INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay on male prostitution, class, and LGBT rights in Turkey

INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay on male prostitution, class, and LGBT rights in Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay on male prostitution, class, and LGBT rights in Turkey

Supporters wave rainbow flags in front of Istanbul's Çağlayan Courthouse in June, after 11 activists went on trial for taking part in last year's banned Pride March. AFP photo

As for rights activists generally in Turkey, these are troubled times for LGBT campaigners in the country. Amid official disapproval and annual tension around the Pride March at the end of June, banned for the past three years despite being permitted for over 10 years from 2003.

Cenk Özbay, an associate professor at Sabancı University in Istanbul, touches on this troubled state of affairs in his book “Queering Sexualities in Turkey: Gay Men, Male Prostitutes and the City” (reviewed in HDN here). The central focus of the book, however, is the little-known world of male prostitution in Turkey in the 2000s, through which Özbay explores assumptions about class, local and global culture, and masculine behavior.

Özbay spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his research, the current state of LGBT rights in Turkey, and the general trajectory of the issue over the past decade. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

The research went on for many years. What were you setting out to achieve when you started?

The initial idea became much stronger as I worked on the subject: That gay identity in Turkey is first and foremost about class. The idea is that being a gay person, especially in the 2000s, is closely related to class background and class position. Being open to global trends, discourses, practices and self-presentation gives one who is into same-sex sexuality a greater inclination toward defining themselves as gay, compared to working class migrant and poor populations. 

I came to a larger conclusion: The rent boys I consider in the research, who mostly came from the "varoş" [slum or squatter] neighborhoods, invested in their authentic masculinities. They enact and perform a sort of "authentic," "uncontaminated" and "natural" masculinity. This "real" manhood they claim to have becomes a marketable strategy for them in their performances as rent boys. There’s a transformation of regular "varoş" boys into rent boys who sell sex. In order to do that, they design and stage an exaggerated form of masculinity. This involves some calculated performances, with rent boys producing and performing a particular sense of masculinity in their encounters with gay men.

Many people are curious about the question of whether rent boys are "really gay" who just cannot say they are gay, or whether they are just pretending. But after more than a decade of observation I can say that some rent boys actually internalize their identity, with an exaggerated kind of masculinity becoming part of their own lives.

The book is quite vivid. You present many transcripts of interviews with people involved in buying and selling sex. It is obviously a sensitive subject, so how difficult was it to get people to open up?

Turkey has a "sex-negative" culture. It's not good to talk about sexuality, especially in the most recent period we're experiencing in this country. I started this research before the AKP became so powerful in shaping the boundaries of what is possible to talk about in public, but even before homosexuality was always a social taboo that you're not supposed to think or talk about. Under this taboo of forbidden sexuality, male prostitution is an even more clandestine topic. People have an imagination and a language to talk about and even curse homosexuality, but they don't really know how to talk or even think about male prostitution. But in fact there is a big illicit organization in Istanbul; it’s not just 10 or 20 people involved, but hundreds of people. 

The biggest difficulty was convincing those people to speak to me about the issues that they try not to talk about. But I developed certain strategies; I think I have an advantage in that I'm a graduate of a vocational high school in one of the slum areas in Gebze on the outskirts of Istanbul. So therefore I somehow knew how to talk with these guys without disturbing or irritating them. Of course it doesn't always work, as many people didn't want to talk. But in the end I was able to gather information and listen to them. In total I included 32 interviews with rent boys and gay customers, but with the addition of informal interlocutors it was many more.

Talk about the class-based nature of gay identity, and how the "varoş" culture is more closely associated with more masculine codes in contrast with the more middle or upper class lifestyle of people who more comfortably describe themselves as queer.

I give a lot of references in the book to other scholarly research on male sex work. If we look globally, we find that the fetishization of young working class masculinities among gay men is almost universal, it's virtually everywhere. So Istanbul is not independent in that sense. One point here is obviously class, with refined, cultured, global, English-speaking middle-class gay men on the one hand and migrant, working-class young men on the outskirts on the other hand. Another duality is about age. The young working-class men, rent boys, tend to be aged 16 to 25, while their customers are always much older. 

This research was carried out a long time ago, mainly in the analogue world of gay bars and physical space. Since then a lot of things have changed with the advent of smartphones and apps. How has this reshaped the LGBT experience in Turkey’s biggest cities?

Queer nightlife in Istanbul has shrunk recently, especially since 2010. In Istanbul we used to have larger gay bars and clubs, some open air ones. There were different places for different clientele and classes. But now options are more limited; there are only one or two large clubs that people go to regularly. I don't exactly know the reasons for this. I don't know whether it's an internal dynamic - perhaps there aren't enough gays and queer people for these bars - or whether there is political or police pressure that makes it more difficult to open such establishments these days. But the reality is that queer nightlife has changed in a negative way; the options are fewer and there are fewer spaces. 

