The most-talked about celebrity in Turkey these days is a 26-year-old actor named Rüzgar Erkoçlar. The actor’s career had started at age 10, followed by a popular sanitary pad commercial at 15 that lead the way to stardom. But what has made Erkoçlar the center of attention these days has nothing to do with the screen, but a sex-change operation.
The news of Erkoçlar going through the operation first broke out on Twitter last week, when a record producer, notorious for revealing celebrity dirty laundry, posted a photo to prove that “she is no longer a woman.” The rumor was immediately denied by the family, but a few days later the actor revealed his new identity, along with post-op photos, to Hürriyet Daily.
Erkoçlar stated that as a female she had always preferred women, never been with a man, and did not consider herself a lesbian before.
“I've always wanted to get rid of that body given to me by birth,” the now-male Erkoçlar said. “I felt trapped and wanted to break free.” She also changed her first name from Nil, meaning "the Nile," to Rüzgar, meaning the "wind."
It took Erkoçlar two years of extensive therapy before the operation. She was under hormone injections for seven months and finally approved by a team of doctors that “she is ready to move from a female body to a male body.”
She reveals that her breasts were removed and the doctors implemented an appendage to act as penis made from a bone in her legs.
Surprisingly the public reaction against Erkoçlar’s new identity was mostly supportive even amongst the Islamist TV talking heads. An Islamic marriage expert came forward to say that while Islam does not allow sex-change operations she “respects Erkoçlar’s views because he is a human being.” On the day of the interview, the Hürriyet writer, who got Erkoçlar to talk on the record, continuously retweeted support messages. Another columnist for the same paper, a former Islamist, wrote that he couldn't quite come across what Islam clearly says about the issue but found out that “even Iran allows sex-change operations according to a fatwa by Khomeini.”
Despite his recent popularity it will not be easy for Erkoçlar to adapt to his new life. The news broke out that he will be called to serve in the army. All Turkish males have mandatory military service unless they are psychically handicapped or medically unfit; homosexuals are considered as having “psycho-sexual disorder” by the military and are banned from service. Erkoçlar, too, will again have to stand before a team of doctors for medical inspection in a military hospital.
In terms of her career, the film industry appears to be mostly supportive of the actor. Mustafa Altioklar, a director who starred Erkoçlar in her breakthrough role, said on the phone that “regardless of his sexual identity Rüzgar is a brilliant actor” and will be happy to work with him again in the future. “He's brave and he has my full support,” he added. “But Turkey is an interesting country. We've had transgender stars ever since the Ottoman and sometimes we praised them, sometimes we put them on the buses, exiled them.”
Indeed, two of Turkey’s most influential celebrities have been a transsexual and a transvestite. The late Zeki Müren, known as Turkey’s Liberace, favored mini skirt, high heels and heavy make-up on stage as early as the 70s. He never publicly came out and at one point argued that he has been “with a thousand women.” Bülent Ersoy, Müren’s arch nemesis and one of the most powerful voices in Turkish music, went through a sex-change operation in 1981 in London. She was banned for performing in Turkey by the military regime in the early 80s. But in times both of these performers have become national icons and took stage in front of heads of state.
Many things changed in the last decade under the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party government, which also resonate on popular culture. For one thing, Bülent Ersoy appeared on stage with a headscarf and promoted her Muslim identity by public praying. Huysuz Virjin, a stand-up comedian-in-drag whose stage name translates as "The Grumpy Virgin," was taken off the TV and only allowed back sans costume, as a man.
Lately television executives are struggling to restructure their programs according to the government’s wishes. When Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked a series called “The Magnificent Century” for wrongfully depicting the country’s Ottoman heritage due to moderate sex scenes, the network immediately responded by covering female casts in veil and adding extensive prayer scenes. Added to this, the two-year old restrictions on al-fresco dining in Istanbul, the recent ban of alcohol on some domestic and international Turkish Airlines flights and the Ottoman-era inspired flight attendant uniforms, which alarm the secularists.
The path of Erkoçlar’s career will be determined by Turkey’s limits of tolerance, but nevertheless prove once again how polarized the country has become.