This study is concerned with gay identity and
the meaning and the use of gay places in Istanbul where one of the most
obvious 'out' gay community holds across Turkey. I will argue in this essay
that the gay population in Turkey (and especially in Istanbul) has produced
a particular construction of a gay identity and community which has been
influenced by Western gay rights movements since the mid-1980s. The 1980s
were significant with regard to practising liberal economy policies of
the new government and also emergence of the new feminist movement. This
new political context of the 1980s has made a significant change in the
traditional characteristics of Turkish male homosexuals in the largest
cities. They began by creating their own places, such as bars, clubs and
cafes through which the gay identity has gradually became a public phenomenon.
In this study, I will be looking at whether it is possible to talk about a gay identity and/or gay identities, and visible gay communities in the 1990s in Istanbul; if it is so what the characteristics of these communities are. To deal with these questions first, I will focus on the meaning of male homosexuality perceived in the mainstream and its formation as an identity; second, I will examine the gay identity as defined in contemporary Turkey in Istanbul where the Occident meets the Orient.
The word gay is used for male homosexuality in
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In Turkey, there are several studies on male homosexuality that are
mainly undertaken from a perspective of heterosexual academics. They consider
them as a group of people who have a specific medico-socio-legal problem.
The results of these studies were often obtained through "natural science"
methods, and were rarely based on the actual life experience of male homosexuals.
However, my research includes in-depth interviews and questionnaires with
a group of gays and also a point of a gay researcher myself as opposed
to earlier researchers. For the purpose of this essay, I interviewed 30
male homosexuals in certain gay places in Istanbul (see appendix for the
places) I have chosen to work with male homosexuals between 18 to 40 years
old who identified themselves as gays. In these interviews, 26 open, closed
and multiple questions were asked considering their definition of their
sexuality, their sense of community and their places. I have used this
data derived from face to face interviews with them to examine formation
of gay identities and communities in Istanbul.
SOCIAL CHARACTERISTICS AND SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR OF MALE HOMOSEXUALS IN TURKEY
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The Turkish language often have two words for homosexuals. One word describes a passive homosexual 'ibne' and the other the active one 'kulanpara'. "lbne "is a type of homosexual person who acts as a woman in a relationship on the other hand a kulanpara defines himself as masculine and active man. Thus a relationship between these types of men are always perceived as a reflection of the values of a heterosexual relationship in Turkish mainstream society. However beside this main model, Tapine (1992, p.41) offers four alternative models of male homosexual relations: (1.) the masculine homosexual; (2) the masculine "heterosexual" and feminine homosexual; (3) the masculine homosexual and feminine homosexual; and (4) the final alternative type of homosexuality:
"Masculine gay". Although these four models seem different from each other, he actually mentions two types of homosexual men: either being a feminine, passive man or a masculine, active man. Indeed some male homosexuals in Turkey adopt this mainstream distinction and identify themselves as "ibne".
The word 'ibne' is very much linked to the qualities of femininity which
are perceived as inferior to masculine qualities. So "ibne" as an adjective
becomes a code to despise, ridicule, and degrade a man in die male world.
This is why the active homosexual men do not identify themselves as "ibne".
As Tapine (1.991) concludes that the fixed gender structure in Turkey between
men and women makes some of homosexuals accept the female qualities and
often identify themselves with women and womanhood.
TOWARDS GAY IDENTIFICATION AND NEW SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR
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During the 1980s' political environment, most people not only came to
recognise civil rights, the women's liberation movement, and sexual freedom
but also Western gay rights. As a consequence a group of young male homosexuals
emerged who identified themselves as gays. These urban, young, educated
and middle-class male homosexuals resisted traditional roles, as "active"
and "passive" ibne and started to search for an alternative gay identity.
With the publications of male homosexual writers, who explicitly discussed
their experiences, the existence of gay community became an issue in the
public sphere. Especially one of the famous gay writers, Murathan Mungan,
began to attract the attention of many people. Many of his books have become
best sellers. These publications started a debate between gay circles as
well as in other sections of society. These debates led to a publication
of a magazine called Yeşil Barıs which started to discuss issues of sexual
gender identity. Some of them expressed their gay political identity through
the non-official Radical Democratic Green Party in the mid-1980s. These
radical movements, especially the women's movement helped to introduce
western experiments - particularly the concept of personal identity - into
Turkish society. However this formation of sexual/gender identity among
a group of people in the urban area was neither significant enough to change
the common understanding of homosexual men in society, nor powerful enough
to challenge established patriarchal values. They were still seen as marginalised.