Beyond that, it is important to note that sex has in a sense been deterritorialized. Queers or people into same-sex relations used to have to find a physical space to engage in sexuality. They needed bars or certain hamams that were used for meetings or for sex. I visited some of them in the 2000s. But now they have been closed down; the police don't allow gay hamam right now. 

What has filled the space? It started with the internet, where people looked for possible meet-ups; but now of course there are mobile phone applications, with everyone looking at their phones. So when we look at queer nightlife, we also need to consider how queer sexuality and sociability have become deterritorialized, becoming more virtual and independent of space.

There have been similar stories in London. A lot of popular gay bars have reportedly closed down in recent years. People have started asking whether they are actually a thing of the past, wondering whether technology has completely changed the landscape. You don't need to go to a gay bar anymore to meet people. But in Istanbul there's obviously a difference because there has been a rise in political pressure too.

In London and other major cities things are changing in terms of queer sociability. In Turkey this is happening too, but we can't be sure whether it's due to a political imposition or whether it's due to the internal dynamics of technology. For a long time people I spoke to always mentioned how they were shocked that the AKP didn't directly intervene in gay lifestyles, gay bars and cafes. Most importantly, the government allowed people to stage the LGBT Pride March in Istanbul every year. But after 2013 something changed.

Every year around the time of the Pride March at the end of June there is a spike in tension and a rise in condemnation from conservatives. This marks a shift because for 13 years the march was always held, particularly in 2012 and 2013 it was a huge event. But now the police crack down on it every year.

It's obviously not good. I am a supporter of the march and always go whenever it is allowed. But I know many people who don't want to go to it and who don't show up. I think people should now look for other ways to express the political energy or social reaction against heteronormativity and against homophobia. The march was always the most legitimate and visible response, but if the government every year is so rigid about not letting people walk at the march then perhaps queer people in Turkey should look for other ways. Maybe they should think about alternative activities and meetings. 

We have been locked for the last three years: People go to the march around Taksim, wait for the police reaction, and then the police prevent any walking. Obviously the problem cannot be solved this way. We need to imagine some other ways and develop strategies to find other outlets to express our political anger or our visibility.

What kind of examples?

Last week, for instance, some graduate students of mine from Boğaziçi and Sabancı University organized a sports event called "Queer Olympics." They cooperated with Kadıköy Municipality and the Princes' Islands Municipality, hired some public spaces and parks, and held three days of events including beach volleyball, swimming, cycling, and walking. I think this was a really creative alternative solution. Of course it's not like the Pride March, but I think it was a relevant alternative strategy to find an outlet to call other queers and non-queers to gather and be together in public space. 

Recent years have seen big shifts in the public perception of LGBT issues. There has been a lot more pressure and condemnations from officials. I think in the past the Pride March was allowed to go ahead perhaps because there wasn’t really a high profile for LGBT rights campaigning in the country. So it didn’t seem like a threatening thing for the conservative majority, it was more like a curiosity that happened and then everyone forgot about. But now the issue is much more visible and I think that has prompted the backlash we’ve seen.

At the start of the book I talk about how I participated in the Lambda LGBT rights group meeting back in 1998. This was of course pre-Internet and the meeting was basically hidden. But in 20 years the movement became much more institutionalized, more publically known, more active on many levels. 

But recently my colleague, Ayfer Bartu Candan from Boğaziçi University completed new research on gender and sexual activist students in different cities around Turkey - Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Antalya, Eskişehir. We listened to many stories and saw that all rights activism - not only LGBT rights or queer activism - has come under great pressure over the last couple of years. 

I don't want to try to reach a macro conclusion about the political structure in Turkey, but we have witnessed that it is somehow really difficult to be a rights activist at the moment. I'm sure you're familiar with the human rights activists currently in prison. It's not just about queer activism, all other non-governmental activism is under threat at the moment. But in particular we found in our research that in many universities, the university administrations forbid feminist or queer activists to publicize, become visible, or engage in activities in the campus space. 

You work as an associate professor at Sabancı University, a private university in Istanbul. A lot of your research deals with quite sensitive subjects, particularly amid the current official tendency in Turkey towards religious conservatism. Have you felt any particular restrictions on your work?

No I haven't. I'm one of the lucky ones, thanks to the more open environments that I've been in: Since last year I've been at Sabancı University and before that I was working at Boğaziçi University. I've always worked on sexualities and masculinities and I've never encountered any restriction or negative comment. The joint research I just completed was supported by both Boğaziçi and Sabancı, as well as the Open Society Foundation. We have to keep researching about these subjects, which we believe are important for a democratic, equal, open and diverse society. 

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