ISTANBUL, Turkey—At a political rally on a gusty January day, Asya Elmas—a transsexual woman, sex worker, and first-time candidate for city council in Kadiköy, a liberal neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side—stood front and center with a fellow activist who was holding a large rainbow flag high over her head. She was there to gently remind Sirri Sürreya Önder, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul and the rally’s focal point, of an increasingly vocal constituency: Turkey’s LGBT community.
Elmas, the HDP’s nominee in Kadiköy, is running on a platform of greater rights for LGBT people and sex workers. Both the HDP and its mayoral hopeful advocate for Turkey’s minorities, but at the January rally Önder, who rose to fame after his participation in last summer’s Gezi Park protests, failed to acknowledge the LGBT community. “He was on top of the bus and he mentioned every group but us,” Elmas tells me when we meet a few weeks later in her apartment. “So I yelled, ‘Sirri, LGBT protesters are here, too!’ He didn’t hear, so I yelled again.” She smiles. “Then he mentioned LGBT. It was really nice.”
Elmas is one of 10 LGBT candidates—five of whom represent the HDP—running in Turkey’s local elections on March 30. This robust representation on the ballots of major parties—10 months after LGBT activists positioned themselves on the front lines of the massive anti-government protests that were sparked by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park—is a breakthrough for the movement. “It’s the first time they’re nominated in places where they can be elected,” says Irem Koker, a reporter at Hurriyet Daily News. A decade ago “it was a completely ignored issue,” Koker adds. “By definition everyone thought that everyone else was straight. Now we are talking about the existence of LGBT people in society.”
In recent years Turkey has undergone a series of democratic openings, rooted in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ambition to join the European Union and the requisite human rights reforms. Some religious and ethnic minorities, like Kurds, have gradually attained greater (although still partial) rights, and as the economy has strengthened and education has improved, Turkish society has opened to the world. The LGBT community had some reason to hope that the AKP’s progressive outlook—whether genuine or opportunistic—would benefit them. Before Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he remarked during a televised discussion that “it is essential that LGBT’s human rights be protected before the law.” In 2003, two years after the AKP was founded, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to host a pride parade. By 2011 Istanbul’s parade was the largest in Eastern Europe.
In office, though, Erdoğan has proved unwilling to grant the LGBT community these rights, declaring the Turkish public “not ready.” Abuse and discrimination are common, and there is no protection under the law based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Some provisions within the legal code formalize discrimination in the hands of prosecutors, police, or judges, who can target citizens for violating vaguely stated laws against “public exhibitionism” and “offenses against public morality.”
In 2010, when Selma Aliye Kavaf, then minister of women and family affairs, called homosexuality “a biological disorder, a disease,” the outcry came from the public, not the government. “As a society it’s a fact that we listen to the words of our leaders,” Elmas told me. “And these people’s words about us are hateful and humiliating.”
Any optimism among the LGBT community that progress would come through the AKP quickly dissipated. Activists became self-reliant, and have managed to push for acceptance by making themselves more visible. But without the cooperation of people on an official level, there are limits to what they can achieve.
“The LGBT rights movement has been working hard to introduce anti-discrimination clauses, [but] the government constantly rejected all such proposals,” Volkan Yilmaz, the head of the Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association in Turkey, writes in an email. “Unless the current political composition of the parliament changes, I am not optimistic about the prospect of Turkey recognizing LGBT rights.” In order to push Turkey in the right direction, LGBT activists would have to run for political office. After Gezi, they are seizing the opportunity.
Elmas lives in a mostly featureless neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side. I visit her on a Friday afternoon, as she and four friends eat a late breakfast of olives, yogurt, and cheese, spread out on a thin, blue cloth on the living room floor. A large flat-screen television dominates the front of the room, and over the threadbare couch Quranic verses are tucked into a framed tapestry portrait of an Alevi mystic. Elmas is not Alevi herself, but she says she and her roommate display the portrait as a show of solidarity with Turkish Alevis, a persecuted religious minority. She is upbeat about her campaign. “It’s going well!” she says cheerily, offering me soft Kurdish cheese wrapped in a hunk of white bread shaped like an elongated football.
While they eat, the group discusses how to use footage from Elmas’ time at the Gezi protests in a new campaign video. A previous video, of Elmas standing on a street in Kadiköy brandishing a piece of garbage while complaining about the neighborhood’s lack of trash cans, did well on Facebook. This installment would be more serious. Since moving to Istanbul more than a decade ago, Elmas has worked as a prostitute. Her political awakening came only last summer in Gezi Park, where she was introduced to other activists. Securing rights and protections for Turkey’s sex workers is part of her core platform, but it’s a difficult one to address. “I define myself as a sex worker who has to be a sex worker,” Elmas tells me. “I’m one of the groups that is the most suppressed, suppressed to the bottom of society.”
