Any Which Way They Can

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

by Alison Kemp

It?s midnight and Ayten?s red glossy lips and long black hair make him shimmer in the darkness. He?s not had the operation, so he?s still got his penis and sees no need to get rid of it. He?s just
left a regular customer, a married man with children who is so enamored of his sexual forays with Ayten that he wants to give it all up, wear a dress and join his lover on the street.
Men dressed as women for the
sexual pleasure of other men is not new in Turkey. The Kocheks of the Ottoman era set a precedent when they donned skirts and danced for all-male audiences, who, according to contemporary literature, were aroused by their sexual allure. However, not until now have men in dresses been so visible in Turkey. According to Demet Demir, a human rights activist and transsexual prostitute, Turkey?s economic crisis of 2000 left nearly a third of the nation on the
poverty line. ?And it was right after that the number of transgender prostitutes shot up. Now there are around 3000 in Turkey, but about 70% of these aren?t transgender. In fact, they aren?t even transvestite. They?re just gay men.? So existing terms won?t suffice; only the term trans can possibly come near to defining this ambiguous group.

Ayten?s lover is just one of many
prostitutes I interviewed in Turkey who identified homosexuality with a state of transness. Twenty-one-year-old G?nberi has been on the street for about three years. Bullied at high school for being gay, he left school, bought himself some women?s clothes, and turned to prostitution. His boyfriend, who works as a university administrator during the day, moonlights with G?nberi.
Sahika Yuksel, a leading psychiatrist
in Istanbul who works with pre-operative transsexuals, backs up Demet?s claim by adding that there is an increased number of trans prostitutes who choose to keep their penises. She explains that Turkey has a large amount of transvestic homosexuals. ?It?s an artificial category?
they don?t dress as women for the same reasons as transvestites do in Europe, so they?re not really transvestites, but it?s the best description we have here for a very Turkish condition.?
Demet talks of a hidden identity amongst these prostitutes: being gay is
so shameful in Turkey that they find it more acceptable to take on a female appearance. By misappropriating their sexuality, these men further marginalize themselves from society. Some even save enough money to have illegal sex changes, assuming they are transgendered, only to regret them later. Sami Gunesh, a police manager of the Central Istanbul Police Headquarters, recently surprised the media by submitting a
survey of transsexual prostitutes for his Master?s program. Of the sample of 70 he questioned, just half attended school through age 11; the highest proportion came from Turkey?s Eastern cities, steeped in patriarchal tradition.

The macho culture ensures that men are forced to cloak their homosexuality and experience self-denial and alienation as a result. Ayip, the concept of shame, keeps socially unacceptable behavior or talk under wraps. It?s a strong force in Turkey, often compounding ignorance and repressing sexual and gender iden-tity. Gay men then run to the comparatively permissive streets of Istanbul, where their lack of education restricts any opportunity in a city of 15 million.
Even if a man is clinically transgendered, most prefer not to ?waste? the required minimum two-year assessment period and have the operation done as soon as possible. This means having it done illegally, which can create embarrassing problems with bureaucracy.

Turks have to carry an identity card
with them at all times: simply opening a bank account requires the display of an ID. Unless the operation has been done legally?that is, after extensive assessment by Sahika and other requirements, a post-operative transsexual?s ID card will still indicate male, leaving her open to the scrutiny of indiscreet bank clerks or the myriad of organizations that keep the red tape across the line in Turkey and keep transsexuals without money, on the outskirts of society.
For those who aren?t post-operative, there?s no chance of finding work in brothels, which are now all full. G?nberi used to work in one before taking to the street, ?But it was illegal and we were always expecting a police raid. In the
end, it got closed down. They won?t
give licenses for new brothels.? And if they did, G?nberi, who has no intention of having sex reassignment surgery, wouldn?t be able to work in one anyway. Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul are the only places which can legally establish brothels, accounting for the increased presence of prostitutes in these cities. In the clubs, it?s difficult to tell who?s paying who?young rent boys hang around the trans prostitutes, each fishing for a good price off the other. ?There?s too much competition in the clubs now,? says Demet, who, being modest and soft-spoken, probably finds the scene too brash. ?Besides, before you earn, you?ve got to spend money on drinks.? So, like most of Istanbul?s trans prostitutes, she walks the streets, where one can carry flick knives and sprays to protect oneself.

In 2000, the media televised a controversial video that rocked the police force in Turkey. It showed the then head of Central Istanbul Police Force, Suleyman Ulusoy, beating trans prostitutes in custody with a hose pipe. It turned out he had been maltreating them for 13 years. He was sacked and given a 21-year prison sentence. Although this sentence was
suspended, it seems to have blown a
new attitude through sections of the police force. No one could have imagined that a high-ranking police officer like Sami Gunesh would be doing a survey
on trans prostitutes.

