Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's Not Gay!

As June approaches, Turkey is gearing up for the Big Oiled Turk Wrestling Festival. You might notice my ambiguous placement of the word 'big' in the previous sentence, but I stand by it-- both the festival and the Turks who participate in it are big. I've always wanted to attend this festival. Who wouldn't want to watch a bunch of strapping men who've doused themselves in olive oil grappling with one another?

Every year, my husband and I have a conversation that goes something like this:

Him: "The Oil Wrestling Festival is starting."
Me: *snicker*
Him: "It's not gay! Foreigners think everything is gay!"
Me: "*snicker snicker*"
Him (increasingly consternated): "It's not gay! It's an ancient manly tradition blah blah blah..."
Me: *tuning out*

Every year it never fails that the newspaper indignantly reports that some gay-friendly travel agency in Britain is running special package tours to Selcuk for the oil wrestling festivities, and every year there are people scratching their heads wondering why gay foreigners should want to descend on their country to watch the ancient manly wrestling tradition. I've tried to explain this to BE with a clever analogy:

Me: "If Thailand had an ancient traditional festival of oiled women's wrestling, wouldn't you want to go?
Him (warily): "Yeah..."
Me: "So you, as a straight man, would like to watch Thai women douse themselves in oil and wrestle together."
Him (eyes starting to glaze): "Oh yeah..."
Me: "Okay, so if you're gay it means you like men, right? So if someone likes men, wouldn't he like to watch them douse themselves in oil and wrestle together? You see where I'm going with this?"
Him: "Baah! It's not the same thing! In Turkey it's an ancient manly tradition blah blah blah..."
Me: *tuning out*

It's not that I'm being immature or intolerant about homosexuality that I snicker. It's because I know how het up BE is going to get about any implications that there could be anything gay about the Big Oiled Turk Wrestling Festival. He's really easy to tease sometimes. And I find it absolutely hilarious that anyone could fail to see anything gay about this:

Just to be clear, those are leather pants they're wearing. Really, really tight leather pants.

With regards to tolerance of gay people, Turkey is somewhere around 17th century Salem. Okay, so maybe it's not that bad, but it's pretty bad. Of course there are plenty of gay people here, and there are even a few gay bars, but homosexuality is so far underground that 'underground' doesn't even begin to describe it. Think 1950, complete with the bathhouses. Except here, there are thousands of bathhouses with just a few that are understood to be gay, and even some of those are only understood to be gay at certain times. I've known a few straight foreigners who have run into some rather uncomfortable situations in bathhouses because of this tacit Turkish understanding.

Being gay is something that, if you were to come out, you would stand to lose not only your family and your friends, but there's also a good chance you'd be run out of your neighborhood if your neighbors found out, and you could also lose your job. A gay foreign friend of mine actually had it written into his teaching contract that he would be fired if he were found out to be participating in any gay activities. I don't expect this is too uncommon, especially for teachers. Gay is like the Big Bad Wolf. Gay men are considered to be deviant, predatory, and even pedophilic. So it's no wonder they keep their heads down.

Sometimes I think the idea of 'gay' here means something much more than 'someone who is attracted to people of the same sex.' I've actually heard gay Turkish men say things like, 'I'm not gay, I just like to have sex with men sometimes, ' or 'I'm married with kids, so how can liking men make me gay?' A mutual friend of BE's and mine is gay. He's what is considered 'out' here-- everyone knows he's gay except his students, his Turkish co-workers, his bosses, and his family. BE has known him for longer than I have, so naturally I assumed BE knew this guy was gay. I once mentioned it in passing and BE went absolutely ballistic. First he got mad at me for insulting the friend. Then he got mad at the friend for betraying him somehow. Then he got worried the friend would try to make him gay. After a week or so, he calmed down, realizing that he liked this friend very much, and had known him for ages, and the fact that he was gay didn't change much. But BE's way of accepting this all strikes me as odd. He seems to think something like 'My friend is very nice and a good friend, so he can't be gay. He has sex with men which I'd rather not think about, but he isn't gay. Not really gay.'

