The transgender scene in Istanbul has become one of the most important in Europe and the Middle East. Perched on high heels, swinging their long manes and blinking fake eyelashes – at first glance, many local transgender women paint the picture of an open-minded and tolerant society.
The freedom and strength they project, however, conceals a sad reality; if the city seems like an El Dorado for a lot of trans people around the country and further afield in the Middle East, discrimination and poor social conditions in the capital still remain rife.
While exploring the Istanbul transgender scene, I met people who self-identify as transsexuals, drag queens, transvestites, shemales, transfemmes and androgens – all could be considered as part of the endless number of individual definitions the umbrella notion of "trans" comprises. What all of these people share however, is the steep price they have to pay to live as their true personal identity, with violence and harassment routine. Often, trans people's life options in Istanbul are limited to sex work and homelessness.
Paris, a 24-year-old transgender model and project manager, describes herself as "a lucky one". With her oversized sunglasses, painted nails and princess hair, it is difficult to pin down her birth gender, which is probably the main reason why she didn't have to face the same prejudices as others. Essentially, she "passes". Remaining biologically a male, she likes to define herself as "androgen" and has never had problems finding a job.
I also met Lou Lou, a 46-year-old drag queen who works in clubs. Her crew have managed to make a living off their transgender identity by performing, thereby avoiding prostitution. Seyhan Arman is one of them and is also a famous trans actress and activist. When I asked her about job opportunities for trans she was very clear: "95 percent of trans people here in Istanbul have no other choice but being sex-workers in order to survive," she said. "And even if you are not, everybody will look at you as a prostitute. Transsexuality and prostitution make a pair in people's minds".
Prostitution in Turkey is legal and it is one of the only Muslim countries which holds regulated state-run brothels. The conditions under which you might be eligible to get a licence are tough though, and exclude trans people. Their only option is often to work on the streets and therefore expose themselves to higher risks of violence. In areas such as Tarlabasi, known as the Kurdish and gypsy part of Istanbul, it is very easy to bump into trans people working on the streets. Trans sex workers form a whole community and share a secret slang called "Lubunca", to communicate without cops or clients understanding a word of what they say. Most of it relies on sexual- or money-related lexicons and constantly evolves to remain secretive.
A lot of targeted violence happens there. Stories of hate-crimes, murders and general trans-phobic violence are typical. Suicides also make the news, like the one of Eylül Cansın, a 24-year-old transgender sex-worker who, this January, jumped off a bridge. Her death lead to social protests and a renewed media focus on LGBT rights in the country.
When I talked to Eylem, a 32 year-old homeless trans woman, she told me about the time she was beaten up by a police officer in front of her house, after she told him to fuck off while he was taking the piss out of her with some officer friends. "It was long and trying," she said. She recently found herself in the street after several landlords kept kicking her out because of her gender-nonconformity. Unfortunately, this kind of normalised violence seems banal and common to a lot of trans people.
The conservative turn of Erdogan's ruling party, the AKP, doesn't seem to have made things any better. However, almost every trans person I talked to agreed that the core of the problem isn't all about religion or traditionalism but about patriarchy. "There will always be an excuse to oppress people and minorities. Today it is about religion and patriarchy; yesterday it was because of nationalism. Oppression and hatred survive any type of social changes here", says Eylem.
"I don't like to think that it is harder here because it is a Muslim country. This is a problem that exists in every patriarchal country", says Sevval, a 42-year-old former sex worker. When talking about her activism and her situation as a trans-woman, she adamantly declined the idea that Muslim countries can be more trans-hostile than other countries. "Living in a dick-dominated-world isn't easy for a woman, wherever she comes from."
Despite a prevailing climate of intolerance, attitudes towards transsexuals and transgender people have been moving forward. Activist groups, civil society organisations, and LGBT associations have been working to improve people's understanding of what it means to be transgender, and conditions have bettered. In January, after civil organisations put pressure on the authorities, the owner of a Turkish bath who refused entrance to the establishment to a trans woman got charged and fined for discrimination, which is a hell of a novelty in Istanbul.
However, these bottom-up initiatives can't stop the highest political spheres from committing misdemeanours. A bill voted in 2013 in regard of hate crimes didn't include those targeted because of their sexual orientation. In judicial ranks, discrimination is also alarming as courts often apply a "heavy provocation" condition to resolve cases of violence or trans murders.
A lot happens, once again, in the streets. Pride marches, demonstrations or the Gezi movement have been opportunities for the transgender community to vent their anger. Beside their public actions, LGBT associations have set up hotlines to help young trans people out. In the same vein, a shelter was opened in November 2014 by a group called Trans Angels – the aim being to host old or sick trans people and any others who might feel that they are at risk of danger.
There, I met a Syrian trans refugee called Misha who was imprisoned in Syria for prostitution at the age of 16, before eventually resettling in Istanbul. She used to see Istanbul as a kingdom of freedom for trans people, but she became quickly disenchanted when she realised she couldn't find a job or a house because of her identity. "I feel safe and happy in the shelter. I would be in the street right now, without food or protection," she said.
A few well-known trans figures initiated the shelter such as famous activist and former sex worker Ebru Kiranci, and Oyku Ay, nicknamed "the veiled trans". They organised a trans fashion-show to raise enough money for the shelter to survive one year with an average capacity of 20 to 25 people. It's through those organisations that things appear to be moving on.
"We are working our ass off because there are so many problems trans people have to face on a daily basis here," Sevval said in an email exchange. "But I believe we will have our rights eventually as the movement is growing bigger each and every year."