Monday, 21 January 2008

Fighting back tears on stage – a standing ovation to Turkish transsexuals

It’s tough to be gay in Turkey. It’s even tougher to be transsexual there. Discrimination and persecutions are common. Struggle of LGBT people in Turkey to reconcile their sexuality with religious beliefs ads to complexities. But as this report by AFP proves, things are changing in Turkey, as despite widespread homophobia, LGBT people make their presence more visible, and use different platforms to voice their protest against discrimination. Prospect of EU membership helps, indeed. Well worth reading and taking notes on similarities, differences, potential influences and developments in South Caucasus too.

*Turkish transsexual Sera Can puts make up on back stage before her performance in Ankara, 14 January 2008. (AFP)

ANKARA (AFP) - A unique play in an Ankara theatre ended with a standing ovation this week as the little-known actors -- transsexuals and gays raising their voice against discrimination -- fought back their tears on stage.

Their play, "Pink And Grey," put the spotlight on the plight of transsexuals in mainly Muslim Turkey, in the latest initiative of a fledgling but increasingly vocal movement for rights by a community long ostracized and often harassed.

Beaming with pride and excitement, the amateur stars, male-to-female transsexuals Derya Tunc and Sera Can, received congratulations in the boisterous backstage, taking a welcome respite from their actual jobs as sex workers.

"Despite all the discrimination we face, I have no regrets for what I am," Can cheerfully told AFP. "My only regret is having ended up in the prostitution sector."

Almost all transsexuals and transvestites in Turkey make their living as prostitutes. They say they have no other option in a society where homophobia is strong and often accompanied by violence.

Three quarters of Turks say they are "disturbed" by homosexuals, a recent opinion survey showed, although many gays today are recognized as being among the country's most prominent singers and fashion designers.

Notoriously harsh against transsexual prostitutes, police have been accused of arbitrary round-ups, mistreatment, torture and rough "clean-up" operations in several Istanbul neighbourhoods popular with transsexuals.

Activists say police abuse declined in recent years as the homosexual and transgender movement became organised and Turkey's bid to join the European Union made human rights a priority issue.

"Before, the police used violence -- now they only fine us," said Buse Kilickaya, the head of Pembe Hayat, or Pink Life, a newly-founded association that advocates transgender rights and sponsored "Pink and Grey."

She pointed to the ongoing trial of four people over an assault on transvestite and transsexual prostitutes in Ankara's Eryaman suburb in 2006, which left several seriously injured.

The victims were attacked by young men wielding sticks and knives who were allegedly encouraged by local authorities and property developers; their flats were ransacked and they were eventually forced to flee the neighbourhood.

Attorney Senem Doganoglu, a supporter of Pink Life, said transvestites and transsexuals continue to be arbitrarily detained and could end up in a police station simply for showing up in the street.

"I had a case in which one was detained when she went out in the evening to buy bread," Doganoglu said.

Prostitution is not a crime in Turkey, so the police use a law that provides for fines for disturbing public order to pursue transsexual sex workers, she explained.

That the advocacy of conservative values by the governing Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) "is fostering the existing climate of intolerance," she said.

Islam's impact on sexual freedoms, however, has proven to be a tricky issue in secular Turkey, where same-sex relationships and sex change operations are allowed, unlike in many other Muslim countries, and homosexual traditions can be traced back to the palaces of Ottoman sultans.

One of Turkey's best-known gays, prominent fashion designer Cemil Ipekci, made the headlines this month as he praised the AKP, described himself as a "conservative homosexual" and said he would have worn the Islamic headscarf had he been a woman.

And a transgender association in Ankara has called for a special mosque where its members can pray without disturbing the conventional Muslim flock.

"They cannot deny us the right to pray for salvation, can they?" asked group leader Oksan Oztok.

Activists hope discrimination will decrease as they become better organised and more vocal.

"We know things cannot change overnight. But there is progress already and we will continue to fight," Kilickaya said as she and her fellows excitedly discussed the date of the next "Pink and Grey" performance.

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