So Turkish young urban male homosexuals attempted to link their experiences
to the western gay movement in their private life style, and borrowed the
term "gay" from their counterparts and identified themselves as gays. However,
they have never become an organised movement as in the West. The main reason
for this might be the lack of group consciousness to act together as well
as strong patriarchal values. Consequently an urban gay subculture emerged
who appeared to accept their marginal position in society. This has led
gays in the early 1990s to form their own small circles and establish their
own places where they could feel at home. But in the 1980s, as the interviewees
explain, it was harder for gays to talk about their identity and the word
gay was not familiar between them.
A middle-aged gay talks about the 1980s in the following terms:
Of course I was gay in the 1980s. I was aware of it but I did not identify myself as a gay. Because then none of my friends identified themselves as gay.
Another one says:
In the mid-1980s, I was aware of gay life style and culture in the West. Some friends of mine started to think of themselves as gay. But it was funny. Because gay identity contains an alternative life style and place. I didn't use the world gay to describe myself. I preferred the word homosexual or ibne because I felt comfortable with those words. Gay was a very strange English word to me. But I do not think like that now. I use the word gay these days: all the young homosexuals identify themselves as gays.
Most of the middle aged gays seemed to be aware of gay life, identity and culture in the West. However, in the 1980s, to come out or to define themselves as homosexuals only meant talking about their sexual experiences. Then it was not perceived as an identity or a lifestyle. Furthermore they did not need to define themselves through their sexuality as their relationships were perceived as a matter of their private lives. They shied away from talking about their homosexual experiences and discussing them in public. As one of the interviewees points out, only limited places existed in the late 1980s where gays socialised and shared their experiences:
There was no gay life style in Istanbul. There were one or two places that were mainly designed for heterosexual men to pick up gays. My friend said: "Gays were a very small group and did not feel comfortable. We were isolated and looking for sexual partners.
Hence, in the mid-1980s in Istanbul, homosexual men did not socialise
freely because of the frequent police raids. Considering these conditions
homosexual men could not create their own places and communities and thus
become visible in the public sphere until the beginning of the 1990s.
GAY IDENTITY IN THE 1990s
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The majority of interviewees believe that a visible gay community exists
in Istanbul in the 1990s. They claim that they do not copy traditional
ibne or kulanpara types of homosexual relationships. My findings suggest
that they are differentiating themselves from so-called feminine homosexuals
- ibne - by adopting an urban male identity and western gay life style.
Researchers offer four progressive staged processes for the formation of gay identity. As Troiden presents it: (1) sensitisation - an awareness of being different; (2) identity confusion - assigning meaning to difference; (3) identity assumption - recognising oneself through involvement with others; and (4) identity synthesis - acceptance of on feelings (1989, pp.47, 50-63). According to my research results, gays in Istanbul. have gone through these stages, however, the identity synthesis stage seems most problematic as the other three stages have been rather recent experiences for them compared to their western counterparts. For instance, they emphasise that they often have to face the traditional homosexual roles when they are seeking an alternative identity. At the same time they say that it is easier now than the 1980s, partly because their involvement with each other and with the public through their publications has increased. It is evident that the majority of them believe that "gay" is a more positive term to define their experiences. They think that traditional fix concepts do not represent their feelings and life styles.
The young urban gays now expect more than sexual intercourse from their relationships, nevertheless, struggle to form a political identity and establish an alternative lifestyle. As Michel Foucault emphasises to be a gay means to produce a life style and to try to improve it, rather than identify oneself with the psychological attribute of homosexuality and its brilliant mask (Foucault, 1982). Gays in Istanbul appear to be realising this very meaning of being a gay in the 1990s.
Gay Places in İstanbul in the 1990s
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In the beginning of the 199Os, male homosexual subculture group began
to emerge in Istanbul, concentrating in the Beyoğlu (Pera) district, especially
the Cihangir quarter. Beyoğlu is a cultural and entertaining centre which
combines marginal and the mainstream lives of the city. There are many
bars, night-clubs, discos and Turkish baths, places that are connected
to the gay life.
It is suggested that modern urban communities may exist through people who feel the same common experiences, attitudes, values and testes, who want to have a sense of togetherness and defend themselves against the mainstream society. (Hindle, 1994) This definition also applies to the situation of gay communities in Istanbul - the way in which they create heir own spaces and thus existence in the public realm.
