Firstly, you have to be invited. Then you have to promise utter discretion. On the assigned evening, you enter, and if your name is on the list you’re in.
You’ve suddenly arrived in another world. There are scores of women dancing, talking, eating, drinking. They come from different backgrounds – but they’re united, as Turkish and as lesbians.
This is a monthly party for LGBT women celebrated in Antalya, a coastal resort city in southern Turkey. It is hosted by *Amara, a decade-old organisation for Turkish queer women. Knocking on Europe’s door yet on the threshold of Asia, Turkey is truly a land of contrasts, straddling religion as well as continents.
“I thought I was the only Muslim lesbian in the world. When I was younger and watched the likes of Martina Navratilova on TV, it was, for me, a foreign thing, not something that happened in our society,” says 26-year-old Cemile, describing the parties one afternoon as we sit in the Old Harbour drinking ayran.
Cemile is from Konya, a city north of Antalya and has been a member of *Amara for the past five years. “When I heard about *Amara I was shocked,” she says. “I thought are there actually other Turkish gay women out there ?”
“I choose when to be out and when not,” Cemile explains. “It’s important for me to feel safe.”
Her friend Asli, sips on her drink and interjects from the seat opposite.
“I will always be the daughter who ran away from my family.” Her gestures indicate resignation, but her voice is determined. “I had to give up my family, I had to leave them behind, so that I could be myself,” says Asli who now lives in Istanbul but travels south every month. She is both Turkish and a lesbian.
With dark cropped hair and low-slung cargo pants, Asli would register on the radar of lesbians anywhere in the world. Still, even in Istanbul, a city which is home to a healthy smattering of gay cafes and clubs, she’s cautious.
Like many other gay Muslims, she has been trying to negotiate between two worlds that most would see as incompatible. Her story is filled with misperceptions, rejections and attempts to discover and empower herself. She tells me about a complex conflict that involves her family as well as the community around her, and it starts with the basic clash in the understanding of the term and practice of homosexuality between her being a Muslim and the Turkish culture.
Family ties are strong in Muslim communities and it goes against Islamic teachings to break those ties. Cemile’s family is large; she has siblings and many cousins. The family gathers regularly for birthdays and weddings. “You change jobs, different friends come and go, but family is family no matter what,” Cemile noted. “You’re linked to them by blood.”
In both cases, I’m told, it is very important for Turkish nuclear families to maintain a respectable image in their community. In this context, lgbt children pose a serious threat. To a certain extent, it is permissible to maintain separate identities in the private and public spheres, but making one’s homosexual identity visible produces conflict and often separation.
Women face an even greater challenge since it is extremely difficult for them to maintain their private lives in a community that grants far more individual freedom to males. In Turkey’s macho culture, most single women still live at home with their parents, making any form of dating difficult.
Interestingly, Turkey is the only Muslim country in the world where homosexuality is not illegal.
Therein lies a problem. A country that prides itself on being a gay-friendly tourist destination, Muslims experience discrimination and suffer silently within their own culture for being queer. Add gender to this already complex duality, and you’ve got, well, complications. From its inception, *Amara has faced these complexities head on.
“Turkish society is still very conservative,” explains Esma, in her early 30s. “For an LGBT group, maybe there is a benefit to being here in Antalya.”
Esma continues: “It doesn’t really help me though, apart from the obvious of being able to meet other women. Living here, doesn’t mean that we’re living a safe life. Some families, especially in the east of the country, if they know their daughter is a lesbian, they might kill her, or abandon her.”
Cemile herself is out to most of her immediate family, whom she describes as “traditional” rather than religious. “It’s been a long process, but after five years, I would say my mom is embracing me for who I am because she doesn’t want to lose me,” she says. “For her, it’s important that no one else knows, the bigger family, the society.”
But that means walking a tightrope – one where Cemile must balance two of the most meaningful aspects of her identity: her faith and who she loves.
She reiterates: “There are still regions where people kill gays and lesbians to keep the honour of the family intact.”
Esma, too, discusses being gay with her family, albeit in more theoretical terms. “I try to raise the issue with my parents in the sense of human rights,” she says. But she’s met mixed results. “My brother said, ‘If I hear about you having something with a woman, don’t even think about coming back to this house.’ There is no point in arguing.”
For now, Esma, chooses to stay silent, seeing no advantage in coming out to her family.
She adds, “I wish that the day comes when we can talk about this freely, with no restrictions, with no limits, with no fears.
“Until that day *Amara gives us the opportunity to live our lives how we want to be. Even if its only once a month.”
*Amara have asked me to change their name to protect the group.