Being a gay man in the Turkish military
Ayşe ARMAN - ISTANBUL“I am homosexual and I just came back from military service. So far, you’ve done many interviews with gays, homosexuals and transsexuals about what they’ve done to avoid serving in the military. I want to tell you why I went there and what I’ve encountered with. Would you be interested?”
I called him immediately, and we met.
Kaan Arter really is a strong man. He is educated and knowledgeable, very sincere and honest. Moreover he is smart: A TÜBİTAK-winning mathematician. He is still a teacher and because of this he hid his face in the pictures.
Arter is a person who writes about homosexuality and has a blog. He has very bold writings. He talks about how he slept with his boyfriend who came to visit him while he was at the military, when he had a leave of absence, in the toilet of a cafe.
But without banality...
I wish him success in his mathematics and literary life.
Here is our interview:
- Kaan Arter.
Is that your real name?
- No, because I am a teacher. Revealing my real name would be the end of my professional career.
What do you teach?
- Math. It’s necessary for everyone. Math is life!
Very nice... Your age?
When did you realize that you were gay?
- (He laughs) I was a little bit naive. When I was a child, there wasn’t any difference in my head between heterosexual and homosexual. The way I looked at sex was like, “Men sleep with men, women with women and some women with men because they like men.” Frankly, everybody sleeps with whoever they want to. For example, my mother and my father have sex because they like each other. And I liked one of my male friends and thought that I could have slept with him. And then one day I realized that a man should like a woman. I was horrified! I was mistaken and wrong. I had to change. But how? And the worst thing was that I also had a high-pitched voice. My father kept on warning me. “We have to make your voice low-pitched,” he said. “You are not going to use your hand like this. You are not doing say ‘oh’ or ‘hey.’ If you do, you’d be effeminate!” When I started high school, because of these pressures, I was homophobic, despite the fact that I was homosexual.
You can’t run away from your essence, your own reality
What about high school...
- I was trying not to think about sexuality. Because when I did, I thought about men. And it was irritating. In college, I had a girlfriend. We were together for four years.
What do you mean? Did you had sex?
- Yes. I had my first sexual experience with a woman. I don’t have any fear of a vagina. I can be with a woman. But of course, I choose the male body. I am not bisexual. By being with a woman, I tried to be heterosexual. But how could it be possible?
Did she suspect anything?
- My girlfriend? We had very funny incidents. For example, I was staying in a two-person dorm room. As it turns out, I was in love with my male roommate. But I didn’t know it. He had a girlfriend, too, all four of us hung out. And the girls were talking to each other, saying, “These two are always together. They are so interested in each other all the time. Could they be bisexual?” They were brave girls, they directly asked us. I was so homophobic that I strictly denied it. I’ve showed an extreme reaction. I reacted for so long that finally my girlfriend said: “Okay, okay, you are so homophobic!”
- And then... You can’t run away from your essence and your own reality. After university we broke up. I started to question: “Who am I really? What I am doing? What do I actually want to do?” In the meanwhile I got a scholarship from TÜBİTAK, because I was the highest-ranking student in my department. I went abroad as a graduate student for a while. During this process, I read a lot about being gay. As I read, I said, “There are people like me!” And I’ve realized this: “In order for this society to accept gay people, they have to know and recognize us.” That’s why I started to tell people whom I trusted and believed in that I was gay. First, to my sister. Then, to my aunt on a rainy day. My aunt and I were coming back from a psychiatry seminar. Suddenly I said, “I want to tell you something!” She said, “Tell me dear” and I said, “ I’m gay!” Of course it wasn’t this easy. I was crying when I said it and it was raining. My aunt hugged me and said: “I wish you would tell me earlier, who knows what you’ve been through. I would want to be there for you while you were suffering.” I wanted to be sincere and I am...
Your aunt is marvellous! What about your mother and father?
- That situation is unsolvable! They don’t know. I never think of telling my father, because I don’t think he would understand. It would be a nightmare for him, he would turn it into the biggest issue in the world. I won’t tell my mother either, as the poor woman will be caught in the middle; she will worry about me. I don’t want to upset anyone. We saw it in the “My Child” documentary – even educated people can’t accept their child being gay. Other people’s children can be gay, you know, we live in modern times, but their own child, never!
Is the problem society that makes people feel ashamed or is it like “In this homophobic country my children will be vulnerable. Many bad things will happen to him?”
- Both. But mostly, it’s “How will I protect my child? He will live a life and a world that I don’t know about. I don’t have any control there. Yet, if he was heterosexual, he would marry someone. He would have a father-in-law and a mother-in-law. He would have children. And then his children would take care of him. But he won’t marry anyone, because he is homosexual. Even if he does marry someone, he is not going to have any children. What’s going to happen to him when he grows old, who’s going to look after him?” Many families have these kind of questions on their minds.
How did you manage to be this brave?
- We are such a hypocritical society that I had no other choice. We say that visitors are very welcome, but if they stay a bit long, we talk behind their backs or we give messages indirectly. Why don’t we speak directly? This is a part of our society. While I was questioning what kind of lifestyle I wanted to create, I realized that the thing that I believe in most is sincerity. I wanted to be sincere too. With my existence, behaviour and writings... And I am.
Using factor-50 sun cream in the macho ranks of the military
What comes to gay men’s minds when they hear about “military service”?
- A lot of things. The humiliating treatment that they will get when they try to get a “certificate of disability” for discharge. The chain of command at the military, killing or getting killed, the fear of getting sexually assaulted. “How can I be comfortable living in the same environment with lots of men? Is the environment hygienic? What if they make fun of me and use offensive words? Can I take it after this age?”
