Gay life in istanbul...

It's as difficult to generalize about Turkey's gay scene, as it is to sum up any aspect of a country that is undergoing a rapid pace of change, practically reinventing itself every decade. Turkish culture is no stranger to man-to-man love, as is proven by 17th century Ottoman poetry in which it was occasionally and unapologetically featured.

Turkey is 99% Muslim but has a very different attitude to most other Islamic countries toward lesbian and gay life. It is more progressive and visibly more western.Turkey allows gays to have a measure of freedom of expression and romantic intimacy providing it obstensivley invisible. Modern urban Turkey is an east-west culture that has become infused with European life since the demise of the old Ottoman Empire. Western humanitarian, economic and political standards have prevailed since 1923, when the charismatic and powerful military leader Mustafa Kemal declared independendance. Within ten years, Kemal had changed his lethargic and lumbering homeland into a nation with progressive modern ideas, values and standards. Respect for humanism and individual diversity was prized along with a regard for advanced science and technology.

It was the country's leader Kemal, or as he is known, Ataturk (father of the Turks) who was mostly responsible for separating Islam and state. In doing so he softened the suffocating religious hold over legal and state affairs. Indirectly, it also lifted a curse over homosexual truth. By dissolving the authority of Islam, same-sex desire became a cultural and secular consideration, not a religious matter. Rule of law replaced inconsistently administered moral religious codes and that has made all the difference for the slow and gradual emergence of today's lesbian and gay community.

Not that Turkey has become a hot bed of gay life. Being gay here is still a shadow identity. But in recent generations there's been a increasing gay subculture making its voice heard. Mainstream culture is slowly realizing that gay men are not necessarily effeminate setereo types.

For many lesbians and gays, life can be comfortable not because of protective laws or liberal attitudes, but because it's a well-disguised lifestyle interwoven into a culture that allows for easy cover. This is a society with a high level of male/male and female/female camaraderie: Turkish men usually hang out with other men; they touch and caress and walk arm in arm. By the thousands, in cafes, in every city or village, with their chums they hover over dominoes or backgammon and drink tea or coffee.

Women have even easier access to one another, as is common in Muslim cultures, where the genders are usually segregated in public. Just how far this camaraderie goes is a matter of ambivalence and opinion. Ask any straight man privately, and he will deny that sex between guys happens. But ask a gay man and he'll say that in fact it's not unusual gay or straight. Both, however, will agree that it's not discussed, not labeled and definitely not considered gay among most men who have done the deed. But it's all safely masked by a mindset of don't ask don't tell. You play and go on with your life: get married and keep your secrets or be quietly gay and mingle in the restrained social scene. It's your own business. The norm that surrounds any intimate male contact throughout much of this ancient and checkered culture is prudent silence.

Further cloaking for homosexuals in Turkey is the general absence of hostile homophobia. It is virtually unheard of that individuals or gangs of straight men go out looking to bash some queers. This could be due to the muted presence of gays or, more likely, a general indifference stemming from a lack of religious zealotry.

Another cover for gays in this changing society is provided by a shift in family expectations. In previous generations, an unmarried man over thirty five and an unmarried woman over twenty eight could expect a household of pressure to get married, but today that attitude is changing, especially in the highly westernized major cities of Turkey. Young people are choosing not to marry early and even to live with a same-gender friends to go to school or to work and save money. In Istanbul two guys or girls living together is no longer a suspect situation still another shield for lesbigay folks in these large cities is anonymity. Istanbul, as the prime example, is a huge city of cafes, clubs, bars, saunas, discos and over twelve million people. It absorbs and blends many lifestyles which facilitates living a lesbigay life without fear or rejection from family or prying neighbors.

Most gay life has co-existed in Istanbul because of a willingness to live peacefully and not self-identify in public, wave a colourful banner or bang on about a cause. Hanging out with other guys is normal. Walking arm in arm is normal. Male to male sex is well known but silent. Urban dwellers are more familiar with homosexuality from fashion advertising and TV characters. There is less pressure to marry and lesbians and gays can get lost in the crowd easily in big cities. "The key is discretion; you can do whatever you want here, just don't talk about it".

In more recent times the entertainment world has featured many gay and transvestite performers some outrageously so, singers such as the late Zeki Muren have made no secret of their sexual tendencies, even if some of his fans refused to face the obvious, in the same way Liberace's admirers would wonder when on earth that nice boy was going to settle down and have a family.

Istanbul is the only city in Turkey that can claim to have a flourishing gay scene. Still, chapters of various gay organizations have been set up in more provincial towns, and even more conservative cities, such as Adana, have the odd mixed bar or two.

There are no legal proscriptions against consensual sex between adults 18 and over, no matter what their gender. Police harassment is virtually unknown and gay bashing unheard. That said, it pays to be discreet. Flamboyant kissing and so on in public is more likely to draw puzzled stares than derision or violence, but Turkish society is about as ready for all out displays of same sex affection as rural America. As a general rule of thumb do as the Turks do: let it all hang out the minute you enter a bar or club, not before...

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