ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - Singer Bulent Ersoy is renowned for her elaborate wardrobe, formidable décolletage, countless albums, a stint on Turkey’s most popular TV talent show and a spin-off film career. She was also born a man.
The transsexual Ersoy — and a host of other ambiguously sexed entertainers — have achieved success despite the conservatism of Turkish society and the prejudice that faces the country’s gay and transgender communities.
According to Sahika Yuksel, a psychiatrist at Istanbul University who studies sexual identity, many Turks “don’t accept their neighbor’s son is gay, but they accept someone who is a figure outside, in television, in newspapers.”
Earlier this month Selma Aliye Kavaf, the Turkish minister responsible for women and family affairs, said in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper that homosexuality is a disease and should be treated.
Elsewhere, violence against gays and transsexuals is a regular occurrence. According to Human Rights Watch, at least eight transgender women have been murdered in Istanbul and Ankara since November 2008.
The most recent killing was of a transgender woman called Aycan Yener on February 16, 2010, in Fatih, a conservative neighborhood of Istanbul.
Yet, tellingly, Bulent Ersoy’s most recent brush with controversy had nothing to do with her transgender status. In 2008 she stirred scandal when she said that if she had a son she would not let him fight in other people’s wars, a comment taken as a criticism of Turkey’s military operations against PKK separatists in the south-east of the country.
Observers see a number of reasons for the co-existence of popular transgender entertainers and widespread intolerance.
Nazan Ozcan, who writes on human rights issues for the Turkish newspaper Radikal, believes that financial success acts as a license for behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable.
“If you have money, if you are rich, you can be everything,” she said. If you are ordinary people, you can’t be anything.”
Others regard the double standard as an example of a more widespread hypocrisy in public life.
“We’ve had a female prime minister but she wasn’t sensitive to women’s rights, we’ve had a Kurdish president who wasn’t sensitive to Kurdish issues,” said Oner Ceylan, an interpreter who volunteers for gay rights organization Lambda Istanbul.
“It’s a universal issue,” he added.
Now in her fifties, Bulent Ersoy has in some ways adopted the mantle previously held by Zeki Muren, a Liberace-esqe Turkish male singer who also favored effeminate garb before his death in 1996.
However, transvestite traditions run much further back in Turkish society, and Dror Ze’evi - an academic at Ben-Gurion University in Israel - believes the current acceptance of transgender entertainers may reflect historic attitudes.
“In the pre-modern period, the whole idea of having two sexes was not acceptable,” said Ze’evi, who has written on sexuality in Islamic history. “The idea was that men and women were part of a continuum.”
Ze’evi added that cross-dressing dancers were a popular entertainment. “You had these groups of male dancers impersonating women, koceks,” he explained.
“It was very popular; it was the norm, in fact. People didn’t think that there was anything wrong with that kind of thing.”
Kerem Oktem, a research fellow at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford who studies contemporary Turkish history, believes the 1980 military coup marked a watershed and a break with surviving permissive Ottoman traditions.
“The generals banned everything that didn’t fit with their military view of Turkey,” he said, adding that Bulent Ersoy’s own performances were suppressed after the takeover.
Now, Oktem believes that the situation in Turkey is comparable to the recent past elsewhere, when homosexuality was widely disapproved of but accepted for entertainers.
“Think about a number of European countries in the 60s, 70s, 80s,” he said. “They were allowed to move beyond what was socially acceptable as long as they were on the stage.”
The post-coup ban on Bulent Ersoy’s performances did not endure, and the singer’s career continued. However, even today - to the chagrin of some campaigners - she refuses to identify herself as transgender. In her own eyes, Ersoy, who had gender reassignment surgery in London, is just a woman.
However, despite the intransigence of the country’s most visible transsexual, the election of the Islamist rooted and conservative leaning AK party in 2002, and the bloody record of violence, Turkey’s nascent gay movement remains hopeful.
At a demonstration on a recent Tuesday in Istanbul’s Besiktas Square - where rainbow flags fluttered beneath the memorial to 16th century privateer Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha - student Aykan Safogulu said widespread anger at the family ministers’ comments showed the society’s changing values.
“It was a clear sign that nobody could make a statement like that in the future,” the 26-year-old explained, standing close by the waters of the Bosphorus in bright sunshine.
Editing by Paul Casciato