AROUND THE WORLD: umut erdem, Istanbul, Turkey

Dec 2, 2021 | 2022 Winter - Traditions, Around the World

Interview by Robyn Ochs

Please tell us about yourself.

I was born in 1991 in Edirne, a small city of historical importance in Turkey. I later moved to Istanbul to study in the university. I’m still working in İstanbul. I like writing, and it allows me to express my thoughts and feelings. So far, I have written articles for various platforms about bi+, feminism, and animal rights politics/veganism, memory, literature, and cinema from a queer and feminist point of view. I’ve been engaged with bi+ politics since 2015, and I’ve created and translated content—including a podcast—in Turkish. Lastly, I’ve created a bi+ digital universe called Bitopya.

How did you come to identify as bi?

I began questioning my orientation in my early twenties. I was dating a man, but wondering whether I was attracted to women as well. Once, on the ferry with my boyfriend, I found myself staring at someone I perceived to be a woman, but I told myself I was heterosexual. Monosexist societal norms and compulsory heterosexuality blocked me from my own reality. I was raised by a family that restricted sexuality. Therefore, it took many years for me to construct my identity. I occasionally questioned, but ultimately accepted, what was expected of me. Moreover, I denied that I was bowing to expectations. But then I began to think about sexuality more. I became involved with lesbian and bisexual feminists in 2015, and I came out as bisexual. I previously identified as pansexual for a very short time, but I am comfortable with identifying myself as bisexual/bi+. Specifically, I am seldom attracted to cis men.

While engaging in activism, I was very comfortable being out in my social and political environment, but it was difficult being out with my mother. She was very attached to social norms, which resulted in her being disgusted with me. We had disputes and conflicts, which fatigued me. Therefore, nowadays we don’t talk about it, but it doesn’t prevent me from being active in politics. Also, in the LGBTI+ community, I encountered biphobic attitudes and reactions while I was questioning my identity. For example, although I didn’t identify myself as heterosexual but mentioned that I had only dated cis men so far, an LGBTI+ person who introduced themself as a rainbow child labeled me heterosexual. When they later saw me in a “lesbian” bar kissing someone, they asked me if I was bisexual. They needed behavioral proof to believe me. I also came across a lot of bi+-antagonistic tweets on social media. The longer I have been involved with LGBTI+ community, the more I notice everyone is expected to be monosexual, and the myths and misconceptions about bisexuality prevail. But they stimulate me to passionately struggle further for my existence.

What is the legal and cultural situation for LGBTQ+ people in Turkey?

The Turkish state is dominated by Sunni Muslims. The state tries to ban LGBTI+ people and uses religion to justify violating LGBTI+ rights, even though Sunni Muslim LGBTI+ people also exist. Although an LGBTI+ pride march is a basic right, the state prevents it from taking priority over Ramadan. This year, it didn’t coincide with Ramadan and Eid or any religious days, but the state still didn’t allow the march. Moreover, an on-air pride activity was banned for the first time, and LGBTI+ people were assaulted while we gathered for a vegan picnic. Ali Erbaş, President of Religious Affairs, in a Friday sermon(1), said,

 “Islam accepts adultery as one of the greatest harms. It curses the people of Lot, the homosexuals. What is the wisdom of this? The wisdom here is that it brings diseases and degenerates the generation.” In Boğazici University, students and teachers resist violations of the state against the democratic and free right to education. In an exhibition as an act of resistance, an artwork that was displayed became an excuse for the rectorate and state to close BÜLGBTI+, Bogazici University’s LGBTI+ Studies Candidate Club. In the name of religion, the state provokes societal conflicts and justifies the violations it commits in every area of our lives. A second hearing was held in the trial of seven students who are facing charges because the image of the Kaaba and LGBTI+ flags were used together in an artwork and the related work was “laid on the ground” in the exhibition held at the South Campus of Boğaziçi University. The trial continued at the Istanbul Courthouse in Caglayan on the 5th of July. In the trial, the image was said to be unholy in Islam. The hearing has been adjourned(2).

In September, the students who held LGBTI+ and Bi+ flags at the graduation ceremony of Dokuz Eylül University (DEU) based in İzmir were attacked by private security officers. In October, Süleyman Soylu, the Minister of Interior of Turkey, declared that they had banned LGBTI+ people to prevent them from undoing the structure of the family and leading their children to adultery and amorality, adding “We are a Muslim state.” The State’s hostility encourages assaults and hate crimes against LGBTI+ people. Because of the state’s position, perpetrators sense that they will likely not be held accountable for their actions.

