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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gay? "Prove It" Says the Turkish Army

The Problems of Gay Men in the Turkish Army

As in many countries, military service is mandatory in Turkey for all men in their 20's.  Exemption from service is near impossible unless you are disabled, ill, or a homosexual.  

Gay men are not allowed to serve in the military -- period.  There is no DADT.  This presents a number of curious problems for gay men who must report to duty.  

turkish soldier
BBC Photo

Because military service is widely considered to be onerous the army fears that many call-ups will try to escape a 12-15 month stint in the army by falsely claiming to be gay.  This is so despite the fact that in such a hyper-machismo cultural context as Turkey, the stigma associated with being gay is severe.  As is the fact that you would be permanently and officially labeled as a homosexual and thereby subject to abuse and discrimination for the rest of your life.

Nevertheless, the Turkish military demands proof from those who do claim exemption because they're gay.  And it is a humiliating process.

Recently, a young man named "Ahmet" told the BBC that he told officials immediately after being called up that he was gay -- during a health fitness exam.

 ''They asked me when I first had anal intercourse, oral sex, what sort of toys I played with as a child."

"They asked me if I liked football, whether I wore woman's clothes or used woman's perfume." 

''I had a few days' beard and I am a masculine guy - they told me I didn't look like a normal gay man.''

He was then asked to provide a picture of himself dressed as a woman.

"I refused this request,'' he says. ''But I made them another offer, which they accepted.'' 

Ahmet gave them a picture of himself kissing another man.  With this, he hopes that he will get a "Pink Certificate" officially declaring that he is a homosexual and therefore exempt.

Turkey has no specific laws against homosexuality and gay life has gradually become more public.  Bars have opened which cater to gay clientele, especially in Istanbul, and their is an annual gay pride parade in that city.  But the military will not welcome homosexuals.

Another man,Gokhan, told the BBC that he was conscripted in the late 1990s, and very quickly realized that he was not made for the army. 

''I had a fear of guns,'' he remembered.  He was also afraid of being bullied (or worse) by his fellows.  After a week he told his commander that he was gay.

''They asked me if I had any photographs.'' Gokhan says, ''And I did.''

He had heard that he would not be able to get out of service without photographs and had brought some along.  They were explicit.

''The face must be visible,'' says Gokhan. ''And the photos must show you as the passive partner.'' 

The photographs satisfied the military doctors. Gokhan was handed his pink certificate and exempted from military service. But it was a terrible experience, he says,

''And it's still terrible. Because somebody holds those photographs. They can show them at my village, to my parents, my relatives.''

Gay men say the precise nature of the evidence demanded depends on the whim of the military doctor or commander. Sometimes, instead of photographs, doctors rely on a "personality test".

The Turkish army refused BBC requests for an interview, but a retired general, Armagan Kuloglu, agreed to comment.

Openly gay men in the army would cause "disciplinary problems", he says, and would be impractical creating the need for "separate facilities, separate dormitories, showers, training areas."  He says that if a gay man keeps his sexuality secret, he can serve - an echo of the US military's recently dropped Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.

Gay Pride Parade, Istanbul 2011

"But when someone comes out and says he is gay, then the army needs to make sure that he is truly gay, and not simply lying to evade his mandatory duty to serve in the military.''

The social stigma associated with homosexuality in Turkey is such that outside the young and urban circles in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, it is hard to imagine a man declaring that he's gay when he's not.

But the military still frets over the possibility.

"Doctors are coming under immense pressure from their commanders to diagnose homosexuality, and they obey, even though there really are no diagnostic tools to determine sexual orientation,'' says one psychiatrist who formerly worked at a military hospital.

''It is medically impossible, and not at all ethical."

On Gokhan's pink certificate, his status reads: ''psychosexual disorder''. And next to that, in brackets, ''homosexuality.''

Turkey's military hospitals still define homosexuality as an illness, taking a 1968 version of a document by the American Psychiatric Association as their guide. 

Despite the absence of legal sanction for homosexuality, life as an openly gay man in Turkey can be difficult.  While the "Pink Certificate" may get you out of the army, it can also have lasting detrimental effects.  It is not uncommon for employers in Turkey to question job applicants about their military service - and a pink certificate can mean a job rejection.

One of Gokhan's employers found out about it not by asking Gokhan himself but by asking the army.  After that, he says, he was bullied. His co-workers made derogatory comments as he walked past, others refused to talk to him. 

''But I am not ashamed. It is not my shame," he says.

Ahmet is still waiting for his case to be resolved. 

The army has postponed its decision on his pink certificate for another year. 

Ahmet thinks it is because he refused to appear before them in woman's clothes. And he doesn't know what to expect when he appears in front of them again. 

Could he not just do his military service and keep his homosexuality a secret? ''No,'' says Ahmet, firmly.

''I am against the whole military system. If I have to fulfill a duty for this nation, they should give me a non-military choice.''

The most curious aspect of the Turkish system is it's clear reliance upon culturally specific definitions of what it means to be "gay."  Only "passive" homosexuals -- those who are anally penetrated by another man -- are exempt.  Only "bottoms" to use the English term, are gay.  

Such distinctions are common in the circum-Mediterranean world where there are often two words describing homosexuals or homosexual activity -- those who give, and those who receive anal penetration.   Ahmet's description of being asked what kinds of toys he played with, his facial hair as a mark of masculinity, and his being asked about wearing women's clothing are also marks of this cultural specificity.

Postscript:  Photos provided to the Turkish military are kept on file at the military hospital in Ankara, which has been described as the biggest state owned gay porn archive in the world. 

BBC World Service (Radio) "Pink Certificate" 

The Turkish army

  • More than 660,000 soldiers in total - 201,782 professional, 458,768 conscripts
  • Military service is mandatory for all men over the age of 20
  • There is no right to be a conscientious objector
  • Women do not do military service
  • For those without a university degree, service lasts 15 months
  • Those with a university degree are either reserve officers for 12 months, or privates for six months

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