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Life as a French Lesbian in Istanbul

In recent years, the rights of women, homosexuals, and basically anyone who doesn't fit Tayyip Erdogan's Ottoman fantasy have waned significantly.
January 29, 2015, 5:00pm

The Bosphorous—one of the reasons I decided to move to Istanbul. All pictures courtesy of the author

This article first appeared on VICE France.

I am a woman living in Istanbul and lately, I've been coming across a lot of articles titled "Why I left Turkey," or some variation of that, in the local press. And since I moved here from Paris, every single person I know keeps asking me why the hell I did that. Oh, and did I mention I like girls?

According to the people I meet and hang out with in Istanbul, Turkey is currently sinking into a reactionary state thanks to the AKP—the conservative ruling party. In recent years, the rights of women, homosexuals, and basically anyone who doesn't fit Tayyip Erdogan's Ottoman fantasy have waned significantly. This is evident if you follow local politics, but also when you just walk on the street.

Since I moved to Istanbul in 2013, I have been followed in the street at least three times—both in a busy street in the afternoon as well as on a emptier one at night. A few times I have been insulted, and a few more times people have laid their hands on me. But the context of these misfortunes doesn't really matter. The point is I haven't spent one day in Istanbul without feeling objectified.

Istanbul Gay Pride 2013. The sign reads: "We are Freddie Mercury's soldiers."

My Turkish friends are angry women. They send away the assholes who disturb them with a virtuosity that inspires a lot of respect in me. For my part, I'm still learning. I actually developed several super-powers—like walking without bothering to look around me. At least, without bothering to look at the men around me, which often means not looking at anything at all. As one friend put it: "This city is wonderful—you can do everything you want here. But whatever you do, there will always be a guy looking at you while you do it."

To get a better understanding of what is going on in the streets of Istanbul, you only need to open a newspaper. In the past year, various political leaders have told the citizens of Turkey that laughing in public is not dignified female behavior, that unemployment is higher because women are allowed to work, and of course that " a rapist is more innocent than a woman who decides to get an abortion." Between 2002 and 2011, the number of honor killings rose by 1400 percent."

Party at Şarl—an amazing bar that has now closed

So, to answer everyone's question—why in the hell did you move to Istanbul—I'm not sure anymore. Maybe it was because, among Europeans, the clubbing scene in Istanbul is quite renowned. I've even heard several people say that "Istanbul is the new Berlin," and that sentence makes me smile.

When I party in Taksim square, I enjoy a fraternity and a diversity that I have never seen in Paris. But things are different when you are a tourist. You can visit Istanbul a hundred times and not notice the social and sexual violence prevailing. Even when you settle in Istanbul, you don't immediately realize how big the city is; that the neighborhoods you live or go out for drinks in—Taksim, Beşiktaş, Kadıköy—tend to be the exception to the rule.

When I first arrived, I chose to live in a conservative part of town I'd rather not specify—much to the dismay of my gay Turkish roommate. He wanted to live in Cihangir, a progressive district loved by expats. But because expats tend to be lame, I brushed that idea aside. And so we lived there for several months, tricking the neighbors into thinking we were married because that seemed to be the easiest way to go about things. About one year ago, when Erdoğan threatened to ban the cohabitation between men and women who weren't married, we went through a stressful time.

The author and her girlfriend during the last Gay Pride in Istanbul in 2014

Today, my girlfriend and I live in Cihangir. Next summer, we will get married in France but our union will mean nothing in Turkey. I never believed that much in marriage, but not a day goes by without me wondering how long we can stay in Istanbul before things get too weird.

According to the UN, Turkey is ranked 123rd on a list of 130 countries when it comes to gender equality. Here, declaring your homosexuality is enough to lose your job, get evicted from your apartment, and have your family turn their backs on you. But this is a country that granted women the right of vote in 1934—more than a decade earlier than France—and where pop stars can be transsexual. Turkey is infinitely paradoxical, if not schizophrenic.

I am a privileged woman. I have a passport that allows me to leave whenever I want, when at the same time my Turkish friends must move heaven and earth and spend considerable sums of money to obtain a three day-long Schengen Visa. Sometimes, I tell myself that I will only be completely integrated when I decide to do the most Turkish thing and leave this country.

But why did I decide to move to Istanbul in the first place? Despite my steady progress in the art of dodging questions, I still don't know how to answer that one. This is the only honest answer I can provide so far: I fell in love with this city, and you don't always fall in love with the right people or places.