GAY IDENTITIES, COMMUNITIES AND PLACES IN THE 1990S IN ISTANBUL
THE BRITISH COUNCIL
This study concerns with gay identity and the meaning and the use of gay places in Istanbul where one of the most obvious out gay community holds across Turkey. I will argue in this essay that gay population in Turkey (and especially in Istanbul) has produced particular construction of a gay identity and community which has been influenced by Western gay rights movements since the mid-1980s. The 1980s was significant with regard to practising liberal economy policies of the new government and also emergence of the new feminist movement. This new political context of the 1980s has made a significant change in the traditional characteristics of Turkish male homosexuals in the largest cities. They began creating their own places, such as bars, clubs and cafes through which the gay identity has gradually became a public phenomenon.
In this study, I will be looking at whether it is possible to talk about a gay identity and/or gay identities, and visible gay communities in the 1990s in Istanbul; If it is so what the characteristics of these communities are. To deal with these questions first, I will focus on the meaning of male homosexuality perceived in the mainstream and its formation as an identity; second, I will examine the gay identity as defined by themselves in contemporary Turkey in Istanbul where the Occident meets the Orient.
In Turkey, there are several studies on male homosexuality that are mainly undertaken from a perspective of heterosexual academics. They consider them as a group of people who have a specific medico-socio-legal problem. The result of these studies were often obtained through "natural science" methods, and were rarely detailed the actual life experience of male homosexuals. However, my research includes in-depth interviews and questionnaires with a group of gays and also a point of a gay researcher myself as oppose to earlier researchers. For the purpose of this essay, I interviewed 30 male homosexuals in certain gay places in Istanbul (see appendix for the places). I have chosen to work with male homosexuals between 18 to 40 years old who identified themselves as gays. In these interviews, 26 open-close ended and multiple questions were asked considering their definition of their sexuality, their sense of community and their places. I have used this data derived from face to face interviews with them to examine formation of gay identities and communities in Istanbul.
SOCIAL CHARACTERISTICS AND SEXUAL BEHAVIOURS OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY IN TURKEY
The Turkish language often have two words for homosexuals. One word describes a passive homosexual "ibne" and the other the active one "kulanpara". "Ibne " is a type of homosexual person who acts as a woman in a relationship on the other hand a kulanpara defines himself as masculine and active man. Thus a relationship between these types of men are always perceived as a reflection of the values of a heterosexual relationship in Turkish mainstream society. However beside this main model, Tapinc (1992, p.41) offers four alternative models of male homosexual relations: (1) the masculine homosexual; (2) the masculine "heterosexual" and feminine homosexual; (3) the masculine homosexual and feminine homosexual; and (4) the final alternative type of homosexuality: masculine gay. Although these four models seem different from each other, he actually mentions two types of homosexual men: either being a feminine, passive man or a masculine, active man. Indeed some male homosexuals in Turkey adopt this mainstream distinction and identify themselves as "ibne".
The word "Ibne" is very much linked to the qualities of femininity which are perceived as inferior to masculine qualities. So "ibne" as an adjective becomes a code to despise, ridicule, and degrade a man in the male world. This is why the active homosexual men do not identify themselves as "ibne". As Tapinc (1991) concludes that the fixed gender structure in Turkey between men and women makes some of homosexuals accept the female qualities and often identify themselves with women and womanhood.
TOWARDS THE GAY IDENTIFICATION AND NEW SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR
During the 1980s' political environment, most people not only became to recognise the civil rights, womens liberation movement, sexual freedom but also the Western gay rights. As a consequence a group of young male homosexuals emerged who identified themselves as gays. These urban, young, educated and middle-class male homosexuals resisted the traditional roles, as "active" and "passive-ibne" and started to search for an alternative gay identity. With the publications of male homosexual writers, who explicitly discussed their experiences, existence of gay community became an issue in the public sphere. Especially one of the famous gay writers, Murathan Mungan, began to attract attention by many people. Many of his books have become best sellers. These publications started a debate between gay circles as well as in other sections of society. These debates led to a publication of a magazine called Ye?il Bary? which started to discuss issues of sexual/ gender identity. Some of them expressed their gay political identity through the non-official Radical Democratic Green Party in the mid-1980s. These radical movements, especially the women's movement helped introduce the western experiments, particularly the concept of personal identity in Turkish society. However this formation of sexual/gender identity among a group of people in the urban area was neither significant enough to change the common understanding of homosexual men in society nor powerful enough to challenge to the established patriarchal values. They were still seen marginalzed. So Turkish young urban male homosexuals attempted to link their experiences to the western gay movement in their private life style, and borrowed the term "gay" from their counterparts and identified themselves as gays. However, they have never become an organized movement as it happened in the West. The main reason for this might be the lack of group consciousness to act together as well as the strong patriarchal values. Consequently an urban gay subculture emerged who appeared to accept their marginal position in society. This has led gays in the early 1990s to form their own small circles and establish their own places where they could identify themselves with. But in the 1980s, as the interviewees explain, it was harder for gays to talk about their identity and the word gay was not familiar between them.
