Good As You in Turkey

[heading style=”1″]Quentin Crisp once famously said, “Men deprived of the company of women turn to boys, and men deprived of the company of boys turn to animals.”[/heading]
He surely had in mind English public schools, Welsh sheep farmers, and American convicts but not Turkey where sexual ambiguity is an art form. I have been visiting the shores of Anatolia for 15 years or so, and I think the entire country must be encased in lead since my gaydar malfunctions as soon as I enter Turkish airspace. This leaves me in a continuous state of utter confusion as I’m thrown off balance by the intensive, penetrating stares and contradictory playful signals from the swarthy men around me.
During the summer months, whole caravans of young men with spring-loaded libidos and any-port-in-a-storm mentalities begin their annual migration to the coast looking for casual work and casual sex. I know that in societies where there is strong gender separation and girls are expected to protect their virtue, access to sexual shenanigans is limited to a hand shandy from the boy next door, but, some of these poor fellas are like coiled springs. The frustration is palpable.

In the conventional sense, few are actually gay. It seems that a familiar fumble with the boys is tolerated if absolute discretion is exercised. It is certainly not an obstacle to marriage. And so, come the end of the season, the boys return to their villages to overwinter, marry their cousins, and breed. When spring is in the air, they re-join the exodus back to the coast to pick up where they left off without a moment’s thought.

[pullquote align=”left”]Turkey is a man’s world. Female sexual liberation is but a distant dream.[/pullquote]Perhaps this is why so many young Turkish women look po-faced and miserable. And, what about Lesbianism? Let’s just not go there. A sly grope between men might be overlooked, but girl-on-girl action is way beyond the pale.

What really intrigues me is the sizeable number of older married Turks who get their jollies in hamams, or Turkish baths, and the like. Perhaps, an instant and uncomplicated dalliance reminiscent of a distant youth is a welcome distraction from the never ending drudgery of domestic convention, or perchance, there is some truth in the old Ottoman adage that women are for procreation and men are for recreation.

There is, of course, a fundamental distinction between having sex with someone of the same gender and true homosexuality though lazy thinkers often confuse the two. A world of difference exists between a quickie with a passing stranger and the profound desire to form a romantic and emotional bond with a member of the same gender. This is where the grief starts.

[heading style=”2″]Turkey provides a challenge to the free-spirited wishing to live unconventionally.[/heading] Stifling social conformity redolent of fifties Britain means that it takes a very brave (or desperate) person indeed to break free and abandon their families and the beliefs their families embrace. The penalty ranges from exile to death, literally. Honour killings are more common than people realise. Consequently, openly gay Turks in visible same-sex relationships are as rare as ginger imams.

Soon after my partner and I arrived in Turkey, we heard the tragic story of a waiter who, by all accounts, was a kind and gentle soul and a little bit fey. He had done his duty by marrying, siring children, and sending most of his meagre earnings home to support them. One early morning, he was walking home through pretty, sleepy Yalıkavak having finished his shift. He was attacked by three teenagers who robbed and murdered him. It’s a terrifying tale, and, of course, queer bashing can happen anywhere. However, what makes this case unusual is that he was raped first.

The political establishment hardly helps. In the spring of 2009, the Turkish minister responsible for children’s services called homosexuality a disease that could be cured. To be fair, it caused quite a stir in the press and in the Government. Her comments were contradicted by the Minister for Health. At the time, it made us review our decision to relocate here, but we stayed anyway.
I must add that my obvious union with Liam has never attracted bad publicity from any Turk. I assume, as non-Moslem foreigners, we are infidels and Hell-bound anyway, so it hardly matters what we do. Ironically, the only disapproving glances we receive are from some of the expats.

It is more lazy thinking to assume that Turkey, as a Moslem country, is incurably afflicted by the same fixed biblical attitudes of many of its Arab neighbours. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. I tend to compare my newly adopted country with Eastern Europe, nations on their own journey to modernity. Being gay in the Baltic republics or Bulgaria is hardly a walk in the park either, but this is slowly changing. Think Spain following Franco’s death or Ireland after Catholicism lost its iron grip. Turkey is a magical land graced by a rich culture, gorgeous people, and a love of family which I truly honour. A respect for difference will not destroy that. It’s ok to be queer. It won’t bring down the house, though it might bring in a little more style. 

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  • A really interesting article. I find it sad that people are not accepted for who they are unless they are foreigners, but as you say, hopefully this will change over time.

  • Liz O’Neill

    great piece!  Liz

  • Liz O’Neill

    great piece!