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…

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