A middle-aged gay talks about the 1980s as following: Of course I was gay in the 1980s. I was aware of it but I did not identify myself as a gay. Because then none of my friends identified themselves as a gay.
Another one says " In the mid-1980s, I was aware of gay life style and culture in the West. Some friends of mine started to identify themselves as a gay. But it was funny. Because gay identity contains alternative life style and place. I didn't use the world gay to describe myself. I preferred the word homosexual or Ybne because I felt conformable with those words . Gay was a very strange English word to me. But I do not think like that now. I use the word gay. These days all the young homosexuals identify themselves as gays"
Most of the middle aged gays seemed to be aware of gay life, identity and culture in the West. However, in the 1980s, to come out or to define themselves as homosexuals only meant talking about their sexual experiences. Then it was not perceived as an identity or a lifestyle. Furthermore they did not need to define themselves through their sexuality as their relationships were perceived as a matter of private life. They avoided to talk about their homosexual experiences and discuss it in public. As one of the interviewees points out, only limited places existed in the late 1980s where gays socialise and share their experiences:
"There was no gay life style in Istanbul. There were one or two places and were mainly designed for heterosexual men to pick up gays. Another one said: "Gays were very small group and did not feel comfortable. We were isolated and looking for sexual partners."
Hence, in the mid-1980s in Istanbul, homosexual men did not socialise freely because of the frequent police raids to the places. Considering these conditions homosexual men could not create their own places and communities and thus become visible in the public sphere until the beginning of the 1990s.
GAY IDENTITY IN THE 1990S:
The majority of interviewees believe that a visible gay community exist in Istanbul in the 1990s. They claim that they do not copy traditional ibne or kulanpara types of homosexual relationships. My findings suggest that they are differentiating themselves from so-called feminine homosexuals-ibne by adopting an urban male identity and western gay life style.
Researchers offer four progressive staged processes for the formation of gay identity. As Troiden presents it: (1) sensitisation - an awareness of being different; (2) identity confusion - assigning meaning to difference; (3) Identity assumption - recognising oneself through involvement with others; and (4) identity synthesis - acceptance of on feelings (1989, pp.47, 50-63). According to my research results, gays in Istanbul have gone through these stages, however, identity synthesis stage seems most problematic as the other three stages have been rather recent experiences for them comparing their western counterparts. For instance, they emphasise that they often have to face the traditional homosexual roles when they are seeking an alternative identity. At the same time they say that it is easier now than the 1980s, partly because their involvement with each other and with the public through their publications have increased. It is evident that the majority of them believe that "gay" is a more positive term to define their experiences. They think that traditional fix concepts do not represent their feelings and life styles.
The young urban gays now expect more than a sexual intercourse from their relationships, nevertheless, struggle to form a political identity and establish an alternative lifestyle. As Michael Foucault emphasises to be a gay means to produce a life style and to try to improve it rather than identity oneself with the psychological attribute of homosexuality and its brilliant mask ( Foucault, 1982). Gays in Istanbul appear to be realising this very meaning of being a gay in the 1990s.
GAY PLACES IN ISTANBUL IN THE 1990S
In the beginning of the 1990s, male homosexual subculture grub began to emerge in Istanbul , who concentrate in the Beyo?lu (Pera) district, especially the Cihangir Quarter. Beyo?lu is a cultural and entertaining centre which combines marginal and the mainstream lifes of the city. There are many bars, night clubs, discos and Turkish baths, places that are connected to the gay life.
It is suggested that modern urban communities may exist through people who feel the same common experiences, attitudes, values and testes, who want to have a sense of togetherness and defend themselves against the mainstream society. (Hindle, 1994) This definition also applies to the situation of gay communities in Istanbul the way in which they create their own spaces and thus existence in the public realm.
