 2013, and he re­al­ized that his cri­tique of mod­ern Turkey’s na­tional iden­tity was cost­ing him votes. That fall, the Turk­ish state cracked down on public marches, and Er­doğan be­gan to slowly change his poli­cies. In speeches, he put forth a newly for­mu­lated Turk­ish na­tion­al­ism, and this helped him re­gain the votes of na­tion­al­ists who were an­noyed by his at­tempts to change Turk­ish iden­tity. Turks on both sides of the repub­li­can– Is­lamist di­vide are of­ten so­cially con­ser­va­tive, and Er­doğan’s new pa­ter­nal­is­tic tone helped to greatly in­crease pop­u­lar sup­port for his poli­cies.

This new pol­i­tics had alarm­ing con­se­quences for trans­gen­der peo­ple liv­ing in Turkey. On June 19, 2015, the Trans Pride march was banned, and riot po­lice at­tacked LGBTI ac­tivists with pep­per spray. On June 28 of that year, Istanbul’s mayor used the Is­lamic month of Ra­madan as an ex­cuse to can­cel Gay Pride. In Ankara and Izmir (one of Turkey’s most lib­eral cities), blan­ket bans were im­posed on pride pa­rades. I live in cen­tral Istanbul, where pride pa­rades are held, and I no­ticed that their sup­pres­sion was part of a pat­tern. When May Day cel­e­bra­tions were out­lawed over the past two years, po­lice blocked en­try to Tak­sim Square, ar­mored ve­hi­cles pa­trolled it, and ev­ery street was guarded by a dozen riot po­lice. On June 26, 2016, the gov­ern­ment again banned pride pa­rades. Nine­teen days later, el­e­ments of the Turk­ish mil­i­tary staged an un­suc­cess­ful coup against Er­doğan, and with the an­nounce­ment of a state of emer­gency on July 21, 2016, the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment gained ad­di­tional pow­ers to sup­press not only the pride pa­rades, but all public marches.

Un­til 2014, sex re­as­sign­ment op­er­a­tions were a priv­i­lege only wealthy Turks could af­ford. Turkey’s most fa­mous trans­gen­der celebrity, Bü­lent Er­soy, had her op­er­a­tion at the age of twenty-eight, af­ter be­com­ing the su­per­star of Turk­ish clas­si­cal mu­sic as well as a film ac­tor. Born in 1952, she started hor­mone re­place­ment ther­apy in the 1970s. In 1980 she was ar­rested and locked up for forty-five days af­ter hav­ing breast aug­men­ta­tion surgery and bar­ing her chest dur­ing a per­for­mance. Once re­leased, Er­soy un­der­went sex re­as­sign­ment surgery, from male to fe­male, in Lon­don.

Nine months af­ter the 1980 mil­i­tary coup, the junta banned all trans­gen­der peo­ple from ap­pear­ing at en­ter­tain­ment venues and on tele­vi­sion, but Er­soy ar­gued that the ban didn’t ap­ply to her as a woman. When a court de­nied her pe­ti­tion, Er­soy took the case to the Supreme Court, which re­jected her ap­peal. She ex­iled her­self to Ger­many, con­sorted with Kur­dish

and Com­mu­nist vic­tims of the junta, starred in Turk­ish-Ger­man films, and be­came a cel­e­brated rebel. In the af­ter­math of the Er­soy case most trans­gen­der Turks, but es­pe­cially those in en­ter­tain­ment, lost their jobs; many were forced into pros­ti­tu­tion to make a liv­ing; tor­ture and rape of trans­gen­der peo­ple at po­lice sta­tions be­came ev­ery­day news.

In 1988, Turgut Özal’s ne­olib­eral Moth­er­land Party amended Turkey’s Civil Code to al­low Turks who had un­der­gone sex re­as­sign­ment surgery to legally change the gen­der on their birth cer­tifi­cate.4 Trans­gen­der peo­ple cel­e­brated the news, and Er­soy came home. Through­out the 1990s, her fame grew and her surgery be­came com­mon knowl­edge.