LGBTI+ pride marches have been banned since 2015, and the restrictions and violence committed by the state against LGBTI+ people has gradually been increasing. Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, said that Turkey would withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which was created thanks to Turkey’s feminist movement. Turkey was the first country to sign and (if it goes into effect) protect women and LGBTI+ people from male and hate violence. Both misogyny and LGBTI+ antagonism led him to make this decision. He couldn’t stand the fact that LGBTI+ people are mentioned in the convention and, therefore, LGBTI+ people’s rights are protected. He denied the existence of LGBTI+ people and asserted that LGBTI+ people don’t obey “Turkey’s local and national values.” We are thus very vulnerable to violence. Especially on social media, we see many reports of assaults against LGBTI+ people. Aggressors are encouraged and they know that they can get away with it.

Trans women, especially, are displaced, assaulted, and killed, and we often hear reports of trans people committing suicide. This year, we have experienced police violence and trans women’s houses in Küçük Bayram Sokak, Beyoğlu were sealed. Thanks to the intervention and struggle of LGBTI+ activists and lawyers, the seals were removed. But LGBTI+ people are always under threat and seen as having no right to live. The state excludes LGBTI+ people from society. In society, misconceptions and myths prevail and people generally intend to regard LGBTI+ people as “colorful” or “different.” On the other hand, LGBTI+ people in Turkey are strongly united and organized, and gradually are becoming stronger and more creative, which makes the state and fascists very afraid. So, the state escalates the oppression. The pandemic is used as an excuse to ban music after midnight, creating a ban for nightlife through which many LGBTI+ people make a living. On social media, we frequently encounter trans exclusionary, biphobic, and HIV-phobic tweets. But fortunately, both independent and NGO’s solidarity networks are created and run to empower LGBTI+ people and make us resilient and counter our feelings of hopelessness.

What words are used to describe lesbian, gay, bi, or non-heterosexual people in Turkey?  Are these words equivalent to their English counterparts, or do they have a different meaning?

In Turkish, we say lezbiyen for lesbian, gey for gay, biseksüel for bisexual. We use LGBTI+. They’re equivalent in meaning. We also reclaim some slang used in society to belittle LGBTI+ people. For example, as LGBTI+ people, we can say sevici for lesbian, ibne for gay or bisexual, dönme for trans. LGBTI+ movement and community call queers/LGBTI+ people as lubunya. Moreover, especially trans sex workers have created a language called lubunca for security and to provide safe communication amongst themselves.

I confess I don’t know anything about the Turkish language. Is your language gendered? And if so, how do people who experience their gender as non-binary engage with pronouns?

It doesn’t resemble English or French in terms of gendered pronouns or gendered objects in language. For example, as pronouns, we only already use “O” for third person. It’s ungendered/nonbinary. But since having learnt and adopted a gender binary mindset, people generally use gendered terms for addressing someone. For example: hanım/bayan (lady) or beyefendi (sir), X Hanım (Ms. X), Y Bey (Mr. Y). In fact, they can say X (Dear X) or they can just address someone by their name. Addressing someone just by their name is commonplace, but it is considered rude. I don’t think it is ruder than assigning gender.

You are involved with Bitopya which appears to be quite active. Please tell us about it.

Bitopya is the first, and for now, only website which creates content about bisexuality and bi+ politics in Turkish. I imagine it as a digital universe where we’ll go by getting in our spacecraft. The content consists of bi+ politics, bisexual health, and bisexual history, as well as video content. Through translations, writings, and videos to be released, Bitopya aims to become a significant source of information about bisexuality and bi+ politics for readers who speak and understand Turkish. Bitopya has become a platform for bi+ people, which has been my dream. Bitopya actively engages with its followers on social media, especially Instagram. Bitopya aims to raise the awareness of LGBTI+ community in Turkey on bisexuality and lead the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey because I regard bi+ politics as revolutionary. Since I consider translation a political act, I publish articles with feminist and queer intersectional perspectives and the potential to start discussions in the LGBTI+ community. Since Bitopya has, unfortunately, no funding, translators and editors volunteer their time.

As the founder of Bitopya, I talked about monosexual privileges that Shiri Eisner has asserted and were translated for Bitopya on Genç LGBTI+’s Youtube channel for BI+ Forum that the association organizes annually. We talked about Bi+ Health with Boysan’ın Evi (Boysan’s Home) which is now a memory site after Boysan Yakar died from a car accident(4). We discussed biphobia and monosexism with their effects on health issues with Pamukkale and 19th of May Medical Students’ Union as well as I was interviewed with Lavender LGBTI+. For Pride Week this year, Ent Magazine interviewed me on Instagram Live. I was also a guest for two podcasts, QueerTroublemakers and Mental Klitoris in Turkish, talking about bi+ politics and bisexuality and promoting Bitopya.