But why this particular group of people? ?Because in our police division, we deal with this kind of crime [soliciting] to such an extent that I felt it was a duty to understand more about where these people come from and how they live.? Demet talks of transsexuals getting killed in car chases with the police in certain parts of town. ?The police have backed off in the last two years, which has really minimized the danger for us now.?

It?s inevitable that when asked about police violence towards prostitutes,
Sami should vociferously deny abuse. ?Remember, when we?ve arrested them, they?re usually all fired up on a mix of antidepressants and alcohol.?

In custody, many prostitutes start slashing their forearms with razors. G?nberi shows me the red tracks that scar his forearm. ?The police want to hurt us, so we hurt ourselves.? To the cynical eye, there might be something masochistic about this. Slashing rarely abates police anger when hysterical transsexuals are dragged in screaming and shouting, and the prostitutes themselves must know it. It allows them to wear their suffering. It can be related to an extreme version of the shirt-tugging and chest-beating that is part of a way of grieving amongst the more traditional sections of Turkish society. Esmeray, however, links it only to fear. ?Sometimes it helps,? explains Esmeray, ?but most of the time it doesn?t, so we start smashing windows and things like that! I know, it?s difficult to understand,? he laughs. ?But you know, we?re scared. We get attacked by both gangs and police, so of course we have to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, violence breeds violence.?

Another way they protect themselves and each other is by speaking a secret language with a vocabulary of about 200 words, based on Romany. By coding their communication in front of clients, prostitutes can avoid trouble.

In the past few years, not only the number and sexuality of the prostitutes has changed, but more recently, they have started to steal from their clients. ?If they don?t steal,? explains Demet, ?other prostitutes will just ask them why they didn?t. In the past, transgender prostitutes were much more honorable.?

After they?ve robbed their clients, she explains, they change wigs as soon as they?re back on the street, so they can?t
be recognized so easily. Demet, who was the only transgendered candidate for a political party in Turkey, blames social degeneration and capitalism. ?Everyone?s on the make. We have to pay twice as much rent as everyone else, as well as protection money to police and gangs.?
Demet and Esmeray, who now devotes herself to a feminist organization, are rare examples of politicized trans people who are trying to motivate others to stand up for their rights. Most, though, are indifferent to such efforts, possibly colored by the fatalism that underpins many aspects of the Turkish attitude to
a life so controlled by the hand of authority and the inequalities that it brings. ?So, what can I do?? is the often-heard phrase amongst prostitutes to whom options of education and profession are closed.
Those who earn well see no need for political activism. Ayten earns more money as a prostitute than he would using his degree as a Graphic Designer from Izmir University. He?s his own boss and has just bought a flat uptown, unlike his university friends, who are struggling to earn a living or trying to find work.
As for their clients, why do they prefer the trans sex workers to non-trans women? Esmeray explains. ?It?s a very macho culture, like Brazil for example, and with us, men can express the more feminine side of their sexuality.?

Ayten?s customer, the married
family man, and G?nberi?s boyfriend are examples of the other side of the hidden identity Demet mentions. They associate homosexuality with being women. It?s also a matter of simple opportunism: men will get it where they can find it,
and without the right job or background, their chances of finding a girl are limited in a society that places so much emphasis on class. A woman is just as likely to
get picked up by a man in the clubs frequented by the transgendered customers, rent boys and their customers.

There?s a charming saying which might sound similar to some idioms in the Middle East: any hole will do. Vulgar, maybe, but if you?re earning a scrappy wage by serving soup in a canteen during the day and all the women you have contact with are in your family, you get it where you can find it. It?s likely that those that earn less also come from more traditional backgrounds, where a woman should be a virgin when she marries, but the boy she?s dating is never vetted as scrupulously.
Due to a lack of religious zealotry, the public in Istanbul is generally indifferent to the rise in transsexual prostitution. In less traditional parts of Istanbul, the transgendered would usually deal with looks of fascination or derision, but outside these areas and away from the streets frequented by the prostitutes, they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment. Demet remarks, ?These people who curse us during the day give money to lie with us at night.?

Prostitution has saved many trans people from poverty, but it seems at first like a Faustian bargain: they?re earning the money, but their ignorance leads them to follow masochistic behavior?the self-mutilation with razors, the sex changes, and simply alienating themselves from the mainstream by identifying their homosexuality with transvestitism or being transgendered. Society is complicit in maintaining the pretense of normative values. As long as this is the case, public health concerns such as AIDS will be mainly governed by the philosophy that translates as ?It?s not worth depriving oneself of something one likes for fear of bad consequences.? On the other hand, millions of Turks work for a paltry wage that doesn?t pay the rent, for bosses who completely neglect any employee rights.
In many ways, the lifestyle of these trans prostitutes has certain advantages: they can be true to their sexuality, if not their gender, and they have the support of a like-minded community and a certain amount of autonomy in their work.

A more inclusive society would be the ideal, but that would mean suspending long-held beliefs about what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. Although ideas are gradually shifting, it?s not likely to make a tangible difference to anyone for a long time to come.