Human rights activist and trans woman discusses fundamental freedoms and transgender discrimination in Turkey.
Last month Kosovo hosted the first regional conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) rights. Organized by the government of Kosovo and the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA) the aim was to increase the debate on the lack of social inclusion and equality for LGBTI people in Kosovo and the region.
The two-day conference highlighted the different challenges that LGBTI persons frequently face; including violence, discrimination, bullying, harassment, hate speech in the media and on social networks, poor or inadequate access to health services, and a lack of legislation recognizing the rights of trans and intersex people.
One of the conference participants was Janset Kalan, a trans woman and human rights activist from Turkey. The 29-year-old studied political science and international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul and is now international affairs coordinator at Ankara-based Pembe Hayat (Pink Life), one of the largest transgender organizations in Turkey.
Pembe Hayat is focused on transgender rights issues, cooperating with other NGOs and LGBTI organizations in order to help other organizations to better understand issues of trans people and their needs, as well as to raise awareness of their struggle against hate crimes, discrimination and access to fundamental rights.
K2.0 sat down with Kalan during the conference and asked her about transgender activism in Turkey, trans visibility and the impact of President Tayyip Erdogan’s policies on LGBTI issues.
K2.0: The first LGBTI parade in Turkey was organized in 2003. What was its significance in terms of raising the visibility of the LGBTI movement and when did transgender issues really become visible in Turkey?
Janset Kalan: What happened was that in 1993 the LGBTI rights movement attempted to hold a pride parade; they called it a homosexual liberation parade and they invited several people from abroad — from Germany, the Netherlands, etc. — and they held several seminars. On the last day they wanted to have a parade but the police attacked them and deported their representatives including some members of the European Parliament — they deported all of them from the country and detained LGBTI activists. After 1993 it was impossible to hold a pride parade until 2003.
"There wasn't a consciousness about transgender identity and about specific problems faced by trans people. People didn't even know about trans men back then."
In 2003 they decided to hold the parade with like 50 or 100 people maybe. And the next year there were 500 people, and the year after that there were 1,000 and at the last pride parade we had 80,000 people there, without the police attacking us.
In regard to trans visibility, trans women were the first LGBTI movement activists in Turkey. The first LGBTI political protest was held by trans women in 1987 in Gezi Park [in Istanbul], and later in 1993 in Istanbul they started holding their first meetings. Trans women were present there and they were the spokespersons actually, because they were already visible, so whenever the media was conducting interviews they were on the frontline.
But there wasn’t a consciousness about transgender identity and about specific problems faced by trans people. People didn’t even know about trans men back then. So it had to develop and over the years, trans people realized that LGBTI organizations do not deal with sexual issues [relating to trans people], they do not deal with homelessness [of trans people], they do not deal with trans people facing violence in the streets. So they started to form their own organizations so that they could be more specific in order to reach a wider audience.
In Kosovo it is often considered that trans men are accepted slightly more in society than trans women, in part because of the old Albanian tradition, where women called burrnesha (sworn virgins) took a vow of celibacy and perform the role of a man in the family. Are trans women and trans men faced with different levels of prejudice within Turkey?
Not really. Being a woman is also something that imposes several duties on you — you have to bear a child, you have to get married. So if at birth you were assigned a female gender and in life you decide that you are not — you are a trans man, or you identify yourself as a man — then it becomes a problem in the family and in society because they think that you are giving up all your duties and responsibilities. You face all these prejudices, the same as trans women face [prejudices of people thinking they are giving up your responsibilities as a man].
"We have to cooperate with each other, we have to develop a new wave of activism."
In some rural areas, it is not very common but society attempts to ‘correct’ this with corrective rape — they rape trans men and lesbian women as they think that will actually ‘correct’ them. It is a terrible situation.
With trans women it is more difficult with employment, because it is much more visible in their body and their face that they went through transition. With trans men it is not so evident. It is basically because the society doesn’t know much about trans manhood and also trans men sometimes look like young boys, so they can pass [as being boys].
