People are often surprised to learn that Turkey, Istanbul in particular, has a significant number of transgendered people, some of whom have become quite famous and hold an important place for some Turks as pop icons. Most famous among these icons is singer Bulent Ersoy, who appears on a Turkish television show similar in format to American Idol and its European equivalents. Reuters' Simon Akam takes a brief look at Ersoy's career, transsexuality in Turkish society, and the role of transsexuals in Turkey's LGBT movement. From Akam:
Singer Bulent Ersoy is renowned for her elaborate wardrobe, formidable décolletage, countless albums, a stint on Turkey's most popular TV talent show and a spin-off film career. She was also born a man.For Ersoy's 2008 brush with the law, see June 1, 2008 post. For a more in-depth look MERIP took at transsexuals in Turkish society, click here.
The transsexual Ersoy -- and a host of other ambiguously sexed entertainers -- have achieved success despite the conservatism of Turkish society and the prejudice that faces the country's gay and transgender communities.
According to Sahika Yuksel, a psychiatrist at Istanbul University who studies sexual identity, many Turks "don't accept their neighbor's son is gay, but they accept someone who is a figure outside, in television, in newspapers."
Earlier this month Selma Aliye Kavaf, the Turkish minister responsible for women and family affairs, said in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper that homosexuality is a disease and should be treated.
Elsewhere, violence against gays and transsexuals is a regular occurrence. According to Human Rights Watch, at least eight transgender women have been murdered in Istanbul and Ankara since November 2008.
The most recent killing was of a transgender woman called Aycan Yener on February 16, 2010, in Fatih, a conservative neighborhood of Istanbul.
Yet, tellingly, Bulent Ersoy's most recent brush with controversy had nothing to do with her transgender status. In 2008 she stirred scandal when she said that if she had a son she would not let him fight in other people's wars, a comment taken as a criticism of Turkey's military operations against PKK separatists in the south-east of the country.
Observers see a number of reasons for the co-existence of popular transgender entertainers and widespread intolerance.
UPDATE I (3/10) -- AFP's Nicolas Cheviron takes a look at the status of LGBT rights that gives a good basic overview of discrimination against LGBT people, as well as the targeting of transsexuals. From the piece:
A total of 45 gays and transgender people were killed over three years in "hate murders", said Demet Demir, a transsexual and leading activist from Istanbul-LGBTT, a civic body promoting homosexual rights.
"In February alone, five people were killed. In Antalya (southern Turkey), a transsexual friend was brutally murdered; her throat was slit.
"In Istanbul, another was stabbed to death. Three young men... killed her for money, but she only had 70 liras (46 dollars, 34 euros) and a gold chain," Demir said, adding that three gay men had also been killed in Anatolia.
. . . .
The Turkish army classifies homosexuality as a "disease" while police are notoriously harsh against transsexuals.
"Just yesterday, police raided the flat where we meet our clients, breaking down the door," Ece, a 43-year-old transsexual, said.
"They arrested everyone and beat one of the girls with a truncheon. She had to have three stitches to her head," she added.
Although the Islamist-rooted government has enacted a series of rights reforms to boost the country's EU bid since it came to power in 2002, it has turned a blind eye to homosexual rights.
In March, Family Affairs and Women's Minister Selma Aliye Kavaf declared in a newspaper interview that she believed homosexuality was a "biological disorder, a disease."
"I think it should be treated," she said, attracting a storm of anger and enhancing fears that Islam is taking a more prominent place under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to Demir, the violence against homosexuals and her kind has its roots in a "rise in nationalism, Islamic values, poverty, and unemployment in the past seven or eight years".
"In such a climate, homosexuals and transsexuals are easy targets. Assailants think that nobody will ask questions and that they won't risk heavy penalties if they kill a transsexual," she said.