In 2010 LGBT organizations reported 16 murders motivated by gender identity or sexual orientation. This statistic and others like it—the prevalence of transgender individuals among Istanbul’s sex workers, frequent police violence, access to medical care—are foremost in Elmas’ mind when we meet. Days earlier she’d been in Diyarbakir, in Turkey’s southeast, where a court case about the murder of a young gay man by his father had resulted in a landmark life sentence. In the past, courts have reduced such sentences, calling homosexuality a “provocation.” The ruling was a victory, but it is too early to say whether other Turkish courts will follow.
Elmas rattles off anecdotes of her own—being called a “pervert” by judges, attacked on the street, stiffed a fee with no way to punish the customer. “My priority is my LGBT identity,” she tells me. “Any time I’m in a public place, I’m being discriminated against because of my trans identity. I’m pushed out. I might be killed.”
But in the wake of Gezi, where LGBT activists played a visible role, Elmas regards being a transsexual woman and being a sex worker as assets to her campaign. They lend her an authenticity that she thinks will earn her votes. But she’s not just the hopeful champion of the proposed reforms—she embodies the election’s high stakes. Since the campaign began, she hasn’t been working as a prostitute. “I can’t really do politics and be a sex worker,” she tells me. “I tried twice to go out after campaigning, but I didn’t have the energy.”
Elmas was born in 1981 in Mardin, a picturesque hilltop city in southeastern Turkey, and moved with her family further west to Gaziantep when she was 11. She discusses her education, shortened by the need to find work, the time spent in factory jobs, and a family she chooses not to define in detail. Unlike her friend Ceylan, who, after breakfast, pulls out her phone and happily shows me photos of her family, Elmas does not describe her parents as “supportive.” She moved to Istanbul in 2001 for the same reason as most LGBT people she knows—in a big city, even one still buckling under discriminatory laws, there was greater support and freedom.
In Istanbul she began to transition. It was a relief, but it made finding housing and work a struggle. Because of her experience working in factories, she expected to find a job easily, but was repeatedly turned away. Discriminatory hiring practices are forbidden under Turkish law, but because these laws do not include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT Turks have little on which to base their claims when denied a home or a job. A 2011 Amnesty International report on LGBT rights in Turkey cites interviews with people who were evicted from their homes for being what the report describes as “undesirable.” Elmas moved from apartment to apartment, and started working as a prostitute. “There is no other job that is possible for us,” she says. “We can’t work in government offices. The people in factories or shops won’t hire us. I do it to survive. What else can I do?”
Elmas works on the streets, outside of legal state-run brothels, where jobs can be hard to come by. On the streets she feels constantly exposed as a transsexual woman and defined entirely by her appearance. “I grew my hair. I got rid of my beard. I had plastic surgery, but it doesn’t really camouflage me,” she said. When she’s attacked, she goes to the police, where the typical response is disdain or ridicule. “The police say, ‘You work on the streets. You have it coming. Don’t waste our time.’ ” Until recently, she was afraid to ride a public bus, she says.
But during Gezi, standing out was a virtue. LGBT activists pitched tents and marched through the park beneath a rainbow flag. They spoke openly to journalists and other activists camped out in neighboring tents, and when the sit-in turned into violent clashes with the police, they protested alongside everyone else. Gezi was a catapult. “Before, people were afraid to sit next to us in the cafe,” Elmas’ friend Ceylan tells me. “Now, they come up to us a tell us that they remember us from the park.”
“I don’t think people could have imagined this happening last year,” says Zeynep, an LGBT activist and translator. “The fact that all these LGBT candidates have been so open and vocal and brave.” Elmas’ chances of winning in Kadiköy, where the HDP has scant support, are small. But she campaigns with energy and urgency, and she is popular, held up as a symbol of progress among activists and profiled in newspapers.
I watch her one Saturday night, pacing Kadiköy’s blocks, running after groups of college students with fistfuls of party fliers. She welcomes stares, even when they are demeaning. The curiosity, which would have perhaps once been intimidating, has become a tool, a way to educate people about the issues.
Even after months of political wrangling, high-profile investigations into government corruption, and routine violence at sporadic protests, Gezi looms in the consciousness of Turkey’s opposition. Among the LGBT community, the impact has been profound. “Gezi was a struggle for their own identity and a struggle for Turkey in general,” Koker told me. “Soon after, in June, there was a pride march and it was the biggest march yet. … Most of the people there were an extension of Gezi Park. They were there to extend support to the LGBT community.”
In the park, uniqueness was a unifying quality, and disparate groups—conservative Muslims, beleaguered Kurds, environmentalists—came together under their collective despair with the government. None of them feels properly represented by the AKP or Erdoğan, whose message has grown increasingly divisive in the final days before elections. They feel ignored by those guiding Turkey’s future, and that feeling of alienation and powerlessness is reflected in Elmas’ central campaign message.
“It’s really hard,” she says, “living and pretending to be someone else.”