Was it like that for you, too?
- I am an anti-militarist person. But I went there, I served in the military, whereas I could easily prove that I was homosexual. I live with my boyfriend. Both my aunt and my sister would come and tell them. If they want a “position picture” – although they don’t need it anymore – I could even give that. (The Turkish military had requested men to graphically prove their homosexuality to receive a waiver from mandatory military service in the past.)
But you didn’t... you didn’t even tell them that you were gay. Why? What was your reason for wanting to go to military service?
- I am already against it being mandatory. People who don’t want to go shouldn’t go. I wish that we had a legal right and a chance like that, but we don’t. A male person who is born in the Republic of Turkey goes to military service when he reaches a certain age. I was born in this land, I reached a certain age and I am male. I am no different than them. If they go, I have to go, too. If I use my innate sexual orientation as an excuse, it will be using my sexuality.
But weren’t there difficulties?
- How couldn’t there be? It is a place where there is no reason or logic. But it is tough for everyone. That’s what I’m trying to say. If you are aware of yourself and your rights, no one dares to do anything to harm you. If you are educated or active on the Internet and social media, they get frightened. See, if anybody, even commanders, try to abuse you, there are very strong mechanisms for complaints. There is the Prime Ministry Communications Center. Within a week, they say, “This soldier filed these complaints” and ask for a defense. But of course, if someone is “too effeminate” or transsexual or really don’t want to go to serve, then they shouldn’t go. There you live together with 60 men...
By talking about this, do you want to say to gay people: “You can go to military service?”
- Some of us don’t have the possibility to get a certificate of disability for discharge. For instance, if they want to work as a government official after serving in the military. Or if they don’t want to say that they are gay. If they don’t have the strength to deal with it. They are facing an enormous dilemma. They have to serve in the military, but they are frightened. I want to speak to them: Don’t be afraid, go. It isn’t that bad. And I did mine under very difficult circumstances.
What if they blame you and say “You are damaging our struggle!”
- Being gay is not a superior characteristic. It is a natural and normal feature. We can’t ask for privilege or we can’t brag about our innate features.
What kind of a place did you expect to see and what did you find?
- I thought I was going to a camp for six months. I didn’t have any expectations. I was ready for the worst. Moreover, I was sent to a place where they usually send people with criminal records: Sakarya.
What did you experienced?
Military service gives you the opportunity to get to know Turkey completely. You really feel that you live in a third-world country. The system comes from 50 years behind. You don’t have to be logical. They don’t want you to think anyway. But of course, I am myself. For example, in sunny weather, I was putting on factor-50 sun cream. I didn’t wanted to harm my skin.
Didn’t they say “What is this maniac doing” or didn’t they make fun of you?
- (He laughs) I am 27 years old. I was older than many people there. And because I am a teacher, they all addressed me as teacher. When I saw something wrong, I was able to say it easily. What is wrong with carrying sun cream? It about awareness. Also, I didn’t want just my hands to get tanned. I tried to protect my ears from the sun as well. There were building operations, too. During my leave of absence, I bought construction gloves. I put them on while I was working, so that my hands wouldn’t get damaged. I was able to live under my terms there. Nobody asked “Why do you use gloves or why do use sun cream?” Only one of them said “Is that foundation!” and I said “No, it’s sun cream.” They threw their garbage around. I taught my division that garbage shouldn’t be thrown around. Can you believe it?
- Because I am a teacher, when I enter a classroom, the first thing I do is to look around. If it’s dirty, if there is garbage on the ground, I say “Everybody lives in an environment that they deserve. But I don’t deserve to live or work in this environment” and I pick up the first trash. After that, kids slowly start to pick up the trash. I never threw my garbage on the ground when I was at the military service. Let’s say we are walking and I have an empty plastic bottle and I am looking for a trash bin. My friend says: “You still couldn’t become a soldier! There is garbage everywhere. Throw it on the ground. Tomorrow they will clean the area, they will pick it up!” This is their logic. I wanted to change that. However, when I look at the commanders, they drink tea, for instance, and they also throw away the cup. They smoke and throw away the butt. Because of this, I said, “First I will start with my own environment.” One of my friends threw the cigarette to the ground after he smoked. I warned him in front of everyone and he said “Where am I supposed to throw it, there is no place to throw it!” I replied: “If there isn’t, then take the butt and put it in your pocket.” He said “How is that going to work?” And I said, “Okay, then I’ll do it” I picked up the cigarette that he threw away and put it in my pocket. “There is no way I am making you carry my cigarette butt!” he said and picked it up. This kind of perception was formed. There were also people that I taught how to read and write. Those six months were not a nightmare at all. I am so happy, if I could help a few people.
How to make lego out of egos
Were you the only one, or were there other gay people like you?
- How could there not be? Moreover, I have a story. My boyfriend came to visit me. We were talking on top of the wall in front of the guardhouse at the entrance of my barracks. We were eating some food that he brought. Right next to us, there were two men, they were also talking just like us. One of them was a soldier and I knew him. We were asking if they were gay, too, because it is not written on people’s forehead. Not everyone has to be feminine either. Anyway we returned to the guardhouse and our boyfriends talked on their way back. My boyfriend phoned and said “Yes, you have another friend who is a gay soldier!”
What lesson did you learn from this experience? What did you learn the most during your military service?
- I learned how to make “lego” out of “egos!” If I had boasted about my degrees, complaining that a high school student commander was making me clean the toilets, I would be in big trouble in the military. I was there only as a soldier. I thought “I should do what every other soldier is doing!” And I completed my military service without a problem.