“She is my blood sister,” Ilkay said. Actually, he did not say “she” or “sister.” Because Turkish allows a gender-neutral narrative, he did not have to. I noted his use of the present tense; perhaps he could not bring himself to accept that she would now only live in memories, that she had been murdered. We were on the phone, and, in my mind, I was not picturing Ilkay as a man yet. It would take a much longer, face-to face conversation for me to decide upon the masculine pronoun for him. It was a “good for now” decision at best.
I had been researching the murder of Gaye, a 43-year-old trans woman killed in her home in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district on July 26. The neighbors who found her body three days later reported that she had been strangled, but the police are yet to make a public statement on the circumstances of her death. If Gaye’s killing proves to be motivated by hate as the local Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual(LGBT) chapter claims, she will be the tenth known transgender victim of such crimes in Turkey in the last eighteen months.
To get a better sense of what this number meant, I went to the website of TransRespect vs. Transphobia, a research project monitoring the human rights situation of trans people worldwide. It has a map on which Turkey immediately stands out in bright red because no other country in Asia, Europe, Africa or Oceania had a higher number of reported trans murders between January 2008 and December 2011. The keyword here is “reported.” In many parts of Central Asia, Arabian Peninsula and Africa, such killings easily stay below the radar because the LGBT community is not visible or well organized.
In the three-year period covered by the project, Brazil (325), Mexico (60) and Colombia (59) had the highest number of trans murders while Turkey ranked eighth in the world, with 23. Moving the cursor around the interactive map, each click on a case summarizes the chilling results of hatred: Stabbed. Beaten. Shot. Strangled. Drowned. Bludgeoned. Mutilated.
“Are our lives so cheap,” asked Ebru Kiranci by phone after letting me know that I had reached her during a visit to a "sexhouse," her word for a brothel, where she had seen and talked to Gaye on the day she was murdered. Knowing the perils of being a transgender sex worker from first-hand experience and having a college degree in communications, Kiranci has become one of the most vocal advocates of hate crimes legislation in Turkey. Kiranci participates in LGBT workshops around the country and campaigns for universal rights for sex workers as Turkey’s current laws — under which female prostitution is legal and regulated — do not provide protection for male and transgender sex workers.
“Gaye used to be a sex worker, too,” Kiranci told me, “but she quit three years ago and opened a florist shop with her boyfriend of fifteen years.” When I asked her about their last conversation, Kiranci passed the phone around the house to the other “girls,” who all agreed that Gaye had seemed content with her new life.
“She came for a visit, looked at us and said we, the youngsters, had it relatively easy,” one of them told me. “Now we can go out and shout for our rights on the street. They could not do it fifteen years ago.”
Go out on the street and shout? They did indeed! Among the most visible participants of recent Gezi Park-Taksim Square protests in Istanbul were LGBT activists with their pink banners and rainbow flags. Although some protesters’ use of homophobic language in their slogans created awkward moments for the group, a seasoned activist such as Sedef Cakmak, chairperson of the Social Policies, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation Studies Association told Hurriyet Daily News that a new culture of solidarity had begun to emerge on the street as people from all walks of life got acquainted with the LGBT community.
Kiranci wants that solidarity to make itself heard loud and clear in the demand for a hate-crime prevention act. In trans murder cases in Turkey, a reduction in charges for unjust provocation and good conduct before judges seems to be the rule.
“A ruthless murder might carry a sentence of only 10 to 20 years,” says Kiranci. “The situation has relatively improved, but only with a clear definition of hate crimes in the law can we prevent killers getting away with reduced sentences by invoking social and religious prejudices in their defense.”
Can legislation cure prejudice? Betül, who describes herself as “the most pious trans woman in Turkey,” told me that if people really understood the message of Islam, they would rally against trans murders. “After all,” she said, “our prophet sent us to Naqi, not to Baqi.”
She was referring to a hadith in Sunan Abu-Dawud’s Kutub al-Sittah, according to which the Prophet Muhammad declined to have a mukhannath (a transgender woman) killed. He exiled her to Naqi, a region near Medina, instead of sending her to the famous Jannat al-Baqi cemetery.
“But doesn’t the Quran forbid homosexuality?” I asked. Betül’s response was brief: “All I know is that Allah created me like this.”
That evening, I met Ilkay in an arcade not far from where Gaye was murdered. A 40-year-old man with a burly beard, he was not what I expected.
“I was a transvestite,” he explained — using a word unpopular among the LGBT community, which prefers “trans” whether the person in question has had a sex-change operation or not — “but I quit. The oppression was too much to take.” In the hour that followed, Ilkay told me about the many ways in which the oppression manifest itself. We also talked about Gaye, with whom he had shared a house from 1997 to 2011.
“We were never lovers,” he said, “but no one loves Gaye more than I do.” The transwoman he described had her share of problems — binge drinking, petty theft, occasional arrogance — but she was also a caring person who maintained steady relationships.
“Things were never easy,” Ilkay said. “Even in the most accepting parts of Istanbul, we could not go out in drag in the daytime. We were doomed to be nocturnal, and the police were always out to trap us.”
“Trap you how?” I asked. Ilkay told me how he would get high on ecstasy, which he bought daily on the back street of the police station in Beyoglu — “Cops were said to always get their cut” — and how after a rocky night with a customer, he was sentenced to 14 months in jail for armed gang robbery. Ilkay explained, “I was alone, had no guns and did not steal anything, but I was a transvestite.”
He also showed me the inside of his left arm, which had an almost corduroy-like texture from the dozens of times he had cut himself. “It is all over now. I work as a motorcycle courier, and no one even knows I'm gay.”
But is he happy?
“I used to be so beautiful,” he said. “I had gorgeous dresses, shapely eyebrows, no bodily hair whatsoever. You should see my pictures. This is not what I want to be. But it is good for now.”
Yasemin Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish, among them Artık Sır Değil (No More A Secret), a detailed analysis of the US diplomatic cables on Turkey first made public by WikiLeaks. A former Washington bureau chief for Milliyet (1995–2007) and a founding deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf (2007–2012), Çongar is currently based in Istanbul and is a columnist for the internet newspaper T24.