Are bi folks well-integrated into Turkey’s sexual minority community?

The more we struggle, the more we are able to integrate. But the LGBTI+ community in Turkey still has a monosexist mindset. It discusses cissexism and the gender binary, but it fails to make a connection between monosexism and cissexism. It doesn’t address biphobia enough because it is underestimated. I encounter internalized biphobia but I think Bitopya can break this chain. In Izmir, we’ve seen bi+ flags in Pride marches for some time, but in Istanbul, until this year, we never ever saw bi+ flags. I saw a few bisexual flags in this year’s Pride march as well as a bisexual flag having been flown on the July 1st  demonstration for the Istanbul convention(3), which made me very excited. Last year Aydin held a protest for Bi Visibility Day, and a bisexual flag was flown this year in Aydin’s first LGBTI+ Pride March, which was banned and evolved into a public statement. As far as I’m concerned, being bi+ and bisexuality still aren’t considered to have enough political importance to deal with. But as I’ve observed, the work we have done for bi visibility and the existence of Bitopya has begun to undermine norms.

As an activist/advocate, what is an accomplishment of which you are particularly proud?

The existence of Bitopya; also I’m proud I’m lubunya (queer).

Are there other bi groups in Turkey besides Bitopya? If not, are you able to provide support to bi+ folks in other parts of Turkey? Are you connected with Turkish people living abroad?

Bitopya isn’t technically a bi+ group. I don’t stipulate that people who would like to make any contribution to Bitopya be bi+. I don’t even ask. People offer to translate materials and we are working together. Certainly, there are bi+ people I know among them. But I think Bitopya is a crucial space for bi+ people. Genç LGBTI+ Association based in Izmir has done many things for bi visibility, one of which is to organize an annual Bi+ Forum. Since quarantine, Queertroublemakers, a podcast in Turkish, has prepared Bi+ Files, to which I was invited, and we made a podcast together about the bi+ movement. LambdaIstanbul, an LGBTI+ association based in Istanbul, has organized online bi+ meetings for which we are planning to organize a workshop on biphobia. In 2018, I and Gözde Demirbilek from Kaos GL, another LGBTI+ association based in Ankara, prepared a booklet called Bi+seksüeller Burada. It was the first resource on bisexuality in Turkish before Bitopya.

Are you in contact with bi activists in other countries? How did you connect with bi+ activists, bi+ books, bi+ websites, etc. outside Turkey? Do you see a value in transnational activism?

I have met Hilde Vossen (Netherlands), and Iranians Soudeh Rad and Zeynab Peyghamberzadeh; in fact, we organized Bi+ Pride Istanbul in 2019 with Zeynab. Bi+ Pride Istanbul consisted of a bi+ meeting and a bi+ workshop. It was the first and for now only independent pride week bi+ activity series. Through Soudeh Rad, I wrote a blog for ILGA Europe for bi visibility month in 2018. For Lesbian Bisexual Feminists, I began to translate #stillbisexual videos, therefore I had a chance to meet Nicole Kristal. I also used to create content about bi+ people for Kaos GL. In that time, I encountered Shiri Eisner and their outstanding blog. I would like to introduce them to LGBTI+ community in Turkey through Kaos GL. I also translated one of Miles Joyner’s blog posts on Kaos GL. The more I encountered these posts and articles, the more I needed to have a digital space to collect and include them, essentially a bi+ space, which means that Bitopya owes its existence to transnational bi+ activism. Through translating their articles, I continue to know and meet amazing bi+ activists beyond our borders.

Robyn Ochs is editor of Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, RECOGNIZE: The Voices of Bisexual Men, and Bi Women Quarterly.




4.  Boysan’s Home is a memory site in İstanbul where the volunteers have organized LGBTİA+ events and queers have gathered. It was where an LGBTİA+ activist, Boysan Yakar actually lived and welcomed a lot of queers but later he unfortunately died in a traffic accident with his friend, Zeliş, who was also a feminist LGBTİA+ activist and his partner, Mert Şeker. Since Boysan Yakar is a crucial and irreplaceable figure for LGBTİ+ movement in Turkey and his mother is also an LGBTİ activist, it was turned into a memory site. It aims to continue to revive the memories of Boysan Yakar and LGBTİ+ movement in Turkey.

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