I recently received an email from a man who had seen my works in the Istanbul Modern Museum. He described how he had joined a mosque and an Islamist cult to convince himself he was not gay.
In his letter, the man described how he had spent his entire life battling himself, and how, reading the text behind the photographs of my installation, which contain men's confessions about their fathers and their views on masculinity, he had cried.
I had tears in my eyes reading the letter, because it was a battle I knew too well.
Most people will tell you that Turkish men are extremely macho. They will also tell you that Turkish men are extremely insecure about their masculinity. Considering the constant reinforcement of nebulous concepts of patriarchy, trying to avoid gender insecurity in Turkey is like trying to avoid the flu.
Men are traditionally pressured to conduct themselves with a disdain for all things feminine. As a result of this mentality, there is a peculiar homosexual culture in Turkey where a man is not considered gay if he is the active partner in a sexual relationship. He can even boast about it, saying that he fucks fags, without being perceived as gay himself. Widespread denial of homosexuality manifests itself in the form of homophobic behavior and religious and traditionalist extremism.
The Turkish military permits men to excuse themselves from mandatory service if they can prove themselves to be gay. In order to prove that you are gay, which they refer to as a "psycho-sexual disorder," you must show photographs or video footage of yourself having sex with a man, as the submissive partner. If you're a top, too bad! You are just not gay enough to be really gay. If you are a bottom, you get a pink slip, and a permanent digital marker next to your name in all government databases. The public perception of homosexuals as submissive, perverted creatures haunts you your entire life, beginning with every prospective employer receiving a report on why you did not perform your mandatory military service.
Imagine growing up with this bizarre prospect. Imagine realizing that you are, in fact, one of those perverts, who will have to out himself to every institution as a submissive, damaged creature, even expose himself to potential physical harm and abuse.
The association of weakness, of being a victim, and homosexuality was so internalized that growing up, making peace with myself seemed impossible. Similar to countless people like me, as a teenager I considered taking my own life. When everyone and everything tells you who you need to be and it is quite clear you will never be that person, and you might get raped and killed anyway, it is easy to question your own validity as a member of a society.
But this is not my coming-out story. I am out, proud, and unafraid. This is the coming-out story of a nation.
Turkey is a nation so sexually repressed that the story of both rural and urban regions of Turkey is one filled with pedophilia, zoophilia, and incest. Men and women are expected to copulate, but without developing coherent sexual identities of their own. Men are allowed a greater degree of sexuality, a kind of accepted animal quality that is not to be questioned. There is also the tradition of the Zenne, male belly dancers dressed up as women, who perform in parts of Turkey where neither entertainment nor women can be found.
Women, on the other hand, are denied such an identity and as a result, even though gay men have some visibility, the lesbian narrative simply does not exist in any media in Turkey. Films and TV series shy away from it, occasionally choosing to portray stereotypical (and de-sexed) gay men, who serve as comic relief juxtapositions to the main, macho character.
My generation is perhaps the first in this country's history to have watched and witnessed sex in a broad spectrum. To some of our parents' horror, we heard the questions Carrie Bradshaw asked about vaginas, penises, men, women, transsexuals, lesbians, and homosexuals. That's right, I can even type the words. Most Turkish people shuddered while reading this paragraph. I promise you.
(Image courtesy of http://thingsilearnedfromsatc.tumblr.com)
We saw Brokeback Mountain, even if pirated copies of it were dubbed "Faggot Cowboys." We saw American Pie. Even though we still cannot ask certain questions, we have access to a world that Islam and Middle Eastern tradition prevents people from discussing.
So when the Turkish Gay Pride March happens, it is a big deal. It is a collection of people who have fought with themselves first, and then with everyone around them, in order to become who they are. It is a collection of people who have no protection under the law, whom the police target and earn commendations for abusing and incarcerating. It is a collection of people whose families actually hunt them down with the intent of publicly executing or harming them.
It is also a collection of people braver than their predecessors, because they know that they are not Allah's mistakes. They know that lesbians exist, that men can kiss other men and still kick ass at the World Cup, that the Turkish drag-queen tradition is as old as the Blue Mosque, and that they do not need to be afraid of themselves. Most of these realizations may be old news for the West, but for this Middle Eastern country, devoted to its conservative values, the last decade has been groundbreaking.
It would be naive to say that the most recent march was detached from the Gezi Park movement. I had never seen so many allies attend a march. I had to actually catch up with a group of close and straight friends, who had never attended before, but were there half an hour before me, dressed up more flamboyantly and waving banners.
The Turkish LGBT community benefited a great deal from the newfound public unity. There are still miles and miles to go before people will feel safe and are respected in public. Internalized traditionalism poses a grand obstacle for everyone. If gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals hate themselves as much as the rest of the people hate them, we cannot exist. To pretend otherwise and fuel repression will contribute to sex crimes and horror stories. We have to make peace with the fact that Turkish people, like all people, have sexual identities, and that these identities exist on a spectrum.
Then we can begin to listen, and make peace.