Accidentally Gay in Istanbul

20 05 2013

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.

A banner hangs at the IstanBear Fest host bar.

A banner hangs at the festival’s host bar.

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.


Impressions of Istanbul: Beyoğlu and Asia

6 05 2013

As I said before, Istanbul is a city of contrasts.  A patchwork of both old and new creating a broad mosaic throughout the city.  However, there are three distinct districts most travelers will come to know in Istanbul: Sultanahmet, Beyoğlu, and the Asian side.  This post will discuss my thoughts and impressions of the latter two.


Fishermen trying their luck on Galata Bridge.

Beyoğlu is situated on the European side just north of Sultanahmet.  Getting there requires crossing the Golden Horn waterway.  Most will utilize the easily accessed Galata Bridge either by tram, taxi, or my preferred method, on foot.  The Galata Bridge is a double level bridge with restaurants on the lower level while hosting traffic and fishermen on the upper, and I do mean a lot of fisherman.  They are literally lined up from one end of the bridge to the other.  I found myself captivated and curious each time one would reel in a fish.  Watching this scene from the upper level was fun, but imagine sitting in a restaurant on the lower level and seeing a fish dance at the end of a line as it seemingly levitates to the fisherman 20 feet above.  It was a strange sight indeed.

The historic underground tram.

The historic underground tram.

Upon crossing the Galata Bridge you have three choices to get where the action is.  You can take the historic Tünel underground tram, taxi, or hike up a very steep series of sidewalks and streets.  I just couldn’t resist the historic and unique Tünel.  It seems like a short ride, but it’s all up hill and I wasn’t about to wear myself out walking up streets with angles that would make even a San Francisco resident cringe.  I will say, regardless of how you get to the top, your reward awaits in the form of İstiklal Avenue.  

A bustling pedestrian zone lined with restaurants, clubs, high street shopping, and sprinkled with historic sites, İstiklal Avenue is where fun loving people want to be in Istanbul after dark.  It quickly became my favorite place to people watch while burning the late night hours away into early morning.  Dissecting the crowds of pedestrians is a lovely old red tram that chugs through the masses.  I enjoyed watching it more than riding it.  Kids would hitch rides on the back while tourists would overcrowd the interior to the bursting point, leaving many hanging on at the entrance barely balanced on a tiny platform of foot room.  It moves at a slow pace, thereby keeping passengers and pedestrians from any real danger, but it was fun to watch as it parted the crowds of people like schools of fish in the sea.

The bustling high street of İstiklal Avenue.

The bustling high street of İstiklal Avenue.

As daylight starts to fade in Beyoğlu the crowds become only slightly less dense and the thumping of dance music starts to overpower the typical sounds of the bustling scene.  It seems every side street is lined with multiple dance clubs.  There is definitely no shortage of fun and partying to be had in Beyoğlu.  Unlike the touristy Sultanahmet with its carpet salesmen and Grand Bazaar, I never once was approached by someone trying to sell me something, and it was refreshing to say the least.

Is İstiklal Avenue the only reason to visit or stay in Beyoğlu?  No, it just happened to be my favorite.  There are plenty of monuments and museums on this side of the city.  However, I never made it to any of them except Galata Tower.  From the top of Galata Tower one is afforded sweeping views of the entire city of Istanbul.  Many feel it’s the first place someone should go to get oriented.  I waited until my final day.  As a photographer, I certainly did want to capture these panoramic images, but I also wanted to wait until I knew what I was seeing and photographing.  I feel it was a great way to say farewell to a city that I had become very aquatinted with over my 8 day visit.

I only graced the Asian side of Istanbul twice.  I’ll admit that I’m really not sure what a tourist would do over there outside of what I went for.  It struck me as a mostly residential and business area, but with my limited time, I will have to save exploring for another trip.  I’m more likely to return and take my time to discover the hidden gems that I’m sure exist, but it wasn’t going to happen on this visit.  My main goal of ferrying to Asia was to photograph Maiden’s Tower at sunset with the minarets of Sultahnamet in the background.

Enjoying a tea with Maiden's Tower in the distance.

Enjoying a tea with Maiden’s Tower in the distance.

Getting across the Bosphorus is not as daunting as one might think.  There are a couple of huge bridges to the north, but they aren’t very practical for tourists.  The best way to make the trip is by ferry.  Taking a ferry is easy, reliable, and there are frequent departures.  Your biggest challenge lies in catching the route you want.  I did my research and determined the best route to get me close to Maidens’ Tower was the Eminönü – Üsküdar ferry.  I kept an eye on the forecast and as it turned out, the only day predicted to be clear enough for a sunset was my last night.  I caught the ferry and walked one kilometer south along the shore to view Maiden’s Tower.  There are several tables down near the water maintained by little shops serving them with tea, coffee, and snacks.  It was quite a pleasant atmosphere to sit back and watch the sun go down over the city while I enjoyed a tea.  It was a wonderful and peaceful atmosphere, a far cry from the hustle of Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu.  A fitting last glimpse of daylight that brought my holiday in Istanbul to a close.

Maiden’s Tower with Beyoglu in the background to the right.

Maiden’s Tower with Beyoğlu in the background to the right

Maiden's tower watching over Sultanahmet.

Maiden’s tower watching over Sultanahmet.