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LGBT Muslims Struggle to Find Their Place in Turkey

Amid growing conservatism in Turkey, three individuals explain that their Muslim faith and non-heterosexual orientation are not mutually exclusive.

by Umut Guven 21 January 2019

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.


Deniz, a 20-year-old observant Muslim who lives in Istanbul, works as a sign language translator and is studying gastronomy in his spare time.


But Deniz, who prefers to use the pronoun “they,” also identifies as non-binary and pansexual. (This means that gender and sex are not determining factors in their romantic or sexual attraction.)


Although Deniz sees no contradiction between devotion to Islam and sexual orientation, others are not as tolerant.


“As soon as I declare myself to be a Muslim, I begin receiving insults from the LGBTI/queer community because of my faith,” Deniz said. “I am accused either of bigotry, or of having a low IQ. Therefore, I usually keep my faith to myself.


“The question I hear most often is ‘How can you believe in something that makes you suffer?’”


Deniz wearing a mask at a 2018 protest in Turkey. Photo by Umut Guven.


Unlike in many other predominantly Muslim countries, in Turkey being LGBT+ is not against the law. However, amid growing conservatism, individuals face stigma and even violence.


While many in the religious community claim that being gay contradicts the fundamental tenets of Islam, some members of the LGBT+ community who are deeply religious argue that faith and non-heterosexual orientation are not mutually exclusive.


From the age of 10 until leaving school, Deniz shared a dormitory with more than 100 other boys. “I was exposed to physical and psychological violence there,” they said. “After that, I became more introverted, and more engaged in religion. At that time, I also discovered my true sexual identity.”


One of Deniz’s most traumatic memories was being picked on by boys for what was perceived as femininity.


“I would then read about the people of Lot mentioned in the Quran [an ancient tribe punished by God because of homosexual acts]. I would cry myself to sleep, praying to be healed every night,” Deniz said.


However, it was in Islam that Deniz eventually found comfort as a young adult, after years of religious study. “It is never a sin to love in Islam. Therefore, I’m not in conflict anymore,” they said.


“Allah is an inclusionary creator who cares for everyone equally. What is discriminatory is our society.”


A Problem for Everyone


For Deniz, most prejudice has come from secular intellectuals and LGBT+ individuals who tend to be judgmental about religious beliefs. Others say that prejudice comes from all angles.


Ali Korkmaz is a 22-year-old student who lives in the city of Adana, in southern Turkey. As a bisexual man raised in a conservative family bound by strict, traditional values, Korkmaz concealed his sexual orientation from his family and others for a long time.


While he was growing up, 22-year-old Ali Korkmaz was bullied by other boys for being different, but found comfort in religion. Photo by Umut Guven.


However, he, too, claims to have found peace through his Islamic faith, which he describes as the “religion of love,” despite facing intolerance from the secular and the religious alike.


“I am harassed because I dare question some norms imposed by religion, although I myself am a Muslim,” Korkmaz said. “Many LGBTI+ persons reject religion completely, any religion, not just Islam. But whether you are a believer or not, being homosexual in Turkey is difficult. You are constantly marginalized, denigrated, and exposed to sexual violence,” he said.


Korkmaz also stayed in a dormitory while he studied theology and the Quran. Just like Deniz, he was bullied by other boys in his dormitory for being different, and he also found comfort in religion.


“I was exposed to psychological and physical violence many times due to my ‘feminine’ attitude. But that made me read more about religion, and I came up with my own ideas. I don’t believe that God is stationary and unchanging,” Korkmaz said, adding, “God is everywhere. A part of the universe, the universe itself.


“All that we feel is God. Our religion teaches us that we should love every creature because they are God’s creatures.”


Nonetheless, Korkmaz acknowledged, being both bisexual and religious was difficult, mainly because of stereotypes associated with each group.


“[Conservative Muslims] don’t believe that I’m a religious person when they see the way I live,” he said. “On the other hand, members of the LGBTI+ community are taken aback when they first hear of my faith. I always hear comments from them such as ‘Why do you believe in something that doesn’t recognize you, that sees you as a deviant?’”


Korkmaz points out that most LGBT+ individuals shun religion because they believe that all faiths – not just Islam – condemn homosexuality.


However, some progressive scholars claim that religious texts are often wrongly interpreted and that monotheistic religions, including Islam, do not forbid homosexuality per se.


Countering Entrenched Dogma


One such scholar is Paris-based Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, the founder of Europe’s first inclusive mosque, who has written that “there is no authentic Islamic tradition or text that ... judges homosexuality (with certainty).”


In 2016, Zahed wrote alternative readings of the Quran for Kaos GL – a prominent Turkish NGO supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals – which emphasized a feminist and gay-friendly approach that challenged established Islamic dogma.


E.A., another deeply religious individual who asked to remain anonymous, agrees that religious texts could be interpreted in multiple ways.


“Ayat al-Kursi [a key verse in the Quran] starts with a phrase that talks about how unique and capable-of-all God is. My own envisagement of God is exactly the uniqueness mentioned there,” said the 32-year-old, who works in social media.


Having grown up in Istanbul before moving to Germany, E. said that he had personally never felt any contradiction between being an observant Muslim and a gay man.


“The idea that God would punish someone because of their sexual or emotional closeness to someone of the same sex is non-existent in our religion. The verses in the Quran [that are] usually referred to, in order to legitimize punishment of homosexuals, are taken out of context and wrongly interpreted.”


According to E., the religious elite that interpreted orthodox Islam for centuries caused the erroneous information to be institutionalized “as if those were the original words of the Quran.”


Change was slow but it would come, E. continued. “One day, religion and sexual orientation of the LGBTI+ community will be reconciled. We just need to be patient.”

Umut Guven is a writer, activist, and board member of the Non-Violence Education and Research Center, as well as an editor at Kaos GL Magazine, which promotes the rights of the LGBT community in Turkey.

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