When thousands of people who are both scantily clad and overdressed take rainbow flags to the streets during Istanbul’s Pride Week, the country notices. But on any Friday or Saturday after midnight, the pro-gay community is on display just as prominently inside black-lit nightclubs across the city.
At XLarge, the largest nightclub in Istanbul, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities meet and dance without judgment. Some men are shirtless while others are done up in stacked heels and blonde wigs. Women are dancing with women, and men with men, but straight men and women are there too, chatting and weaving into the crowd with pricy cocktails.
“We just finished two years,” says Huseyin Tuncbilek, the 42-year-old owner of XLarge, about the club’s opening in 2009. “[On Friday and Saturday nights] XLarge has between 600 to 800 people, but not all of our customers are gay. We don’t put a name for sexuality here.”
In many Muslim nations, homosexuality is forbidden. In some areas – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Yemen, for example – it’s a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. But in Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim majority secular state, being gay is legal. Written laws forbidding homosexuality have not existed since its decriminalization by the Ottomans in 1858 – around the same time that Turkish baths emerged as meeting spots for men. The country’s push for further Westernization, however, became the main instigator of homosexuality’s decimalization.
“In Turkey, considering its historical position, it’s hard to equalize it with other Muslim countries because it is indeed secular,” says Juris Lavrikovs, communications manager at Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex People in Europe (ILGA Europe), based in Belgium. “On the European scale, it’s not doing very well, but the legal situation and social situation is very different.”
Homosexual men and women are expected to follow the same Turkish laws that apply to heterosexuals, which is agreeing not to have sex in public places, and not until the age of 18. But gays still do not have the same marital rights as straight men and women.
“Turkey doesn’t acknowledge in any shape or form any relationships between homosexuals,” Lavrikovs says, referring specifically to marriage. “It will probably take a while for Turkey to take such steps. It’s considered a quite sensitive topic [here] as in many countries.”
Nearly seven years ago, at the beginning of 2004, Turkey’s Parliamentary Justice Commission created a “draft law” to make any form of discrimination illegal based on sexual orientation. The clause was removed six months later. Clamping down on nationwide homosexual discrimination is also among the criteria Turkey must meet in order to join the European Union.
“The EU does apply certain legal standards in order for countries to participate,” Lavrikovs says. “There are the Copenhagen criteria – the rules that gauge whether a country is eligible for entering the EU – that requires protection of human rights, democracy and minorities. It is not possible for the country to join the EU if the country still penalizes sexual orientation.”
Hate crimes, many resulting in severe injury or death, are becoming increasingly prevalent against LGBT members of the community, and authorities are failing to clamp down on perpetrators. According to a 2011 report by Amnesty International, a global movement spanning more than 150 countries that aims to end human rights abuses, 16 suspected hate murders were documented by LGBT groups last year in Turkey. Nine of the murders were gay men, six were transgender women, and one was a heterosexual man who was suspected to be gay.
“It’s a recurring issue,” Lavrikos says. “The state actors are not acting how we would expect them to act in any other murder.”
Many people still hide their alternate sexual orientation in Istanbul, and wait for the safer environment of Istanbul’s nightclubs to express their gay life.
Tuncbilek, whose parents still do not know his sexual orientation, boasts that his club, located in the trendy Taksim Square, gives homosexual men and women a safe spot to dance.
“The customers have to feel free here,” he says. “The Taksim area is mostly gay clubs, but over the last five years, [gays] have become more comfortable and can go other places as well,” Tuncbilek says.
Upstairs, near the bar in the balcony, friends are sitting on plush couches taking pictures, laughing, and watching the night’s warm-up – a choreographed performance to the 2010 hit musical, Burlesque. It’s hard to determine who’s performing and who’s here to watch through the thick smoke and pulsating lights, but the crowd seems unfazed by the routine chaos, happy to have a space to dance and kiss and mingle.
Boysan Yakar, a 27-year-old performance artist and activist based out of Istanbul, visited the club’s grand opening party two years ago, and has been a regular since. “I love the atmosphere. It is big, relaxing. Some of my friends are working [there] as drag queens. We have clubs now that freely announce themselves as gay bars. If you are not going ‘too far’ inside the bar” – having intercourse – “everything is normal.”
Serkan Durakcay, another regular at XLarge, is a 37-year-old devout Muslim and stylist in the fashion business. He prays five times a day, celebrates the Holy month of Ramadan and reads the Qu’ran regularly. He’s also homosexual with a partner of two years, whose family still doesn’t know he’s gay.
Although Durakcay’s partner is not out, Durakcay told his family and friends when he was 18 years old. They accept his lifestyle, but he admits his family continues to believe the stereotype that gay men are promiscuous and immoral.
“I’m born as a gay,” he says, sitting next to his partner on a loveseat in XLarge’s balcony. “Some people say that they’re not gay because their parents and friends don’t accept it.” Durakcay calls himself an “open-minded gay.” He adds: “Because of this, I am free.”
Today, such open views are uncommon throughout the country; many men and women still recoil from publicly embracing their homosexuality. But, it’s getting better.
“Being an out gay means also taking your reality with you to everywhere in Istanbul,” Yakar says. “It was worse years ago, but now people are much more OK with it.”
And the club scene, many agree, is contributing to that. Although Yakar also visits more “alterative” venues with cheaper prices and different playlists, he says nightclubs such as XLarge in Turkey are full with the kinds of non-judgmental people he feels most comfortable with. Of the crowd there, he says: “They are human honey.”