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Sex Changes in Turkey

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

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 forty-four 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, cross-dressers, 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 cross-dressing 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.”

Monique Jacques/Corbis/Getty Images
A mock wedding of a transgender couple on Gay Pride Day, Istanbul, June 2010

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-three-year-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.

  1. 1

    The influence spread further among Turkish officials after German General Karl Liman von Sanders arrived at the Imperial Military Academy to reform the Ottoman military in 1913.  

  2. 2

    Gul Ozyegin, New Desires, New Selves: Sex, Love, and Piety among Turkish Youth (New York University Press, 2015), p. 246.  

  3. 3

    Gendered Identities: Criticizing Patriarchy in Turkey, edited by Rasim Özgür Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Özmen (Lexington, 2013), p. 74.  

  4. 4

    Özal was an aficionado of classical Ottoman music, and he loved Ersoy’s performances. This, rather than his support for LGBTI politics, was why the Motherland Party legalized sex reassignment.  

  5. 5

    Crimes like Kader’s murder inspired a six-volume novel, Turkish Delight (published in the US by Penguin), whose protagonist is a transvestite banker obsessed with solving murders of trans people in Istanbul. 

  6. 6

    In contrast to India, where the Supreme Court recognized hijra (transgender and intersex) and other transgender people as a third gender in 2014 (though homosexuality is still a crime), Turkish law recognizes only two genders among citizens.