Sporting bleached blond hair, black stockings, heavy mascara and mauve-tinted lenses, some 30 homosexuals from Istanbul began a hunger strike at Taksim Park on April 27, the first day of Ramadan. Nearly all of them transvestites, and all proudly wearing bright pink boutonnieres, they said they would continue “until arbitrary police violence ends.” Eighteen of the strikers claim to be recent victims of police violence, and they have medical certificates to back them up.

There are many sympathetic observers at Taksim Park, perhaps too many. Says one, “We support them because we’re against repression, whether it’s against them or normal people.” The police courteously request the crowd to disperse, saying that public gatherings are “illegal under the state of emergency” still in force in Istanbul. The strikers then move to the Virtue Building on Lamartine Street, where they continue their fast in front of the home of the leader of the Radical Party.

One of the hunger strikers lifts up a veil and a cheap wig to reveal his bald pate (or rather her bald pate, since she insists), shaved bare by the vice squad. When a journalist asks her name, she consults with the lawyer handling their complaints against the police. In Istanbul’s 20 or so gay bars — most of which have been closed down by the authorities for the duration of Ramadan — she was known as “Tulip” or “Moonglow.” Now, hesitantly, she says her name is Huseyin.

“This is the first time there’s ever been an action like this in an Islamic country, where the idea of personal freedom is nonexistent,” says Kemal, the spokesman for the group. He is a paper maker in one of the old quarters of the city, and the only one to maintain the appearance of a boy.

A very few traditional gays are present in a furtive show of solidarity. One of the hunger strikers observes that “transvestites have taken over the gay liberation movement in Turkey because in a macho system like ours, one that rejects all nonconformity, they are the most oppressed and the only ones who dare to say they are.”

Homosexuals in Turkey have traditionally enjoyed a margin of tolerance but that margin is shrinking, and they attribute this to the government's policy of Islamic renewal. They are demanding new legislation to eliminate the pretext for police intervention, and an end to their banning from the artistic professions, which has been in effect since the September 12, 1980 coup, and which they say forces them into prostitution and ultimately suicide. The great female impersonator Bülent Ersoy has been forbidden to sing in public for almost seven years.

The post-coup climate of depolitization encouraged awareness of these “new aspects of the question of human rights and democracy,” an awareness that was fostered by the weekly press. There is hope now that these issues will be recognized as quickly as possible with Turkey’s entry into the European Common Market. The Turkish Association for Human Rights has quietly sent a doctor to attend the hunger strikers, who are visibly weakened by Friday evening, and have asked the authorities for permission to organize a solidarity march to Ankara.

The transvestite movement began less than a year ago at the initiative of the Radical Party, a small party that is still in the process of organizing and will bring together its various anti-militarist, feminist, ecologist, atheist and homosexual components at its first party congress in June.

Following in the path of the prisoners, the students, the ecologists and the homosexuals, female Muslim students have recently gone on hunger strike too. The proliferation of this type of protest inspired a cartoon in Cumhuriyet showing a legislator studying the 1982 Constitution and saying, “How could we have forgotten to outlaw hunger strikes?”

— Michel Farrere


Translated by Diane James

From Le Monde, May 5, 1987

How to cite this article:

"An Unusual Hunger Strike in Istanbul," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

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