In Fe­bru­ary 2014, Turkey’s So­cial Se­cu­rity In­sti­tu­tion sent a let­ter to all state hos­pi­tals or­der­ing them to of­fer sex re­as­sign­ment surg­eries free of charge. Psy­chother­apy and hor­mone re­place­ment ther­apy are also of­fered for free, but there are still prob­lems. One trans woman in­ter­viewed in “Trans­sex­u­als in Turkey,” an ar­ti­cle in Gen­dered Iden­ti­ties, com­plains, “The doors of public in­sti­tu­tions and the pri­vate sec­tor are closed to us.” On Jan­uary 25, 2018, Diren Coşkun, a Turk­ish trans woman de­tained on a charge of “ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­pa­ganda,” started a hunger strike for her right to laser hair re­moval treat­ment in prison. The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, in a res­o­lu­tion passed on Fe­bru­ary 5, 2018, said it was “deeply wor­ried” by the case and called “on the com­pe­tent in­sti­tu­tions to en­sure her health and well­be­ing.” The same month two Turk­ish trans ac­tivists joined her hunger strike in sup­port, and #LetDirenLive be­came a trend­ing topic on Twit­ter in Turkey. Kaos GL, which of­fers many trans­gen­der Turks free le­gal aid, is Turkey’s old­est LGBTI or­ga­ni­za­tion. Umut Güner, one of its founders, says he is proud of the move­ment’s vis­i­bil­ity, es­pe­cially com­pared to 1994, when Kaos GL was born, and when gay and trans Turks had no ac­cess to le­gal aid. Güner is a cheer­ful man, bearded, pudgy, and of­ten smil­ing. And yet he is wor­ried about the fu­ture, given what he terms “the new pol­i­tics of re­pres­sion” that be­gan in 2015, the first year pride pa­rades were re­crim­i­nal­ized. “I am wor­ried not only for LGBTI rights in Turkey but for Turk­ish hu­man rights in gen­eral,” Güner says.

A re­port by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional lists gov­ern­ment in­dif­fer­ence to­ward pre­vent­ing gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, a lack of le­gal pro­tec­tions for hous­ing, and em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion as the main ob­sta­cles faced by LGBTI Turks. Mur­ders of trans­gen­der peo­ple, like that of Hande Kader, a twenty-three­year-old trans ac­tivist who was found raped, mu­ti­lated, and burned on a road­side in Au­gust 2016, con­tinue to cause public out­rage.5 Re­stric­tions on public gath­er­ings and protest marches are now the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion. In Novem­ber 2017 a gov­er­nor banned Turkey’s queer film fes­ti­val; the ban was then ex­tended to all LGBTI events in Turkey—film screen­ings, ex­hi­bi­tions, fo­rums, pan­els, meet­ings—for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment says that it is con­cerned with the se­cu­rity and safety of LGBTI ac­tivists, and that the bans are not ho­mo­pho­bic.

Yet there are also rea­sons for op­ti­mism. In Istanbul, there is an in­creas­ing pres­ence of trans­gen­der em­ploy­ees in en­try-level re­tail jobs, such as at beauty sa­lons and bou­tiques. The gov­ern­ment’s sup­pres­sion of pride pa­rades has in­creased sol­i­dar­ity and unity among trans and gay Turks, and their re­silience has in­spired en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, fem­i­nists, po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents, and oth­ers who see them­selves on the mar­gins of Turk­ish so­ci­ety. In the past three years op­po­si­tion par­ties have nom­i­nated openly gay can­di­dates, and the main op­po­si­tion party es­tab­lished a quota for neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee elec­tions re­quir­ing that one in five can­di­dates be gay. Bü­lent Er­soy is a fre­quent guest at the Pres­i­den­tial Palace in Ankara; there is even a pro-Er­doğan LGBTI or­ga­ni­za­tion named AKLGBTI (af­ter his AK party). And on Novem­ber 29, 2017, Er­doğan’s gov­ern­ment re­moved forced ster­il­iza­tion re­quire­ments from sex re­as­sign­ment surg­eries. Turkey could imag­in­ably be­come a des­ti­na­tion for med­i­cal tourists look­ing to un­dergo sex re­as­sign­ment in the near fu­ture.

Life re­mains dif­fi­cult, how­ever, for Turks who have not yet changed their sex but hope to. Peo­ple who are gen­der fluid or at the early stages of tran­si­tion­ing from one sex to an­other seem par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing to es­tab­lished no­tions of gen­der. “The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment is will­ing to as­sist peo­ple who want to change gen­der; what it doesn’t like is the in-be­tween­ness,” a Turk­ish ac­tivist told me.6

In the weeks fol­low­ing his at­tack, Derin Oy­lum was ex­pelled from the dor­mi­tory of his col­lege. His mother lost her babysit­ting job. His schol­ar­ship was cut. He had to ter­mi­nate his col­lege ed­u­ca­tion and once again had to face his at­tacker—his girl­friend’s brother—who fol­lowed him on his mo­tor­bike to in­tim­i­date and frighten him. Derin still hopes to have sex re­as­sign­ment surgery and set­tle down with Emine, who now lives in a dis­tant town, but un­til his tran­si­tion is com­plete, his in-be­tween­ness will con­tinue to put him in a per­ilous po­si­tion. Un­der­stand­ably, he seemed tense as we walked on the main av­enue of his Aegean town. Around a huge statute of Atatürk young men smoked cig­a­rettes and watched passersby. I, too, re­al­ized the weight of their gaze: per­haps they meant no harm, or maybe they did. Derin walked me to the bus sta­tion, and I hes­i­tated to leave him be­hind. As the bus left the ter­mi­nal, I saw him dis­ap­pear into the crowd.

A cross-dress­ing male dancer, or köçek, in the Ot­toman Em­pire, nine­teenth cen­tury

A mock wed­ding of a trans­gen­der cou­ple on Gay Pride Day, Istanbul, June 2010

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