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Seyman ArmanAyla Hibri

Pride and prejudice

This year’s anti-government protests saw Istanbul’s transgender community fighting back

TextJohn BeckPhotographyVincent PalmierPhotography Ayla Hibri

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on Right now, we follow the protests of Istanbul's transgender community.

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

“The transgender sex workers round here are usually dressed in pretty clothes and sexy outfits,” says Merve (below right), an LGBT activist, gesturing at the network of side streets leading down from Istanbul’s Taksim Square. “But when the protests started, they swapped them for gas masks and helmets and went to the barricades.”

It’s a story I’ve heard several times in the past few months. At the end of May, police cracked down brutally on demonstrators camped out in Gezi Park to oppose the area’s proposed urban “regeneration”. In the days that followed, protestors repeatedly tell me, the two groups that fought back most fiercely were football hooligans, which I expected, and transgender women, which I definitely didn’t. The rather unexpected mental image of burly sports fans in tracksuits and team colours battling riot cops alongside statuesque, make-up wearing transgender women in sequined tops and miniskirts bounced around my skull for quite some time, recalling the stiletto-heel-wielding drag queens who were at the frontlines of the Stonewall riots. I have come to Istanbul to find out more.

The government provoked us but the people screamed that we are all brothers and sisters. A month ago I was ready to leave. Now, as a transgender, Kurdish woman, I’m full of hope

As it happened, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In Turkey, transgender women are accustomed to violence, perp-etually ready to fight and seriously pissed off. 

“When I was 17 years old, before my (male to female) transition, the police arrested me for being gay and held me for five days. Then they took me outside the local coach station and began to beat me,” Seyham Arman (far left) tells me, sipping a diet Pepsi through a straw in a sunny Istanbul park café while stray kittens play around our feet. “It was horribly brutal, but when I screamed, they shouted at me to scream like a man. ‘How?’ I asked them. ‘I don’t know how.’”

Sixteen years later, Arman is an award-winning actress and part-time showgirl. But her feminine face, faintly diva-esque demeanour and frequently outrageous outfits don’t come close to hiding an inner badass formed by a life spent fighting discrimination and abuse from society and state. 

Turkey’s gay community face intolerance and ill treatment in nearly every aspect of their lives. For transgender people – who are less able to hide their identity – things are usually worse. Arman has been beaten many more times since that first ordeal, yet she is one of the lucky ones: looking more like a biological woman than some of her friends means she is at least able to socialise and use public transportation without problems. This is not the norm. Even in comparatively liberal Istanbul, transgender women are regularly refused service in shops and restaurants and abused and spat at in the street.  

As an actress, Arman also loves her job. Rampant discrimination means transgender women are often unable to find regular employment. As a result, their career paths are often narrowed to one option: sex worker. It is not a lucrative occupation. In a small café off Istiklal Avenue, Sevval Kılıç, an activist who runs support centres for transgender sex workers in Istanbul, tells me over a gritty Turkish coffee that even the most attractive and youngest can only charge 30-40 lira (£10-£14) per customer. Conditions are often appalling. Prostitution is legal in Turkey, but there is only one licensed brothel for transgender women in the country. The rest are forced to work on the streets. “They hurt us, they try to control us,” said a sex worker who gave her name only as Paris (“like Paris Hilton, darling”), speaking with placard in hand at a transgender rights march a few weeks previously. “They don’t want us to live.”

I’m always thinking that I will be next. Sometimes I cannot sleep thinking about it

She was not exaggerating. At least 30 transgender individuals were murdered in Turkey between January 2008 and December 2012, according to Transgender Europe, and campaigners say the real figures are much higher. Frenzied knife attacks, slit throats, decapitation and mutilated genitals are all appallingly common.

I arrive in Istanbul on the day of a memorial march for Dora Oezer, 24, a glamorous young woman who was stabbed to death in Kusadası province earlier in the week. At least 200 supporters gather to pay their respects and demand a stop to transgender hate crimes. At the end of the march, candles and roses are arranged around photographs of Oezer in a makeshift shrine. This is where I first meet an emotional Merve, who leads the march dressed in flowing white. “We’re here because we lost a friend,” she tells me. “We’re here for her and all of the others we have lost to transphobia.” Merve is well acquainted with discrimination; she grew up in an Alawite family in Gaziantep, where non-Alawite parents wouldn’t allow their children to play with her. Now though, she fears for her life. “I’m always thinking that I will be next. Sometimes I cannot sleep thinking about it.”

In Turkey, discrimination starts at the top. There is no legislation against discrimination or violence on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity under Turkish law, and there is little chance of things changing under the ruling right-wing AKPSelma Aliye Kavaf, the minister for women and family affairs, has described homosexuality as a biological disorder and a disease that should be cured. Worse, killers in transgender murder cases frequently net lenient sentences via a defence of “unjust provocation”, which usually involves claiming that their masculinity was insulted, or – the horror – that a transgender woman tried to be a “top” while they had sex.

As in Arman’s case, the police are often persecutors rather than protectors. Merve says she was forced out of an old apartment by a cop neighbour who would hammer on her door and shout threats – “we’ll finish you”, “we’ll kill you all” – as he left for work each morning. Beatings, illegal detentions and rapes in police custody are at least not as common as they once were, according to human rights groups. Instead though, transgender women are harassed as they go about their daily business, constantly issued with 75-lira fines under poorly defined “nuisance” laws designed to prevent public disturbances.

