Few social groups can boast the visibility and media attention that male-to-female transsexuals have received in Turkey in recent years. At one point, hardly a month went by without some feature in a popular magazine or a television interview. The cartoonist Latif Demirci captured this frenzied interest with his depiction of an apartment block in a notorious back street of Istanbul. Through each window, a transsexual could be seen being interviewed, filmed or recorded, while building janitors implored a queue of journalists waiting in the street outside to be patient. A recent book offering vignettes on modern Turkey devoted an entire chapter to an interview with Sisi, a famous transsexual. [1] The popular magazine Kim featured an intriguing article that voiced a complaint by the male gay community concerning these flashy upstarts. [2] They contended that an estimated 5-6 million gay men — the true heirs of Ottoman tradition forced into retreat after post-Tanzimat Westernization — had to lead secret lives, while a handful of transsexuals were making quick money from prostitution. Whatever the scale of this urban phenomenon, it appears to have caught the public imagination and evoked an almost voyeuristic curiosity.

Part of the fascination surrounding transsexuals in Turkey is undoubtedly related to the sense of unease they generate in the morally and existentially loaded realms of sexuality and gender identity. In a society that prizes masculinity and places severe taboos on the expression of female sexuality, they parade an aggressively overblown feminine style and generally inhabit a shadowy underworld of entertainers and prostitutes. They inevitably raise questions about the sexual inclinations of their clientele since they tend to command considerably higher prices than their genetically female counterparts. They are also the unsettling harbingers of a new urban scene; the mega-metropolis where everything is on display and for sale, a new arena where the landscapes and, especially, the nightscapes of Istanbul, Rio, New York and Bangkok may become indistinct and shade into one another. Indeed, transsexuals appear to inhabit a social space where the influences of the local and the global meet and merge in varied and unpredictable ways. They are, on the one hand, subject to the legal regulations of the Turkish state and are monitored and often harassed by the forces of order. They are members of a self-conscious local subculture that has evolved its own coded vocabulary. [3] On the other hand, they participate in a broader circulation of people, fashions and ideas — in an international market for sex change surgery, for jobs in European clubs and in the international gay movement’s networks of political solidarity.

Recent legislation that made sex change surgery lawful in Turkey was based on the precedent of Bulent Ersoy, a popular singer who applied to the courts for legal recognition of his identity as a woman following a sex change operation in London. The new article — added to the twenty-ninth clause of the Turkish Civil Code in 1988 — stated that “in cases where there has been a change of sex after birth documented by a report from a committee of medical experts, the necessary amendments are made to the birth certificate.” [4] This outcome ended a lengthy legal battle dating from 1981 when the military regime adopted a particularly uncompromising stance on any form of what it regarded as social deviance. [5] There is now an established medical-legal procedure that culminates in the award of a pink identity card (to replace the blue identity card held by men) which confers on its holder the full legal status of a woman. Despite these changes, the fact that medical and legal preconditions for sex change surgery have not been fully worked out creates areas of uncertainty and the potential for medical malpractice. Sahika Yuksel, a psychiatrist with extensive experience in psychotherapy with transsexuals, has made a strong plea for the full legalization of sex change surgery, because illegality encourages unscrupulous forms of medical intervention for profit, compounding the difficulties of an already stigmatized group. [6]

The foothold of transsexuals in urban space is precarious. They are subject to frequent clampdowns by the police. In the summer of 1995, the back streets behind Taksim Square presented the appearance of a fairly settled community. Police raids had an almost ritualistic feel suggesting a well-established routine of protection and payoffs. A year later, when Istanbul hosted the United Nations Habitat II conference in the luxury hotels surrounding Taksim, transsexuals bore the brunt of the massive “cleanup” operation that preceded the event. Transsexuals — evicted en masse from the back streets of Taksim and dispersed throughout the city — kept in touch through the clubs, hairdressers and cafes they frequent. Few are politicized and prepared to fight for their rights. Militants like Demet Demir, a member of the Human Rights Association, have been struggling to find a voice through the Association of Sexual Rights and Liberties, a fragile coalition of gay and feminist activists. Many male gays accuse the transsexuals of riding the sexual liberties bandwagon only as a means of gaining more freedom as prostitutes. Some transsexual activists, on the other hand, consider themselves to be feminists and progressives.

The transnational nature of transsexual networks is apparent on many levels. The search for sex change surgery takes transsexuals from the Philippines to Istanbul, where operations are cheaper, while more affluent Turkish transsexuals travel to London as their preferred destination. Those who are able to find jobs in European clubs are thoroughly cosmopolitan. News about new clubs, better surgeons, television programs and magazines travels fast. [7] Role models for fame and achievement include local idols like Bulent Ersoy but also extend to the West as in the case of the fashion model Tula, who is held up as the epitome of success. There is a sense in which the dreams and materialistic aspirations of some for a fast track to fame and fortune capture the cultural mood of post-1980s Turkey to an uncanny degree, while others include themselves in a broader search for identity and legitimacy that reaches beyond Turkey. The fact that Demet Demir was recently offered an award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission confirms this latter tendency. There will undoubtedly be many more troubled chapters in the history of Turkish transsexuals and these will be narrated by the members of this increasingly articulate community themselves.


[1] Tim Kelsey, Dervish: The Invention of Modern Turkey, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996).
[2] Oya Ozdilek, “Muazzam bir escinsel killtiir, sanat ve gecmis” Kim 47 (February 1996)
[3] This vocabulary is claimed to be based on a gypsy dialect with traces of Spanish, Latin and possibly Armenian. The word lubinya is used as a self designation by transsexuals but they are more commonly referred to by others as travesti or donme.
[4] Amendment to the Twenty-Ninth Clause of Law no. 743, Turkish Civil Code, May 12, 1988.
[5] Ilmi ve Kazai Ictihatlar Dergisi 22/253 (January 1982), pp. 911-913 provides the details of a ruling stating that the decision of whether the complainant, who merely has the appearance of a woman, really is a woman is a medical matter: The complainant’s appeal was therefore rejected on the grounds that further medical examinations were necessary. Two dissenting opinions to this ruling were recorded noting that there could be no question of a sex change for someone who had lived as a male beyond puberty. Interestingly, a June 1988 fatwa issued in Egypt by the mufti of the republic on the question of Sayyid ‘Abdallah, alias Sally, who had also undergone a sex change operation concluded that the operation could only be justified on medical grounds, although the debate that followed condemned such deviations in gender identity as abominations. Jakob Skygaard-Petersen, “Never Change Your Sex in Cairo,” paper presented at the workshop on “Cases and Contexts in Islamic Law,” December 3-4, 1994, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
[6] Cumhuriyet, February 13, 1988. An article titled “Butcher of Travestis” in the popular weekly Aktuel revealed that some transsexuals were subjected to castration rather than vaginal reconstruction and that operations were performed under local anesthesia in hurried and unhygienic conditions. The victims refer to themselves as duvar (literally meaning walls) and consider their sexuality as irreversibly blighted.
[7] I was surprised, for instance, to be asked for back copies of Roses, a Manchester-based transsexual magazine, even though few could read or speak English.

How to cite this article:

Deniz Kandiyoti "Transsexuals and the Urban Landscape in Istanbul," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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