It is a binary system, it is very normative. In printed documentation in Turkey we have blue and pink ID cards. So if you have to present your documentation to any office, or any place, or airport you are being outed. Because your document shows your gender. They don’t change it until you go to gender reassignment — surgery.
Many human rights organizations suggest that violation of human rights have increased since Erdogan came to power. What kind of impact is this having on LGBTI activism?
In Turkey, especially since 2015, it has been much more difficult to carry out activism because the government has been putting every opposition group in prison. Ok, they haven’t touched LGBTI activists but those people who are in prison now are our biggest allies. They are our biggest supporters and they are the people we could reach very easily and disseminate knowledge amongst and raise public awareness more easily. They are trade union people, they are workers, they are teachers, they are lawyers, and actually we need lawyers in the field so they can seek justice for LGBTI people. So in the end when you look around, you are been left all alone.
It is only LGBTI organizations that are not in prison, and us [transgender organizations]; we have to cooperate with each other, we have to develop a new wave of activism. With this year’s coup attempt they prolonged the state of emergency for three more months and it is very difficult to do further advocacy.
What about society in general — have Erdogan’s actions been reflected in society and made it less tolerant?
Society has changed. Aggression and violence in society has increased, but it is not only trans people, it is not only against LGBTI people. But it is against any kind of minority because people are being fired from their jobs, they are being oppressed and people are very aggressive in the streets.
"These eight boys just came and beat the hell out of me — my friends were able to escape, luckily."
But on the other hand in the public awareness sense there are changes that are positive. While our previous allies are in prison, new alliances have developed, even from the conservative parties. It has diversified and we think that people understand more about issues and more about what we actually seek, and what kind of equality we demand. But social changes don’t bring legal change because legal change is made by politicians and those politicians are in Erdogan’s party — they are just sheep following Erdogan’s orders.
Most people in Turkey are of Muslim faith. What is the relationship between religion and transgender people? Is there enhanced prejudice against those who are transgender and religious?
Most of the trans women community are Muslims and some are very religious — they practice prayers, they believe in God and the Quran. But I define myself as agnostic.
Sometimes family and society think [being religious] is a positive thing. They think that if you pray and everything you are a good person.
How is the queer club scene in Ankara?
In Ankara we don’t have specific queer places, queer clubs, but there are several friendly places which have rainbow flag stickers on their doors so you can go there like freely and chill out, and you won’t be discriminated against. There are several of those places.
Have you ever experienced any difficult situation, attack or harassment because of your gender identity?
I think the first thing that happened to me was two years ago when I was attacked by eight young men. I went to the police station by myself because there wasn’t anyone else [to go with me]. It happened in the central park of my hometown, and it was during Ramadan; all the families were in the park having picnics and I had my friends with me and we were also having a picnic. These eight boys just came and beat the hell out of me — my friends were able to escape, luckily.
I went to the police station, they registered [the case], they reported it with my statement and everything. We went to the location where the incident happened, but we couldn’t find [the perpetrators]. There were no cameras so the file was just closed.
What is the importance of holding this type of LGBTI conference?
I think it is very important because it is a good opportunity for activists from this kind of region, where opportunities are very limited, to come together, to share their experiences and to [develop] a regional policy and politics that might have an impact on local politics, as well as international politics, because there is an EU integration process going on for most of the countries of this region.
When you go to the EU and you talk about the problems one by one it doesn’t make sense actually because they hear these kind of problems all the time. But when you bring regional problems because they resemble each other — the way how perpetrators attack, the way you are discriminated against, the way how you cannot access fundamental rights — they will understand that these problem are regional and they should react to them.
What are the biggest misconceptions and prejudices that people have when it comes to transgender people?
The largest prejudice is that we are sexual maniacs. This is the largest prejudice. They think we are transgender because we want to have sex.
A big majority of people believe that trans women would attack them, would beat them or something, but on the other hand they are the violent ones, we are not.
What is the biggest thing that you wish other people better understood about transgender people?
I wish people would have more contact with trans people in their neighborhoods, their cities, because there are trans people everywhere. So get in touch with them, listen to them and try to understand, to accept. You don’t have to love that person but you have to respect them.K
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0