Yanki is a 23 year old who is tall and beautiful. Walking around Istanbul, people regularly gaze at her, many with quizzical, even critical looks. “I want to be accepted by society because I am just like everybody else,” she says. But it is not so easy for a transgender woman in Turkey to gain acceptance.
Watchdog organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented routine abuses in Turkey that are endured by transgender individuals. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals enjoy few legal rights in Turkey, and the government does little to promote tolerance for sexual minorities.
After coming to power in 2002, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development has pushed a wide variety of reforms that have expanded civil rights. But officials have largely ignored the development of a LGBT legal framework, and some top government officials have even adopted an openly hostile stance toward homosexuals. For example, the minister of family and women’s affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, last March denounced the concept of gay marriage, describing homosexuality as a “biological disorder, a disease.”
When Kavaf drew criticism for the comments, a group of supporters, calling themselves A Call to Life Platform, issued a statement lauding the minister’s stance. The statement also called homosexuality “a threat to the continuation of the human race.”
In such a social climate, transgender individuals live with the constant threat of violence. Over the past two years, at least eight transgender people have been murdered in hate-related crimes. Another transgender woman was killed recently in Fatih area (one of the most conservative districts) of Istanbul. Found with a slit throat and stabbed 17 times, she was killed in her own apartment together with her roommate.
Yanki believes that “before society accepts you, you need to first accept yourself. I have accepted who I am, and I am happy where I am. So I don’t care about things people say or disapproving looks when I walk on the streets.”
This mindset helps Yanki persevere. Despite experiencing constant discrimination, Yanki, and others like her, aren’t inclined to conform. Instead, they keep dreaming of having “normal” jobs one day -- opening up cafés, becoming pilots, nurses, teachers or hair dressers, traveling and, most importantly, being accepted as who they are.
Some choose to have reassignment surgeries. However, in Turkey, the process is highly complicated, requiring ample reserves of money and patience. It takes months of court proceedings and psychological tests before permission is obtained. And, there is never a guarantee of a positive result.
Yanki doesn’t want to have the operation. She says her body (biologically she is still a male, but has grown breasts with hormone supplements) is what makes her unique. Contrary to Yanki, Helin, who is 22, wants to have the operation. “I was gay before becoming a transgender person. But I always wanted to be a woman, ever since I could remember myself. That is why, I want to undergo the surgery and become a woman some day!” says Helin.
Living on the margins of society, many transgender individuals have difficulty finding employment in mainstream jobs. Accordingly, a lot of them get into sex work. “The reason for these people becoming sex workers is because it is the only way for them to earn money,” says 38-year-old Seval, a transsexual human rights activist.
Arzu Geybullayeva is a freelance writer who specializes in Turkish affairs.