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.

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Tips: Book Early or Pay

1 05 2013

I am obsessed and it’s a good thing.  Some guys spend all their time online looking at porn, I spend all my time searching for flights.  I don’t believe it’s unhealthy to try and save money, but I do spend an exceptional amount of time on booking sites searching and looking at prices.  This is especially true when I am in the throws of booking my next big trip.  I see it as a challenge to try and outsmart the airlines and catch them when their fares dip.  It’s a fact of air travel that we all must deal with, prices fluctuate frequently.

There are a lot of tools out there to help you catch tickets in that narrow window when prices drop.  Take a look at Kayak.  It’s a great app that allows you to set up price alerts.  So when the fare starts to drop, you will be in the know.  Of course that means you have to be ready to buy at any given moment.  Having a little vacation savings account stocked and ready to go will help those, like myself, who are on a budget.  So try and start saving money ahead, I don’t even begin looking until I have a nice kitty of cash ready to spend.

The one common thread I have seen consistently is that booking early will often save you money.  Sure there are last minute deals, but are they to the place you actually wanted to visit?  Sometimes, but it’s a real gamble to wait until these deals publish.  I find that booking 7-5 months early has proven to be the best overall pricing.

For example, when I was searching for my upcoming trip to Iceland this September, I booked my complete itinerary on March 10th for $1021.  This price includes round-trip flights from Denver to Reykjavik on Icelandair and 5 nights in a studio with Apartment K.  Six months early seems extreme to many, but doing the exact same search on Expedia today (2 months closer to the trip) yields a price of $1732 for the same accommodations.

The same trip for I booked on March 10th is now $700 more for the same dates!

Ouch!  Now maybe I don’t have to stay at the same place.  If I repeat the search and just choose the lowest priced package near city center (not including hostels or rooms with shared bathrooms) I can book for $1252.  Still more than $200 over what I paid by searching often and booking early.

Are there destinations where it pays off to wait a little bit?  Sure, but it’s definitely not the norm.  Here’s and example from my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta.  I paid $587 for flights and 5 nights hotel that I bought in mid November for mid January travel.  When I started researching this trip I was seeing it fluctuate around $700-750 for a solid two months, but knowing I booked the same hotel in Puerto Vallarta the year before for $615, I knew it could/should get lower.  It dropped around 3 months out and I booked it immediately.

What I want you to see here is a common theme, constant price checking until you feel you’re getting the best deal.

Here’s a short summary-

  • Have the money ready so you can pull the trigger when prices drop
  • Start searching early
  • Be aware the best deal might be a hostel or shared facilities (not my thing, but book what’s right for you)
  • Check other booking sites and compare
  • Consider packages based on the reported discount for booking flight and hotel together.
  • Booking a flight and hotel separate can also be a good thing.  Try using AirBnB (I’ll expand on them in another post)

Be patient.  If you loose a couple dollars waiting for prices to go down, I’ll bet you still get a better deal than if you booked less than 2-3 months out.