The feeling of betrayal is something I can understand a little bit. Turkish people are much more physically affectionate than Americans, and Turkish men are extremely affectionate with each other. You will often see men hugging and kissing each other, beyond greetings, I mean. They often kiss in the middle of conversations just to show they liked what the other said. They walk on the street with their arms linked or with their arms over each others' shoulders. And even very old men can often be seen joyfully wrestling and playing together without that testosterone edge that can make the game turn bad at any moment. When I first came here, I kept thinking, 'Wow, what a surprise to see so many openly gay men in a Muslim country!' It turns out I was quite wrong. Men just prefer each others' company. Men and women are rarely friends. Women are for coming home to, but men are for hanging out with. And men need not be ashamed about showing their friends how much they love them. It's refreshing, actually. But at the same time, I can see how a man in this culture might become very, very disturbed if the friend he kisses all the time turned out to be gay. One of BE's fears about our friend was that our friend would think BE was gay because they'd hugged and kissed so many times.

I should point out too that this rabid homophobia seems only to apply to men. Lesbians are off the hook, if not somewhat exotic and interesting. And if you really want to get into it, it seems 'gay' only applies to men who are bottoms. There doesn't seem to be much skulking around being done by the men going to pick up the rent boys who line Taksim Square in the evening, nor for the truck drivers picking up the transvestite prostitutes along the road. I mean, I'm pretty sure the drivers know the prostitutes aren't women-- the full facial stubble is a bit much even for a hirsute race whose females are rather obsessive about plucking and waxing. Even the swearing reflects this negativity about who's on top. In English, we say, 'Fuck you,' which to me seems stripped of any agency. In Turkish it's more like 'I'll fuck you,' or 'I'll fuck your cunt,' (said to both men and women, though I've only heard men saying it to other men) or (one of my favorites) 'I'll fuck your brain.'

And then of course there's Tarkan, the ubiquitous Turkish international pop star.

Don't worry, I'd never heard of him either before I came to Turkey, but I guess he's also big in Eastern Europe. I have it on plausible authority that Tarkan is gay, though I'd worked this out before I heard this bit of gossip from a friend in the States. My friend was like, 'Have you heard of Tarkan?' and I was all, 'Have I heard of Tarkan? How could I not have heard of Tarkan? He's everywhere!' and he was like, 'Because my friend in San Francisco works in the same company with Tarkan's boyfriend. I guess he's supposed to be really famous in Turkey,' and I was all, 'Hee!' But most people in Turkey refuse to hear that Tarkan is gay. To say so earns you the same defensive, knee-jerk denial as mentioning certain other things that Never Happened. Tarkan apparently lives in the US most of the year, probably because the paparazzi don't care about him there and perhaps also so he can be gay in peace. Every summer he stages a glorious return to Turkey with some or another supermodel on his arm, leaking rumors of engagement, and every now and again there are deniable but somewhat compromising photos of him with a man on a boat or a nude beach. But, just as many Turks will vehemently deny that Freddy Mercury was gay, so will they also deny it for Tarkan. Sometimes people might venture that Tarkan is bi, but then they take it back.

I don't expect that homophobia in Turkey is going to change anytime soon. I try to do my best to set people straight (heh) when I can, by calmly informing them that pedophiles are the ones who like children, or that gay parents don't cause their children to become gay, or that 'gay' isn't somehow catching, but I feel my efforts are generally in vain. I've worked really hard on BE too, and even though he doesn't really have an issue with gay people personally, the whole idea still freaks him out. So, just to tease him a little extra when I tell him I've posted about the Big Oiled Turk Wrestling Festival, I'll include some more photos:
It's not gay.No way.
Definitely not.


siobhan said...

:) I've had similar conversations about the wrestling. I also found myself getting strangely defensive when my brother asked me about the 'male wrestlers' (snigger, snigger) and he wouldn't have it that it was a national sport enjoyed by one and all

Stranger said...

