Until the recent failed coup and terror attacks, Turkey was seen as a role model for other Muslim-dominated countries, balancing a secular governance with Islamic civic norms. But how safe is the country’s Muslim gay community? To find out, Zohra Teke spoke to * Chehan, a Turkish gay activist at the International Aids Conference in Durban
Homosexuality is a taboo in Islam and Muslims from the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender (LGBT) are forced to hide their sexuality, for fear of reprisal from their community or to avoid embarrassment to their families.
And, while the vibrant Turkish city of Istanbul became the first and only Muslim-dominated city to host a Gay Pride march in 2003, the patriarchal attitudes in that society still remain, despite its perceived liberal image. And, as Chehan explains, living as a gay Muslim can be a lonely and frightening existence.
“I am 33 years old and work as a successful urban designer in Istanbul. I am Muslim, I believe in God and the Qur’an and I love my country. But, my country does not love me. As a Muslim, gay person living in Turkey I feel very stigmatised even though we do not have any laws discriminating against us.
“The biggest problem we face is the mindset in our community. People are not open to homosexuality or anything that doesn’t fit society’s expectation of how you should be.
“People will say they are open and that they don’t have a problem with gays and will even befriend me. But, only as long as their child or their family member is not gay. It is a hypocritical attitude,” explains Chehan.
Turkey’s secular approach and its Islamic cultural values may appear to be working in tandem, but there is growing concern that the latent cracks as a result of a growing clash of the two approaches is deepening – and so is the social divide.
While the country openly flouts bars and in some areas of Istanbul, prostitution strips, the country’s army does not tolerate gays within its ranks.
In a recent survey of the Turkish army, more than 95% of respondents said homosexuals should not be allowed to serve in the country’s military. Currently, homosexuality in Turkey remains grounds for expulsion for commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers and military students under the Turkish Armed Forces Discipline Law.
While both Islam and Christianity generally forbid and condemn homosexuality, the pressure to conform to religious values is often greater in Muslim societies, which explains why being gay and Muslim is often severely frowned upon – and in some Islamic countries where Islamic law is often misinterpreted, homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, lashes, stoning or even being thrown from high buildings.
“Like most Muslim gay men, I don’t display any femininity even if I wanted to, because I know the risk.
“It took me 18 years to finally let my family know and whilst I have their support, I know being gay is not something they would prefer me to be.
“The pressure in a Muslim family to adhere to the stereotype – marry, have children etc, is huge, especially in Turkish culture. And while we cannot be discriminated against, it is there.
“If you are seen to be gay in your job, you risk being fired over a trivial matter, because legally you may not be dismissed for being gay. Muslim gay men are increasing all over the world and prevalent in many Arab states, but still fear being open about themselves,” adds Chehan.
This sentiment is also echoed by several Muslim, gay men in South Africa, including the country’s first controversial Cape Town-based imam, Muhsin Hendricks, who has been living under an Islamic ruling (fatwa) proclaiming him to be out of the fold of Islam, given by the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) since 2007.
“On the one hand we are very lucky to be living under the constitution which protects LGBT rights in South Africa and I feel very privileged to be able to do so as I would not be able to carry out my work as a gay imam anywhere else in the world.
But the stigma from Muslim communities remains high regardless of this and is the same the world over.
“I continue to live under the fatwa but our mosque, The Inner Circle, has been growing since opening our doors in 2009.
“I have performed more than 20 same-sex marriages amongst Muslims in South Africa since then and we continue our work despite the love/hate relationship within the community where we are listened to but kept at bay by other Islamic leaders,” explains Hendricks, a gay activist himself.
For Chehan, the fear of being attacked is constant, yet, like Hendricks, he feels passionately about his country and so chooses to stay. Ironically though, while expressing concern at what he describes as “Turkey regressing in social development” and a sense that his government is moving towards a more Islamic system of governance, he does share an unlikely common pet hate with Turkish president, Recep Erdogan: Social media.
Chehan blames social media for being single for the past nine years.
“I yearn for love. I want a relationship. But, today, because of social media, everything is quick and people are only interested in casual sex.
“They use social media for this, especially in countries like Turkey where we can’t be openly gay and where it is difficult to go out and meet other gay men.
“Social media are used to pick up sex partners. We have lost the interaction, the drive to get to know each other. Today, it is just about arranging sex using a dating site or a single SMS.
“I don’t want that. I want to love and to be loved and social media have made that very difficult to find,” adds Chehan.
* Not his real name.