The bars are central places in gay life. Bars and clubs are the only places where they can go and socialise with other gays. Through these places which gays have a sense of togetherness and share their experiences. They naturally feel that the only safe place to be out. Most of the gays in the interview think that the gay bars play an important role to meet others. They point out that to meet other people like themselves make them feel better about their experiences.
Most gays prefer bars to find a friend and/or partner. During the interview, some of them stated that "gay bars also very suitable place for one night stand relationships". Another gay, however, sees it quite differently: "Bars are the only places that link me to other gay people. I never aim to find a partner there".
There are seven gay bars in Istanbul. All of them are in Taksim and around Beyoğlu. There are also some "mixed" gay and heterosexual bars that gays frequently go. However these seven bars are central places in the gay community in Beyoğlu. The lack of other outdoor gay facilities, such as telephone dating, massage, escorts, club activities and so on, make these bars significant.
Five of these bars show the characteristics of western bars, two of them are quite oriental in their style; most are geared for gay and lesbians, some are mixed. Some are very small, only dancing places and open until 3 am and 6 am. They are open all week and have no problem with the authorities. These bars have increasingly become popular recently. It is also possible to see some straight people in these bars. Because they think that gays are very cheerful and know to how to enjoy the bars.
The people in my sample think that these places are not enough. They emphasise the need not only for more places but also for different activities to bring the gay communities together.
DIVERSITIES BETWEEN GAY COMMUNITIES
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We can observe two main types of gay communities in Istanbul. However they are not fixed within themselves. As one of the interviewees points out:
Yes we are gays. We have common lift' experiences because of the nature
of sexuality. For this reason, probably, most people see us one single
visible community. But we are not, we have different values,
tastes and so on.
The first group includes people who identify themselves with the traditional
ibne roles, who use a specific, vulgar language, and they tend to use "female"
codes in their behaviours and outfits. Most of them prefer their sexual
partners from men not from gays and use the same places to socialise. The
majority of them are from a rural background and not well educated. They
seem not to problematise their sexuality or define themselves through their
The second type of gay community is consisted of people who have been analysed in this essay. They tend to question their gay identity and furthermore they are in search of an identity. People in this comm unity are overwhelmingly urban and educated They have gay bars and clubs especially designed for them which seem more sophisticated than other gay places. They are lie people who have initiated and joined some gay facilities in the 1990s. They formed a consciousness-raising group called Lambda (which is a (Greek word used by early gay activists) which is one of the well-known gay and lesbian organisation in Istanbul. They began a publication, a radical gay magazine called Lambda Istanbul and run a weekly gay and lesbian radio program. All these facilities have given them a chance to have a voice in public and to act as a group. These kinds of cultural activities would help gay communities to establish a more recognised gay culture in Turkey.
Hindle (1994) categorises three stages for the formation of a gay community; the first is simply being visible (gay place, residential areas, businesses, services run by and for gay people); the second is having activities; and the third is being organised socially, financially and politically because of the hidden nature of homosexuality. As I have examined above the Turkish gay communities have been through the first two stages but they are not organised financially and politically.
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Istanbul is only the city in Turkey with concentrated gay places and
communities. As I have tried to show in this essay the traditional sexual
roles in homosexuality have been changing with the Western influence in
the mid-1980s, many homosexual men started to identify themselves as gays
and began to represent a new alternative sexual consciousness and life
style in the 1990s. They created their gay places, socialised together
and started to form consciousness groups. Although they are marginal, a
group of urban young gays have succeeded to introduce a Western gay life
style to Turkish society which gives them freedom to exist and to have
a voice in the public sphere.
I have argued in this paper that while a group of gay people have become more visible in the 1990s, they diversify within themselves and have formed small communities. I strongly believe that to be able to be recognised by the rest of the society, gays should question their sexual identity and transform it into daily life in order to form an alternative lifestyle and produce more work related to gay experience.
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FOUCAULT M. (1992) Von der Freundschqft Michel Foucault im Gesprach translated by: Cemal Ener, in interview with Michael Foucault, (Istanbul, Telos Yayınları)
PLUMMER, KEN (1992) 'Modern Homosexualities: Fragments Of Lesbian And Gay Experience' in: TAPINC, H. Masculinity, /Femininity, And Turkish Male Homosexuality (London and New York, Routledge)
TROIDEN, R (1989) The formation of Homosexual identities (Binghamton, Harrington Park Press).
HINDLE, P 'Gay Communities and gay space in the city', S. WHITTLE,
The Margins of the City: Gay men's urban lives (England, Hands, Arena,