For My final post on Istanbul I want to cover a more personal topic, homosexuality in Turkey. When it comes to travel, I am a tourist first and gay second. The idea of going on a trip simply for gay tourism is rare in my case. So when I booked my trip to Istanbul it didn’t even occur to me that there might be an opportunity to discover any gay culture in Turkey. I’m certain that part of this was due to my own predisposed thoughts on the added stigma of being gay in a Muslim country. Now that stigma isn’t unique to Islam, I have been spurned by Christians many times. I just didn’t figure there would be much to discover in this arena in Turkey. Also, I wasn’t sure how safe it would be even if I had found something. Is that stereotyping? Probably, but when you are a member of an often denigrated group, you must consider these things.
While doing some web browsing a couple months before my trip I came across an article that listed the top 10 gay travel destinations for 2013. I was shocked to see Istanbul listed as #1. Really? Intrigued, I read through it and discovered that purely by accident I was going to be in Istanbul during the spring IstanBear Fest! What a crazy coincidence, and thus began a series of web searches looking into the event. Would I be able to squeeze this in among my other touring desires? Yep, since I refuse to be structured, I looked at this as something of fate. I immediately registered for the event.
Istanbul Bears is a relatively small club compared to those in the US, but they are a very close knit group bound out of years of struggle. The gay community as a whole in Istanbul is somewhat of a fledgling movement when compared to the more progressive Europe, but they are becoming an increasingly more visible group. There are many gay clubs in Beyoğlu that are becoming quite popular with tourists, but my time was spent with the bears so that is what I will discuss.
IstanBear Fest isn’t that much different than other bear festivals I have attended. It’s an event that is attended by a very international crowd of bears who travel to Istanbul to meet and make friends. There were nightly parties at the host bar, group gatherings, events at various places around town, and plenty of socializing with lots of drinking. I met many wonderful people from all over the region. However, with this event, the difference was subtle but fairly obvious to me. Sadly, not all of these guys are able to be openly gay in public. I think too many of us take our ability to be open in public for granted. Many of these events were in places where the general public would not see them, and a number of guys asked not to have their picture taken and/or requested their faces be blurred out of group pics. It was a far cry from the open hand holding and kissing that happened when I attended Bears on Ice in Reykjavik last September. But behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of those who would hate, these men were wonderfully warm, friendly, and caring. Those who were fortunate enough to be “out” in Turkey were confident and understanding of those who could not.
Tragically, their history includes the story of a man who has become something of a bear community martyr. Ahmet Yildiz embraced his homosexuality and even represented his country at a gay scientist at an event in the US. He was proud to be himself, but this was not something his family would tolerate. He received multiple death threats from family members. His refusal to seek a “cure” for his homosexuality led to his murder at the hand of his father. They’d rather have him dead than gay. Here is a more detailed article on Ahmet. This event galvanized the gay community in Istanbul, and has only served to create a stronger movement towards acceptance. It’s going to take time, but I believe they are on a solid path. The struggle in America was brought to the forefront by the Stonewall Riots in 1969, in Turkey it was brought out by the 2008 honor killing of Ahmet Yildiz. Like American gays in 1969, Istanbul gays still have a long way to go. As members of the LGBT community we can do our part by increasing the gay presence in Istanbul, visiting and spending our money at gay friendly businesses in and around the city. This will go a long way to help their cause.
I am glad I was able to experience gay Istanbul despite it not being part of my original plan. Travel is about culture for me and this made my visit much more fulfilling. Gays do exist in the Muslim world, and regardless of what anyone thinks, they will not fade away or be bullied into deeper hiding. Killing gays will only serve the opposite effect, we only become stronger through oppression. We are human, we are brothers, sisters, friends, and loving contributors to society. We deserve respect and acceptance like everyone else regardless of religion, culture, or race.
- Our stories: LGBT ‘honour violence’ in Turkey (hinckleyidahoproject.wordpress.com)