Campaigners say it’s official policy. At the top of a building filled with repair shops, dressmakers and countless small children is the office of Istanbul LGBTT Solidarity Organisation. It’s airy but basic, with mismatched chairs in the centre and a table with a computer and phone tucked away in the corner. Volunteers and activists come and go frequently. Almost everybody smokes. There, spokesperson and head of communications Ilker Cakmak shows me a document, which he says was obtained from the police, outlining a points-based system for arrests. The concept is simple: catching a murderer nets 1,000 points, the perpetrator of an assault, 50. Further down the chart there is a category called, simply, “Travesti”. It signifies detaining and fining a transgender woman and nets 10–20 points.

If I’m going shopping on Istiklal with friends or buying food they take me and fine me. When I ask them why they say, ‘Because you are a transsexual’ – that’s enough for them.

It’s an easy score for the police. Far simpler than, say, chasing down someone who is actually guilty of anything. “Because I am a trans woman, I am a target on a daily basis,” says 32-year-old Asya Elmas, an activist and sex worker of Kurdish origins. “If I’m going shopping on Istiklal with friends or buying food they take me and fine me. When I ask them why they say, ‘Because you are a transsexual’ – that’s enough for them.”

Trans women are by no means the only segment of society angry with the Turkish government at the moment. The day after the memorial march, I catch up with Merve again at a small, anonymous LGBT-friendly rooftop bar not far from Taksim. Moments before she arrives, police chase protesters down the street outside with plastic bullets, then fire several tear-gas canisters after them. Even five floors up, we’re forced towards the bar’s tiny rear window to avoid the worst of the acrid smoke. Merve arrives minutes later, eyes still streaming, casually orders a beer and sits.

As usual, the protests rage on for some time that night. When I leave the bar, I dodge back to my hostel via whichever side streets are least full of gas, avoiding water cannons and the odd protester-started fire. Meanwhile Merve, in a miniskirt and trainers, heads off for a night out.

Her nonchalance is typical. Protests have become routine for many of the city’s transgender population, which, along with the rest of the LGBT community, has been at the centre of the protest movement for many reasons, not least of which was Gezi Park itself, which was frequented by gay men who went there to socialise and cruise and used by some transgender sex workers to ply their trade.

When the police attacked Tarlabası, you could see a Kurdish mother, a transgender woman and a Roma boy, say, all throwing bottles at the police. It was magnificent!

The “urban regeneration” scheme of which the park’s planned destruction was a part has already evicted most of the residents of nearby Tarlabası and Cihangir, which had been ghettos of sorts for transgender women. Tarlabası in particular once consisted mainly of transgender, Roma and Kurdish people, all of whom have been targeted in a similar manner by the Turkish state. Over time, a relationship developed and when the police moved into the neighbourhood, the wildly different groups united to combat them, says Yildiz Tar, a journalist and editor with Etkin News Agency, who used to live in the area. “When the police attacked Tarlabası, you could see a Kurdish mother, a transgender woman and a Roma boy, say, all throwing bottles at the police,” he says with a smile. “It was magnificent!”

That’s over now. Transgender communes have dispersed across the city, moving and moving on again when public persecution becomes too much. Sex workers, meanwhile, have gone underground – even Kılıç doesn’t know where.

This personal identification with the cause, coupled with more general anger against the Turkish state, meant that along with other minority groups, Istanbul’s transgender population played a crucial role in the Gezi Park occupation from the start. They were organised, familiar with protest tactics and often no strangers to police brutality. And they were used to struggle. As a trans woman, being an activist is not a choice.

Elmas was working the streets near Taksim on Friday May 29, the day the protests really started. When she and other transgender sex workers began to hear of police violence towards protesters, they sheltered together in a café and discussed the events. “We saw all the police attacks and our hearts were breaking, because we knew what this was like,” she says. “We didn’t feel comfortable not participating.”

In the following days, they participated with a vengeance. The leading role played by transgender women and the wider LGBT community in the park and at the barricades helped break down perceptions and boost support amongst people who might formerly have seen them as freaks or perverts. The change in attitude was immediately obvious. June’s transgender pride march attracted at least 10,000 demonstrators, up from 2,000 the previous year. Many of the new attendees were heterosexuals new to any form of activism whatsoever.

For much of Istanbul’s transgender population, it’s hard to overstate how much the protests meant. Both Kılıç and Elmas tell me they were planning to leave Turkey altogether until Gezi changed their mind. “It was like a fairytale,” Kılıç says, recounting the time she saw an old, headscarved Turkish woman in the midst of a mixed group of young protesters. “When the tear-gas canisters came rolling towards us, she stood and wrapped her headscarf around her mouth and reassured every-one, ‘Be calm, my children. Don’t run...’ It was the first time I’ve loved this city. There was no gender, no gay, no straight, no right or left, no Kurdish or Turkish.”

In Turkey, transgender women are accustomed to violence, perp-etually ready to fight and seriously pissed off

Tears come to Elmas’s eyes when she talks about the park occupation and sit-in, where the communal spirit endured even as CS gas lay under the trees like morning mist. It was, she says, the happiest time of her life. “Some emotions can’t be described with words, only felt, that’s what Gezi was for us. The government provoked us more and more, but now the people of Turkey have screamed together that we are all brothers and sisters. A month ago I was almost a fugitive ready to leave. Now, as a transgender, Kurdish woman, I am full of hope.”

On the day I depart Istanbul, I visit the offices of LGBTT Action again. I’ve written on LGBT rights in Turkey a number of times recently, and Cakmak has provided introductions, information and support throughout. “Thank you,” he says as I make my farewells. “You’re our hero now.” I awkwardly stutter that every member of the Turkish transgender community is now mine. It might sound almost impossibly cheesy, but it’s true nonetheless – they have courage, positivity, and more (metaphorical) balls than almost anyone the country over.