Quentin Crisp once famously said “men deprived of the company of women turn to boys. And men deprived of the company of boys turn to animals”. He surely had in mind English public schools, Welsh sheep farmers and American convicts but not Turkey where sexual ambiguity is an art form. I have been visiting the shores of Anatolia for 15 years or so and I think the entire country must be encased in lead since my gaydar malfunctions as soon as I enter Turkish airspace. This leaves me in a continuous state of utter confusion as I’m thrown off balance by the intensive, penetrating stares and contradictory playful signals from the swarthy men around me.
During the summer months whole caravans of young men with spring loaded libidos and the ‘any port in a storm’ mentality begin their annual migration to the coast looking for casual work and casual sex. I know that in societies where there is strong gender separation and girls are expected to protect their virtue, access to sexual shenanigans is limited to a hand shandy from the boy next door. But, some of these poor fellas are like coiled springs. The frustration is palpable.
And why give it away when there is a little profit to be made? Even the nicest people join the ‘gay for pay’ brigade because doing it for cash rather than for pleasure is the best way to avoid guilt by association. You see, these men do not consider themselves to be gay. The thought of it would disgust them. And, in the conventional sense, few are. It seems that a familiar fumble with the boys is tolerated if absolute discretion is exercised. It is certainly not an obstacle to marriage. And so, come the end of the season, the boys return to their villages to overwinter, marry their cousins and breed. When spring is in the air they re-join the exodus back to the coast to pick up where they left off. It’s all done without a moment’s thought.
Turkey is a man’s world. Female sexual liberation is but a distant dream. Perhaps this is why so many young Turkish women look po-faced and miserable. And, what about Lesbianism? Let’s just not go there. A sly grope between men might be overlooked but drinking from the furry cup is way beyond the pale.
What really intrigues me is the sizeable number of older married Turks who get their jollies in hamams and the like. Perhaps, an instant and uncomplicated dalliance reminiscent of a distant youth is a welcome distraction from the never ending drudgery of domestic convention. Or, perchance, there is some truth in the old Ottoman adage that women are for procreation and men are for recreation.
There is, of course, a fundamental distinction between sex and sexuality though lazy thinkers often confuse the two. A world of difference exists between a quickie with a passing stranger and the profound desire to form a romantic and emotional bond with a member of the same gender. This is where the grief starts. Turkey provides a challenge to the free-spirited wishing to live unconventionally. Stifling social conformity redolent of fifties Britain means that it takes a very brave (or desperate) person indeed to break free. The penalty ranges from exile to death, literally. Honour killings are more common than people realise. Consequently, openly gay Turks in visible same sex relationships are as rare as ginger imams. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with class or education. In London, I know two Turkish men, both gay but from opposite ends of the social spectrum – one from an urban, middle class educated family, the other from an Eastern village community. Both felt compelled to leave the land of their birth to live a free and open life. Both lie to their families.
Soon after we arrived, we heard the tragic story of a waiter who, by all accounts, was a kind and gentle soul and a little bit fey. He had done his duty by marrying, siring children and sending most of his meagre earnings home to support them. One early morning he was walking home through pretty, sleepy Yalıkavak having finished his shift. He was set on by three teenagers who robbed and murdered him. It’s a terrifying tale and, of course, queer bashing can happen anywhere. However, what makes this case unusual is that he was raped first.
The political establishment hardly helps. In the spring of 2009 the Turkish minister responsible for children’s services called homosexuality a disease that could be cured. To be fair it caused quite a stir in the press and in the Government. Her comments were contradicted by the Minister for Health and there was a small demonstration in Istanbul – very Stonewall. At the time it made us review our decision to relocate here. But we came anyway.
Added to this, the current Government and the main opposition party have recently made it very clear that they have no intention of introducing legislation to protect the LGBT community or to recognise same sex unions. Part of the problem, I think, is the absence of a liberal tradition within the Turkish body politic. In the West liberalism has a moderating influence on those populist politicians, both left and right who play to the gallery and appeal to the fears of the ignorant.
I am not saying dear old Blighty represents some sort of nirvana of equality. It doesn’t. Only recently during the last general election, Tory candidate for Sutton and Cheam, Philippa Stroud claimed that the demon of homosexuality could be overcome through the power of prayer. Ms Stroud would do better to fall to her knees and pray for something worthwhile, like a cure for cancer or world peace.
I must add that my obvious union with Liam has never attracted bad publicity from any Turk. I assume, as non-Moslem foreigners, we are infidels and Hell-bound anyway so it hardly matters what we do. Ironically, the only disapproving glances we receive are from some of the expats.
It is more lazy thinking to assume that Turkey, as a Moslem country, is incurably afflicted by the same fixed biblical attitudes of many of its Arab neighbours. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. I tend to compare my newly adopted country with Eastern Europe, nations on their own journey to modernity. Being gay in the Baltic republics or Bulgaria is hardly a walk in the park either but this is slowly changing. Think Spain following Franco’s death or Ireland after Catholicism lost its iron grip. Turkey is a magical land graced by a rich culture, gorgeous people and a love of family which I truly honour. A respect for difference will not destroy that. It’s ok to be queer. It won’t bring down the house though it might bring in a little more style.
This article was republished in slightly amended form in the Huffington Post Union of Bloggers.