I think it's funny that here, the fact that wrestling might be homoerotic isn't just an old joke by now, and that it's shocking year after year that anyone might find it so. And I've yet to meet a Turkish man who isn't *so* easily teased when the word 'gay' comes up in relation to wrestling. I know this festival is near and dear to their hearts, but to just pretend it isn't homoerotic... Well, that must take some effort.

Anonymous said...

I was just telling my husband about your post and he admitted that it is all a bit gay. In a few days they're doing it at a village near here so maybe we'll go and giggle and wince as they give each other wedgies. What a funny sport!

Vicky in Bursa

Gilbert said...

An indication of the loathing with which homosexuals are viewed by Turks is to be found in one of the worst insults that can be hurled - 'ibne' (= faggot/ catomite/ pillow biter...). The only time I heard this was at a football match. The referee had made a decision, the soundness of which one particularly vociferous supporter disputed. 'Ibne hakem' - 'faggot referee'.

Stranger said...

Vicky, every year my husband admits how it might be possible for this sport to look gay. But then by the next year he's forgotten somehow. Enjoy the festivities!

Gilbert, you're right about 'ibne.' Of course we have nasty words in English too, but it seems ibne is hurled in only the greatest of rages.

And then there's 'İbne Kovboylar' (lit. 'Faggot Cowboys' for 'Brokeback Mountain'), a re-titling that relegates that film more or less to the porno section.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm, I wonder how the popularity of Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy (pre and post-op) figure in in all this. I don't remember anyone trying to deny anything about them either.

Stranger said...

Bülent, you're right. Those two are damned interesting, as is the public reception to them. I have two theories. One theory is that their talent outweighs anything else about them. I don't much care for Bülent Ersoy, especially now (she's quite frightening! And it troubles me that this is how she interprets femininity) though very old Bülent music isn't too bad. And I can't help but admire her for the risk she took, both to her career and to herself. Zeki Müren is nothing short of astounding. I'm still not much of a fan of that kind of music, but his voice sends chills down my spine. The good kind of chills. So it could be, given the deep Turkish love of good sanat music, that if the singer is somehow extraordinary, the music itself is more important than the singer. For Tarkan, he (as in his looks, dancing, and personality) is packaged with the music, and he doesn't really transcend his voice. But he's a pop star-- maybe it would be different if he sang different music.

My other theory is that neither Bülent nor Zeki were ever fooling anyone. I mean, they never were really 'manly men,' not like, say, Cüneyt Arkın (can you imagine the reaction if he were to come out? It would be bigger than when Rock Hudson died of AIDS). But I think it's one thing about homosexuality that really bothers people, that someone might be secretly gay, living and working amongst us all. Also, because they were never 'manly men,' they didn't particulary offend any macho ideals. By appearing like or being female, they became non-threatening, and perhaps in a way, no longer homosexuals but harmless women.

Is that reading too much into it?

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

No I don't think you're reading too much into it, but I think there's a parallel to consider. You are right those guys were honest about it (though Zeki Muren did appear in some movies about love as a leading man, but he was there for his singing not manliness really). Just like the distinction between 'fun' women and 'home' women, there seems to be this compartmentalization between folks we'll enjoy as performers and folks we'd like to have in/around our families. As far as their sexual promiscuity goes, not many of the straight female or male singers (actors etc.) would be approved of but people don't mind that they are on TV all the time and wouldn't miss opportunities to go see them. I think (and Turkey is not alone in this) we assume that there's a different world out there with different rules, and as long as we control when and how it comes into contact with our own we're fine with it and even enjoy what it produces.

Stranger said...

