Him: "The Oil Wrestling Festival is starting."
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.