Gay Turks tearing down walls in Berlin

Deborah Cole | April 19, 2004

'Gayhane (Gay Space),' the monthly party for Berlin's burgeoning gay Turkish community
Photo - AFP
BERLIN — Two men with black moustaches and muscle shirts dance cheek-to-cheek as a group of drag-queen belly dancers mount the stage. A rousing mix of Turkish, Arab, Greek and Israeli music throbs from the speakers.

"Gayhane (Gay Space)," the monthly party for Berlin's burgeoning gay Turkish community, has grown so fast since it was founded six years ago that its venue in the diverse Kreuzberg district can barely contain the partygoers.

A winding line of lesbians, gays, transvestites and transsexuals outside the SO36 venue has become a fixture the last Saturday night of each month on Oranienstrasse, the main drag in Kreuzberg.

Organizer Hakan Tandogan, one of the renowned cross-dressing belly dancers, says the queue out front is a sign that at least for one night a month, gays have an accepted public role in Germany's large Turkish community.

"If we were a few streets north or south of here, I'd have my face beaten in," said Tandogan, dressed in a revealing black lace number with earrings as big as saucers. "Here, I feel free and safe." Over a vodka tonic at SO36 as the party was starting, Tandogan explains the battle he and other gay Turks have fought for acceptance.

"In the beginning – we're talking eight years ago – everybody led a double life," he said, referring to gays passing themselves off as straight, often in the context of a marriage, and living out their homosexuality in secret.

"But the more there are of us who have come out, the easier it is for people to see they are not alone. Growing up, I thought I was the only one."

Tandogan is part of a growing number of homosexual Turks who consider Germany – home to 2.3 million Turkish immigrants -- something of an oasis where they can live openly.

The number of Turkish gays and lesbians in Germany who are "out" is estimated at up to 15,000. But the count of those still in the closet is thought to be far higher.

Although there is a tiny homosexual minority in Turkish cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, gays who know the scene say that the deeply conservative society considers homosexuality at best a disease.

Many in Germany's Turkish community -- most of whom are descendants of guest workers who arrived in the 1960s -- come from rural regions like Anatolia where being openly gay would be unthinkable.

Hakan Tan, a journalist who moved to Germany at the age of 14 and is still in close contact with his family in Turkey, said it was unrealistic to hope a predominantly Muslim country could match Western Europe in its sexual tolerance – yet.

"You can't expect Turkey to be as far along as Western Europe. The gay and lesbian movement has only existed there for the last 10 or 12 years. It's all pretty new," said Tan, 37, who had his coming-out in Germany two decades ago.

"But there is no reason why there can't be liberalization – even in a Islamic society." The German scene now has all the fixings of a community – websites, AIDS help groups, magazines and even its own float at Berlin's giant annual gay pride parade.

But as rosy as things can seem in anything-goes Berlin, Turkish gays and lesbians say they still are hit by discrimination on several fronts.

"We still face racism in the (gay) scene," Tan said, lamenting that Turks are often viewed as "pickpockets or call-boys".

"There are still loads of gay bars that don't even let Turks in the door," Tandogan added.

He said Turkish gay men in particular are also often fetishized in the German gay scene, falling into the category of the "exotic lover" to be seduced but never considered a potential partner.

And for many, there is still the threat of severe reprisals from relatives who learn they are gay, including violence, expulsion to Turkey and forced marriage, said Deniz Guvenc, a lesbian who works with a Berlin-based self-help group for homosexual Turks.

But at the Gayhane, if only for the length of the party, many of the dividing lines appear to fall away. "The Gayhane, which started for Turks, has ended up drawing everybody you can think of – Arabs, immigrants, Germans, anybody who feels like partying with us," Tandogan said.

And sure enough, around midnight, the music picks up and the drag queens, heteros, lesbians, Arabs, Turks and Germans start the halay, a circle dance performed arm-in-arm, starting slowly until the entire crowd spins into a heady blur. – AFP

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