THE INTERVIEW WE HAD FOR THE GREEK GROUP OPOTH`S MAGAZINE
Istanbul has recently received international attention due to the large scale persecution of transsexuals by the police. Just how frequent are the homophobic attacks on gays in Istanbul? Are they really as organized as they seem to be? [Please describe particular incidents if so; give details.]
Actually, the police does not have systematic attacks on gays. The biggest problem is with the transgender community. The transgender people used to live in one single area and they used to work there. But since May1995, the police with the cooperation of some residents of Ulker Street(where they used to live) have harassed and forced them to leave the street.Only some of the transvestites could resist with Demet Demir. The population of the transvestites was more than 50 in the street but now they are left only 7. The police attacks to them is really organized. There is always a police car on their street and all the policemen of the area isinformed about them. They are ready to attack them in any small case. In July 1997, Demet tried to stop two policemen when they were beating a young girl who was from their art studio. And when she tried to do that police arrested her and she was put in prison. The court of course released her but the police men sued her again for insulting the police. On 12th of December she has the trial related to this case.
What does being gay and living in Istanbul mean to you? Does this apply to rest of the large cities, say Ankara or Izmir? What about the rest of Turkey?
Living in Istanbul means a greater chance of meeting other gay people.In terms of liberality a big city is not much different from the countryside. But in a big city people don't care much about what you are and what you are doing. In a small place everybody knows each other and people's main interests are private lives of other people.
Would you say there is a differentiation between being gay and being lesbian in turkey? What is the degree of lesbian visibility and activism in your country? Where would you attribute it?
Obviously there is. Turkey is a patriarchal society in which manhood isthe most important value. What a lesbian does is "being like a man" and this is something to be appreciated. Being a lesbian is easier because they area kind of more easily accepted and even respected. But gays who are "a shame for manhood" are not of course respected. Lesbian visibility is less than gay visibility. Because women are more repressed and they are in a much inferior position. And they even may not find the chance to discover themselves. So it is more difficult for them to come out although their acceptance is more likely.The world has witnessed the rise of Mr. Erbakan's Prosperity Party to power.
What impact has the the revival of the Islamic fundamentalism had on gays, lesbians and women in general?
In fact "nothing". Prosperity Party was not in power alone. It was in coalition with another right wing party but they were not that religious. What Prosperity Party had to do was seeming nice to the public and that's what they did. They did not have any radical activities, they tried to look as liberal as they can be. They even talked very nicely about Ataturk who is their enemy in terms of his political thoughts. But if they were in power alone, it would be difficult for gays and lesbians and even for women. Because Erbakan is reported to say "We will hang all homosexuals in Taksim Square" in a secret meeting.
As far as the law is concerned, what problems do queers face in Turkey?
The law in Turkey has no mention of homosexuality. So it is not a crime. But there are other articles in the law which says police can interfere with anything that is against Turkish moral values. But there is no criteria about what will determine it. So the police may think homosexual act is against moral values and can arrest you. But if the person is educated and conscious enough, he can defend himself against the police talking about the laws and rights. Police is not very used to this kind of resistance and they wouldn't feel very comfortable with what they are doing. I am sorry to say that but police and a lot of gays are not educated enough. From the political view having no law about homosexuality is a little bit bad. Because we lack a target. If we had such a law we would work for removing that law and when it is achieved, it would make great effect on the society too.
What is the level of an organized gay scene in your city? [Bars, cafes, organizations, activities.]
Let me start from the organizations. Years ago there used to be a group lead by Ibrahim Eren, "The Message". But they are not active anymore. At the moment, the most active group in Istanbul is Lambda Istanbul. There is a new lesbian group formed by lesbian members of Lambda, "Sappho" They are about to publish a magazine and the group will grow with the magazine. There is also "Sisters of Venus" but they are not an action group. They just come together for support.
You used to have a weekly radio program. Tell us a bit more about it. [Contents, radio station, duration, why did it stop].
The radio show started on the 5th of May, 1996. It was a one hour radio show but we made it one and a half hour for six months. It was a cultural gay-lesbian program. News from the World, Gays in history, famous gays, gay books, gay news, gay stories and so on. The radio station was called Open Radio. Open to the all sounds, colors and vibrations of the universe. The slogan was attractive so we first took the project to them and it was happily accepted. It lasted for about one and a half years. But in September, the radio station claimed that the radio show was not as good as it used to be. It lost the action and the attractiveness. It was just a technical cause. So they finished the show.
How visible is homosexuality in the Turkish media and public life? [Can you give examples?]
As I said before lesbians have the least visibility. But gay people are especially when they are effeminate are easy to recognize. For media it is a great material for rating. There are a lot of gay artists on TVs but they claim to be heterosexuals or they never talk about it. But they are obviously gay. And the most famous star in Turkey is a transsexual.Media is very interested in them because they are usually colorful and fun people. But they are never interested in regular gays who look like an ordinary heterosexual.Sex between men or boys has always been a part of the Ottoman culture.
Can you tell us a bit more about the forms this culture took? How much alive is this particular aspect of the culture in Turkish society today? What about hamam's [public bath houses] - are they still operative?
Interestingly, ottomans had a bisexual culture. But this was never a conscious homosexuality or bisexuality. It was natural for them to have sex with women and young boys. Women were necessary for breeding but they took more pleasure from boys. That's what the Ottoman records say. There was even a palace for boys in Bursa. Those boys were taken to the war with soldiers. They joined the battle during day and they "served"the soldiers in their tents during night. And the "hamam" culture is still going on in some Turkish Baths. But unfortunately there are many rent boys there who have sex with men for money.
What is the degree of information on Aids in Turkey - especially regarding gay people?
The recorded number of HIV + cases are not more than 1000, to the best of my knowledge it is about 750. But this is the official number and experts estimate the real number much more than that. The educated gays are much more conscious about the issue and the portion of gay people in this number is much less than heterosexuals. Lambda Istanbul joins every activity of AIDS Prevention Society and we have recently published the first AIDS brochure for gays and lesbians in Turkey. Generally I can claim that gay people are more aware of safe sex than the heterosexuals.
Would you say there is a change in the attitude of the Turkish society towards gay people in the last years? [Explain, if so.]
I was just talking about this to a friend of mine yesterday. I think I can answer this question with a definite "yes". The mirror of the society is its media and of course the society is effected by what the mirror shows.After many interviews with lambda, with our coming out on the Habitat II activities in 1996 June and with other positive articles, we feel amore tolerant atmosphere. It is not only because of that we are opening ourselves to the West more and more everyday. There are many people who think gays should have rights too but of course there are still homophobes too.
What goals do you hope to achieve through your common action as Lambda Istanbul?
What we determined as a general and far achievement is to have gay rights on the same level with the rights in European Community countries. But there are many steps to be taken towards that. So the small steps are raising consciousness among gays, getting them together, visibility and so on.