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A city comes out

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Demet Demir, who had a sex change operation in 1996, is the leading voice of Turkey’s transvestite and transsexual community.

Istanbul is the hub of gay life in Turkey, a Muslim nation with a tolerance of homosexuals.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003


ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Saturday night slides into Sunday morning as the crowd at Hengame, a popular club, gyrates to the ear-splitting sound of techno and electronic music. The men are generally good-looking; many of the women are eye-poppingly gorgeous.

But even in the faint, pulsating light of the strobe, you can see that something is different about the striking figures in sequined bustiers and micro-miniskirts. Most are as tall, if not taller, than the men they are dancing with.

They are men, too, or used to be.

Hengame is one of several gay clubs in Istanbul where homosexual men, transvestites and transsexuals can mingle without fear of harassment or arrest. It's the kind of place you'd expect to find in New York or Amsterdam, not in a city and country that are 99 percent Muslim.

Homosexuality is a crime in most Muslim nations, where penalties range from prison to death. But Turkey has no laws against it, and Istanbul, the largest city, attracts those whose sexual orientation would be considered aberrant elsewhere in the Muslim world.

"When you see transvestites on the street, that is something," says Demet Demir, who was born a man 41 years ago but had a sex-change operation in 1996. "That is the first step for freedom in a country."

Turkey not only tolerates those with alternative lifestyles, it embraces them. One of its most famous writers, Murathan Mungan, is gay, and one of its most popular singers, Bulent Ersoy, is a transsexual.

Another gay singer, Zeki Muren, achieved such legendary status before he died a few years ago that his picture -- bearing an uncanny resemblance to Liberace -- is sometimes displayed alongside that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.

Nor is it hard to find gay gathering spots. The Internet site of Lambda Istanbul, a gay organization, lists almost 20 gay bars, clubs and discos in the city, in addition to sex shops, "blue movies," cruising areas and bathhouses. Even Time Out, the city guide distributed in luxury hotels, provides a half-page rundown of Istanbul's gay scene, including the most popular item in local sex shops -- a $70 "inflatable transexual doll."

photo The marble head of the Greek lyric poet Sappho is one of the main attractions at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]

Turkey's acceptance of homosexuality is often said to be rooted in the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim dynasty that ruled for more than five centuries. Islam does not specifically prohibit same-sex relations, and Ottoman sultans purportedly took boys along when they went into battle because they didn't want to endanger women.

The Ottomans also are credited with transforming bathhouses into social centers, where tellaks -- young boys -- not only washed their male customers but provided other services as well.

But don't make too much of the Ottoman influence, says Kucuk Iskender, a gay man and one of Turkey's best-known poets.

"The biggest mistake of the West is still seeing us as Ottomans," says Iskender, chain-smoking Winstons as he sits in his apartment beneath posters of Leonardo DiCaprio and the movie Pulp Fiction.

"Every civilization comes from an empire in the past; seeing us as Ottomans is like seeing Germans as Nazis. There is not a very clear explanation of homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire, and judging a country's history on rumors is not a very good thing."

He offers another reason for Turkey's tolerance of homosexuality: In a still-conservative country such as this, even men who consider themselves straight often go to gays for oral sex or "because for many men in Turkey, it is not easy to have a relationship with a woman."

Iskender has written more than 30 books of fiction and poetry, touching on a variety of themes, including homosexuality. "Just as there is homosexuality in life, there is homosexuality in my books," he says. He gets some of his inspiration from observing gays in clubs such as Hengame; otherwise, he prefers to stay home with friends and his calico cat, Zozo.

A lifelong resident of Istanbul, Iskender comes from a somewhat unorthodox background; his late father was an artist and a Communist. Iskender, 38, has had a few long-term relationships; he shows photos of a former lover who looks strikingly like Brad Pitt. But he says that gays who grew up in cosmopolitan Istanbul have a tough time forming lasting partnerships with each other because they are too preoccupied with advancing their careers.

It is hard, too, he says, to have relationships with gay men who flee the more repressive countryside and arrive in Istanbul with little money or education.

"For a metropolitan gay, he wants his books published all over the world, but for others, they want a new T-shirt, a new pair of shoes, $10 in their pocket. There is a clash among us," Iskender says.

Gay men from outside Istanbul are also the main perpetrators of violence against other gays, he says: "They aren't afraid to take risks because they don't think they have any future." Iskender says that he was nearly killed a year or so ago when an Ankara man he met tried to strangle him with a chain, then robbed him.

Modern Turkey has not always been accepting of gays. In July 1993, authorities banned activities planned for Christopher Street Day, when gays worldwide commemorate the 1969 police raid and ensuing riot at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York's Greenwich Village. Nearly 30 foreign gay and lesbian delegates were forcibly deported from Turkey, and organizers had to cancel workshops on AIDS and other topics. Police acted on the grounds that the events would violate public morals, the vague strictures used to crack down on homosexual activity in lieu of specific laws.

The debacle fueled Turkey's gay rights movement and led to the formation of Lambda Istanbul. In addition to maintaining an Internet site and hosting regular get-togethers, it published the first AIDS guide for gays. HIV and AIDS are not major problems in Turkey, but the country's health minister warned that they could be a "serious threat" unless conservative elements become more open to the use of condoms and public discussions of safe sex.

Turkey's conservative society has made it especially difficult for one group to win acceptance: transvestites.

Because they act and dress as women, Turkish transvestites often have no choice but to go into prostitution because they cannot find jobs. Many used to live and work on Ulker Sokak, a small Istanbul street where they were routinely harassed and beaten by police. Officers even took scissors and cut their hair.

photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Demet Demir walks the streets of Istanbul. Demir, who worked as a prostitute for 15 years, says that Turks would not believe the names of some of her former clients.

Demet Demir worked for 15 years as a prostitute and was arrested more than 300 times, she says. She became active in the Radical Democratic Green Party, which championed sexual rights, and ran unsuccessfully for public office.

Now the leading voice of Turkey's transvestite and transsexual community, thought to number around 3,000, Demir says the push for acceptance has been helped by the country's bid to join the European Union. The EU has been critical of Turkey's human rights record.

Harassment "never disappeared, but in the last two years, things have gotten very loose, mostly because of Turkey trying to get in the European Union," Demir says. "Now the police are trying to be nice."

Growing up in suburban Istanbul, Demir preferred to play with girls instead of boys and around age 19 confirmed what the family suspected: "I said, 'You can send me away, but I'm not going to change.' " Although Demir's mother is a devout Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, she accepted the news, and the two have remained close.

Like many Turkish transvestites beginning the transformation to woman, Demir initially wore heavy makeup and short skirts; tight-fitting pants reveal the outlines of the male sex organ.

By 1996 Demir had saved the $5,000 for a sex-change operation, performed at a Turkish hospital by a Turkish doctor. "At the time, it was very easy. You paid the money and you had it," she says. Now, candidates for the operation must get permission from a judge and go through psychological counseling.

Less flamboyant these days, Demir dresses casually in faded, snug-fitting jeans and a loose red sweater. Her wavy brown hair skims her shoulders; her skin is smooth. She carries a pink national identity card (men have blue). The only visible clues to her original gender are thick eyebrows and a deep, rich voice.

Demir lives in a tiny apartment with five dogs and 10 cats. A year ago she quit prostitution and now does volunteer work with Lambda and other organizations. Money is so tight, she may move back in with her mother.

Her life has not been easy, but "I am happy with my identity. I'm proud of it. I don't think a heterosexual could stand so much pressure and survive."

-- Susan Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com .

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