The bars are central places in gay life. Bars and clubs are the only places where they can go and socialise with other gays. Through these places that gays have a sense of togetherness and share their experiences. They naturally feel that the only safe place to be out. Most of the gays in the interview think that the gay bars play an important role to meet others. They point out that to meet other people like themselves make them feel better about their experiences.
Most gays prefer bars to find a friend and/or partner. During the interview, some of them stated that
There are seven gay bars in Ystanbul. All of them are in Taksim and around Beyo?lu. There are also some "mixed" gay and heterosexual bars that gays frequently go. However these seven bars are central places in gay community in Beyo?lu. The lack of the other outdoor gay facilities, such as telephone dating, massage, escorts, club activities and so on, make these bars significant.
Five of these bars show the characteristics of western bars, two of them are quite oriental in their style. Most are geared for gay and lesbian, some are mixed. Some are very small, only dancing places and open until 3 am and 6 am. They are open all week and have no problem with the authorities. These bars have increasingly become popular recently. It is also possible to see some straight people in these bars. Because they think that gays are very cheerful and know to how to enjoy in the bars.
The people in my sample think that these places are not enough. They emphasise the need not only for more places but also different activities to bring the gay communities together.
DIVERSITIES BETWEEN GAY COMMUNITIES
We can observe two main types of gay communities in Istanbul. However they are not fixed within themselves. As one of the interviewees points out:
Yes, we are gays. We have common life experiences because of the nature of sexuality. For this reason, probably, most people see us one single visible community. But we are not, we have different values, tastes and son.
The first group includes people who identify themselves with the traditional ibne roles, who use a specific, vulgar language, and they tend to use "female" codes in their behaviours and outfits. Most of them prefer their sexual partners from men not from gays and use the same places to socialise. The majority of them have rural background and not well educated. They seem not to problematise their sexuality or define themselves through their sexuality.
The second type of gay community is consisted of people who have been analysed in this essay. They tend to question their gay identity and furthermore they are in search of an identity. People in this community are overwhelmingly urban and educated. They have gay bars and clubs especially designed for them which seem more sophisticated than other gay places. They are the people who have initiated and joined some gay facilities in the 1990s. They formed a consciousness raising group called Lambda (which is a Greek word used by early gay activists) which is one of the well known gay and lesbian organisation in Istanbul. They began a publication, a radical gay magazine called Lambda Istanbul and run a weekly gay and lesbian radio program. All these facilities has given them a chance to have a voice in public and to act as a group. These kinds of cultural activities would help gay communities to establish a more recognised gay culture in Turkey.
Hindle (1994) categorises three stages for the formation of a gay community: the first is simply being visible (gay place, residential areas, businesses, services run by and for gay people), the second is having activities, and the third is being organised socially, financially and politically because of hidden nature of homosexuality. As I have examined above the Turkish gay communities have been through the first two stages but they are not organised financially and politically.
Istanbul is only the city in Turkey with concentrated gay places and communities. As I have tried to show in this essay the traditional sexual roles in homosexuality have been changing. With the Western influence in the mid-1980s, many homosexual men started to identify themselves as gays and began to represent a new alternative sexual conscious and life style in the 1990s. They created their gay places, socialised together and started to form consciousness groups. Although they are marginal, a group of urban young gays have succeeded to introduce a Western gay life style to Turkish society which gives them freedom to exist and to have a voice in the public sphere.
I have argued in this paper that while a group of gay people have become more visible in the 1990s, they diversify within themselves and have formed small communities. I strongly believe that to be able to be recognised by the rest of the society, gays should question their sexual identity and transform it into daily life in order to form an alternative lifestyle and produce more work related to gay experience.
1-FOUCAULT M. (1992) Von der Freundschaft Michael Foucault im Gesprach translated by: Cemal Ener, in: Interview with Michael Foucault (ıstanbul, Telos Yayynlary)
2- : TAPINC, H. Masculinity, Femininity, And Turkish Male Homosexuality, in: PLUMMER, KEN (1992) 'Modern Homosexualities Fragments Of Lesbian And Gay Experience', ( London and Newyork, Routledge)
3- TROIDEN, R. (1989) The Formation of Homosexual identities (Binghamton, Harrington Park Press)
4- HINDLE, P. 'Gay Communities and gay space in the city' S. WHITTLE, in: The Margins Of The City: Gay mens Urban Lives. ( England, Hands, Arena, 1994)
GAY IDENTITIES, COMMUNITIES AND PLACES IN THE 1990S IN ISTANBUL
THE BRITISH COUNCIL