Embedded in Queer Turkey

A Turkish mosque. | KELLY COGSWELL

A mosque in Istanbul. | KELLY COGSWELL

BY KELLY COGSWELL | I was in Turkey almost two weeks for an LGBT film festival, and at first it seemed like Paris or New York or San Francisco, where out queers hold popular events, discuss how to push things forward in a resistant, but mostly democratic society.

In fact, everybody smiled so much, was so fucking cheerful and effective I thought I’d landed in activist Nirvana. After a day running screenings and troubleshooting tech issues and moderating discussions, they even had enough energy to show up at the parties where they’d let their hair down and dance like joyful fiends while I crept away in exhausted shame.

Then, one day, I talked to a guy who stopped smiling long enough to admit he really despised his day job, but didn’t dare leave because he could be out at work, a rare occurrence in Turkey.

“It took so long to find it,” he said. “I wasn’t going to lie, like everybody else.”

A Dyke Abroad

All the gay guys he’d known in his 20s had caved in to the demands of their families and gotten married, to women of course. Then he counted out for me exactly how many more years and months he had to put in before his sentence was up and he could retire.

Next I heard that a trans woman had killed herself in Istanbul a week earlier. And that just the previous evening someone’s trans friend had died during sexual reassignment surgery, and nobody knew if the family would allow them to attend the service.

I also learned that the film festival that seemed to be going along so swimmingly actually had a film stuck in customs, delaying a screening — not surprising in this increasingly Islamist country, where censorship is gaining ground and journalists are regularly arrested.

As we took the show on the road from Ankara, the capital, to Istanbul, an organizer got a phone call from some government type saying that Kuirfest didn’t have all the correct permits to show a certain film, which meant a new tangle of complications. She spent the rest of the trip on the phone to the festival’s lawyers.

Other pressures were less obvious. As we neared Istanbul on the bus, the woman next to me said that when she was in the city, she always made time to walk along the Bosphorus, the strait separating Asia from Europe, and dividing the city. She lamented that most of the women of Istanbul rarely visited the mythical water because the men in their lives all but confined them to their homes.

In Turkey, the society’s so macho it makes Spain or Greece look positively matriarchal. Something like 40 percent of women face violence at home, with hundreds slaughtered every year. And in the public sphere there’s always some minister or other informing the country how obscene it is to see pregnant women on the streets, or, God forbid, see any woman at all with her mouth open, laughing.

At least Turkish women don’t take it in silence. When Bülent Arinç, the deputy prime minister, came up with a choice bit last July, railing against immodesty and the horror of a woman’s laughing open mouth, Turkish women responded with snapshots and videos of themselves laughing as loud as they could. Their masculine allies tweeted, too, denouncing men who were so cowardly that laughing women terrified them.

Trans women and gay men frighten them, too. What could be more horrifying than effeminacy in a body with a dick? A man giving up his privilege? They are murdered like dogs, especially trans sex workers, and their deaths are dished up on the evening news. If the violence doesn’t come from tricks or random bigots or competition on the street, it’s fathers and brothers trying to erase the family shame.

Many faced with a brutal life decide to kill themselves. Crossing a bridge into Istanbul, one trans woman told me that so many in her community had jumped from it, they’d held a vigil there, unfurling a rainbow flag.

Lesbians, too, are strangled by gender, and the double whammy of lesbophobia and misogyny. I didn’t understand just how invisible and marginal we were until I started tallying up the girls I’d met in different queer projects and realized that almost all them called themselves “bi women,” not dykes. Though as one explained, “Politically I’m a lesbian.”

My love affair with queer Turkey lost some of its gloss on the bus when a trans woman declared that lesbians, all of us, were “as bad as white supremacists.” Later, a rare out lesbian reinforced the familiar divide by offering a justification for the exclusion of trans women from a feminist group — if I understood her correctly. What a joke. As if most straight women or men considered either trans women or dykes “real women.” As if there was a whole strait between us, and no bridge in sight.

Still, I’m not quite ready to call it quits.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.