Yeah, I think your parallel point is closer to the truth, and, as you say, not just in Turkey. Even before Hollywood invented the Star System, performers, artists, and other famous or powerful people have been somewhat relieved of the expectation to participate in 'normal' society or play by its rules. Perhaps they are forgiven for having 'artistic' temperments, or perhaps humans have always enjoyed having common points of gossip once we're bored of discussing our own social circles. My second theory fails if I consider a persona like Bülent Ersoy or Zeki Müren as a non-famous person. It wouldn't matter how non-threatening they were-- not many Turks would be keen to have them be seen by the neighors coming over to their houses for tea. For that matter, I wouldn't want to have Bülent Ersoy over in any case. I think she'd give LE nightmares.

I thought a bit more about this, though, and I think Turks are somewhat set apart from Americans in how much they'll accept the unacceptable if a person is very talented, and also in how passionately they adore a good singer. Homosexuality is very unacceptable, and I'm not sure a less-talented performer would be able to get around this.

Also completely unacceptable to many people is having PKK/Kurdish sympathies, yet Ahmet Kaya will always be beloved as a singer. Drug abuse and promiscuity are unacceptable, yet Sezen Aksu is still adored even though her voice is no good anymore. Yıldız Tilbe made the leap from 'wrecked life wild girl pop star,' admired by young people, to 'beloved folk singer,' admired by all, when she put out that album of folk songs a few years back.

The funniest of all is İbrahim Tatlises. I know so many guys who absolutely despise the man and all he represents, and will rant on and on about how awful he is, yet they own and love his music, and are brought to tears by it, and even have scars on their arms from when they cut themselves in a teenage passion while listening to İbo, which in itself is a bizarre right of passage for a surprising number of Turkish men...

Anonymous said...

this is so pathetic its not gay and not all turkish people do the wrestling.... its like saying spain messing around with bulls is gay but its not because its the way they have fun and if you can't except that then thats your problem.....AND TARKAN IS NOT GAY AND NEVER WAS.....just because someone told you he's gay doesn't mean he is everyone wants to with him how do you know maybe there is some gay man that wants to be with cant just accuse people of being gay.......this article is pathetic and anyone who believes tarkan is gay is pathetic to.......

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Here's another analysis about Bulent Ersoy that might complement what we were thinking:

Stranger said...

I had a quick skim and I'm getting out my dictionary. It looks interesting,thanks!

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Just out of curiosity, what kinds of things do you need the dictionary for? Actually I am curious about more than that, I have no idea what kind of an experience learning Turkish is for a native speaker of English and what problems remain once the basic skills are in place. I imagine it wouldn't be easy for an adult. Do you take requests for blog posts?

Stranger said...

My reading in Turkish is actually pretty limited. I can skim for information as I need it, but reading to understand something properly takes some work. Just glancing at the article, there are words I know (or think I know) but which may have different meanings I don’t know (this happens a lot in Turkish). My Turkish grammar beyond simple sentences is pretty poor too, so if I want to really understand something I have to sit down and work it out for awhile. So I can get the gist of the article, but not its meaning.

It’s never been necessary for me to read a lot of Turkish, so I just never got very good at it...

Do I take requests for blog posts? It depends on the request, I suppose :)

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Oh I was just going to ask for a post about learning Turkish as an American living here. Anyway, I understand where you are with Turkish better now. I don't know if you'd feel less of a stranger if you could read Turkish better -- a better understanding might also make you realize the depth of the difference in areas outside your daily first-hand experience.

I ask this because it occasionally comes up in political blogs of Americans here. It appears, for example, that the English edition of Zaman seems to count on its readers not looking at its Turkish edition (eg the columnists for the English one poke fun at what are in fact some of the positions of the columnists in the main paper, if not the paper itself). Hurriyet might be similar, dunno, there seems to be a lot less skin in its English edition for starters.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm. It appears some psychiatrist agrees with us: Transsexuals and Spaces of Appearance.

Stranger said...

Nice one, thanks!

Liam Murray said...

Alot of interesting comments, which I cannot add to without repeating what's gone before. I really liked your article! Liam

Anonymous said...

Really ejoyed reading this article and getting a little insight to what 'gay' may mean in another country. i'm very impressed with your candor and enlightened perspective.