Turkey's transsexuals popular on TV but not at home

Thu Mar 25, 2010 10:32am EDT
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By Simon Akam

ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - Singer Bulent Ersoy is renowned for her elaborate wardrobe, formidable décolletage, countless albums, a stint on Turkey's most popular TV talent show and a spin-off film career. She was also born a man.

The transsexual Ersoy -- and a host of other ambiguously sexed entertainers -- have achieved success despite the conservatism of Turkish society and the prejudice that faces the country's gay and transgender communities.

According to Sahika Yuksel, a psychiatrist at Istanbul University who studies sexual identity, many Turks "don't accept their neighbor's son is gay, but they accept someone who is a figure outside, in television, in newspapers."

Earlier this month Selma Aliye Kavaf, the Turkish minister responsible for women and family affairs, said in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper that homosexuality is a disease and should be treated.

Elsewhere, violence against gays and transsexuals is a regular occurrence. According to Human Rights Watch, at least eight transgender women have been murdered in Istanbul and Ankara since November 2008.

The most recent killing was of a transgender woman called Aycan Yener on February 16, 2010, in Fatih, a conservative neighborhood of Istanbul.

Yet, tellingly, Bulent Ersoy's most recent brush with controversy had nothing to do with her transgender status. In 2008 she stirred scandal when she said that if she had a son she would not let him fight in other people's wars, a comment taken as a criticism of Turkey's military operations against PKK separatists in the south-east of the country.

Observers see a number of reasons for the co-existence of popular transgender entertainers and widespread intolerance.   Continued...