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On the Margins

Mr. Gay Syria Film highlights plight of Syrian LGBTI refugees in Turkey, where growing conservatism means that their rights are increasingly under threat. by Emel Altay 2 October 2018

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

 

“[LGBTI individuals] are the biggest outsiders among the refugees in Turkey,” Turkish journalist and documentary filmmaker Ayse Toprak explained. “These are the people whose relatives and friends died in the conflict, who fought for their lives, escaped Syria, and sought shelter in Turkey. But here their struggle only continues.”

 

Toprak’s feature-length documentary on Syrian LGBTI refugees, released last year, followed a group of gay Syrians as they tried to make a new life for themselves in Turkey.

 

Mr Gay Syria was screened at more than 60 international film festivals around the world and won the best documentary award in Chicago, Turin, Milan, Sarajevo, and Pristina, among others. It is now being shown in Turkey, too, where Toprak hopes that it may help change attitudes.

 

A scene from Mr. Gay Syria. Photo taken by Bradley Secker.

 

The film follows the efforts of one man, Mahmoud, to organize a Mr. Gay Syria contest among fellow LGBTI Syrian refugees, in the hope that the winner would be able to take part in the international finals in Malta.


Mahmoud himself now lives in Germany, where he has continued his activism.


“I have been working actively on the problems of LGBTI people since 2006. The situation for these people in Syria was bad then, and it is bad now,” he said.


Mahmoud noted that gay activism had been concentrated in Damascus and Aleppo, two cities since systematically attacked by the regime. Militant groups had also repeatedly targeted gay Syrians since the revolution began in 2011.


He also expressed the hope that the Mr. Gay Syria competition would have a wider impact on attitudes.


“I believe that this documentary plays a part in getting LGBTI individuals together and helping them talk about their problems openly. At the same time, it can be seen as an important tool for recognizing the problems Syrian LGBTIs have,” Mahmoud added.


Rolling Back Gains


Compared to Syria – where “unnatural sexual intercourse” can be punished with a prison sentence of up to three years – Turkey is much more open towards the LBGTI community.

 

LGBTI people in Turkey enjoy more freedom, particularly in secular and cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul, where they are visible in the media and in the arts scene.

 

Ayse Toprak. Photo taken by Emre Peker.

 

However, the conservative Turkish government is now trying to limit those freedoms. Public gatherings of LGBTI people have already been banned in the country’s capital Ankara, and other cities are expected to follow.

 

There are physical threats, too. In 2016, a young gay Syrian refugee was found murdered and mutilated in Istanbul. Muhammed Wisam Sankari had previously told police that he feared for his life, having been abducted, tortured, and raped by unknown assailants.


The Social Policies, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD) advocates for LGBTI refugees living in Turkey and runs a 24-hour, Arabic- language hotline targeted at Syrians.


An SPoD official who asked to remain anonymous – she explained that one of her LGBTI colleagues had recently been kidnapped and raped – described the multiple challenges callers told them about.


“They mostly call to ask where they can go for an HIV test, but sometimes they  feel lonely and just want to have a chat.”


Finding a regular source of income is a problem for all Syrian refugees in Turkey, and LGBTI persons are no exception, she said. “They generally work in textile workshops for 15 or 20 Turkish Lira ($2.47-$3.30) [far below the daily minimum wage of about 80 Turkish Lira]. Since they are exposed to very harsh working conditions … many of them choose to be sex workers instead.


“Refugee trans women in Turkey mostly earn their living as sex workers, while many young gay refugees are involved in a particular type of work and are known as ‘rent boys,’” said the SPoD official.


These young men and boys usually hang out in cafes, bars, and hammams (the baths) in Istanbul’s Mecidiyekoy neighbourhood. They avoid working on the streets because of their fear of organized criminal gangs, and prefer to use social media apps and safer spaces to find clients, she noted.


“Our work is more difficult since we want to reach the people engaged in illegal activities,” the SPoD official said. “There is a lot of pressure on these people already, from the police, gangs, and pimps.”


She stressed that most Syrian LGBTI people faced the constant threat of homophobia both at home and in the wider community. “This is a very difficult situation, especially for those Syrians who have to live with their families in Turkey.”


She continued, “Even the term ‘homosexuality’ cannot be mentioned in those circles, so they are forced to hide their LGBTI identity.”


Under these circumstances, many go on to seek asylum in a third country. Underlining this trend, Toprak said that most of the men featured in her film had since left Turkey. Only one participant, Ayman Menem, was still based in Istanbul where he coordinates weekly “Tea and Talk” sessions for LGBTI Syrians.


Two others, Omar and Nader, have moved to Norway, where, Toprak said, they have had a particularly hard time adjusting to their new life.

 

“They did not find what they had expected,” she continued. “They haven’t made any friends yet and feel very lonely. They cannot get used to the Norwegian culture and find people in that country to be much more introverted than Arabs. But, at least, they feel safe.”

Emel Altay graduated from the Marmara University Department of Cinema and TV. Between 2010 and 2017 she worked at several magazines in Turkey.  She is now an independent journalist writing for Journo, Zero Istanbul, Istanbul Art News, Art Unlimited, and other media.
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