Riding the 830 from the Bayrampaşa Otogar to Taksim Square, we pass a seedy section that branches for a few blocks between İstiklal and Tarlabaşı Streets where one can see a handful of transexual prostitutes, and a little further in the occasional semi-discreet brothel and a gay bar or two. Being gay in Turkey has got to be extremely difficult, even if one lives in Istanbul where you may find relative safety in the anonymosity of a metropolis. But, being gay anywhere else has got to be really, really difficult. Then it occurred to me, I have yet to meet one openly gay person in Turkey.
With so many openly gay friends in the States, this struck me as a sign of my own ignorance. They must be around me, right? Then I started thinking about a conversation I had with some friends.
A few days ago I was sitting in a punk-ish death-metal-ish themed beer garden (the beer was SO cheap it was worth putting up with the music) with two ex-pat friends who were complaining about the Western media’s coverage of the Muslim world. While it’s good to have friends from Turkey, I do find I learn at least as much from veteran ex-pats as my quote-un-quote native ones.
While the two bantered back and forth complaining about the poor understanding the average American journalist has for the Arabic language, I kept my mouth shut. I’m at least as linguistically ignorant as the common journalist. Their beef was this: Individuals are commonly referred to by only part of their name like ‘Ibn or Bin, which are not actually names but rather a prefix meaning “son of” and therefore a name that can not ever be used alone, think the Irish Mc. And while this isn’t an earth-shattering mistake, it shows the depths of the ignorance of not only the journalist but also the entire editing staff. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Arabic should catch this.
This then lead to a discussion of the poor translation and explanation of the cultural context required to understand speeches from leaders in the Eastern world. Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University was brought up. In his highly contested speech, Ahmadinejad declared that the Muslim world doesn’t have homosexuality like it exists in the West:
‘No homosexuals in Iran’: Ahmadinejad
(AFP) – Sep 24, 2007
NEW YORK (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad skirted a question about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran on Monday, saying in a speech at a top US university that there were no gays in Iran.
“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” Ahmadinejad said to howls and boos among the Columbia University audience.
“In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don’t know who has told you that we have it,” he said.
This of course led to a discussion of the differences in understanding of homosexuality in the East. That is, there is a categorical difference between a homosexual and a man who has sex with men. And, while the American Red Cross may use such terms to weed out the blood of undeclared homosexual men (recognize that question, “Have you ever had sex with a man that has had sex with men?”), I must say, there is a stark difference in this part of the world.
Apparently being on top matters. Being on the bottom matters. And while individuals in the States may make distasteful jokes about such things, here in the East, the man on top is not considered to be homosexual. There is a distinct difference between them, and n’er the two shall meet. My friend offered up this anecdote in explanation: His friend went home with a man and in the heat of things, began, well, feeling around. The other man, outraged, stormed out saying something that roughly translates to “I’m not the passive one.”
I had come across this concept once before in an article about the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The article discussed Turkey and their policy, referred to by the author as, Do Ask, Must Tell. Turkey has mandatory military requirement for all men. All men. There is no such thing as conscientious objection here. Every Turkish man is required to serve five months if he has a university degree and 18 if he does not. He receives almost no money from the government either, and while Turks are enamored with their military, a significant portion doesn’t actually want to have to play soldier. For free. For a year and a half.
One way out is by declaring one’s homosexuality. Why? Because according to Selma Aliye Kayaf, the Minister for Women’s and Family Affairs, homosexuality is a “disease that needs treatment” therefore barring the “sufferer” from military service. The article also discussed that because service is so loathed, the government is astute to those who fabricate homosexuality. The author spoke to individuals who were told they must document their homosexual acts, showing themselves in photographs or video at (excuse the bluntness) the receiving end.
So, my friend argued perhaps this is what Ahmadinejad meant when he said the Arab world doesn’t have homosexuals like in our country. And, even if it’s not what he meant, that’s the reality here. I honestly can’t make heads or tails of the situation. I’m not a gay man, I’m not Turkish and like I said I unfortunately have yet to make the acquaintance of any openly gay Turks. I’m not sure what this kind of conceptualization of sexuality really means either. While some may say (rather optimistically) that it opens up a discussion about the categorization of preferences, I feel such an argument is false. The only narrative here is a heteronormative one. But it definitely made me think, that’s for sure.