Below you can find three testimonials from students participating on UCEAP programs in Turkey.
As a gay male graduate student I experienced a mixture of tolerance and intolerance while studying in Ankara, Turkey. Overall, I felt generally comfortable during my time in Turkey and never feared that my safety would be in jeopardy due to my sexual orientation as I often blended in with the general population. However, I could not say that this would necessarily be the case for someone more gender-nonconforming than me or for a same-sex couple. I would have felt very uncomfortable holding hands or kissing a boyfriend on the streets of Ankara. Among younger Turkish friends I did not hide my sexual orientation and discussed GLB* issues with some of these friends. As with most countries, the younger generation in Turkey is more accepting of GLB individuals than the older generations. However, homosexuality remains a taboo subject in the larger Turkish society. I did not disclose my sexual orientation to my host family, but I did not lie about it either. I would do my best to avoid any questions about dating or significant others. In the few discussions I had with my host mother regarding GLB individuals, she was largely supportive, even saying that it was good that individuals could marry people of the same sex in parts of Europe and the U.S. while acknowledging that it was unfortunate that they could not in Turkey. Same sex sexual contact was decriminalized in Turkey over 150 years ago, but there are still no formal legal protections for GLB individuals. Many GLB Turks face discrimination in employment, housing, the military, and greater society; however, I would say that international students (especially from the U.S.) are largely spared from these types of incidents, at least from my experience in Ankara. At the language school where I studied most teachers were also very progressive and supportive of GLB students. However, the first instructor I had during my program revealed to our class the prejudiced and antiquated views she held on GLB people during a class discussion. From her point of view GLB people were mentally ill and must have experienced some sort of trauma in their youth to make them that way. A very uncomfortable debate occurred between the instructor and a few of the American students while the other GLB identifying student and I simply sat in silence. It was a troubling experience to have an instructor express such views. Both the language institute and the U.S. State Department staff were quick to act when we reported this incident, and the instructor was replaced for the remainder of our program. Overall, I would say Turkey (especially Ankara and Istanbul) is one of the safest countries in the Middle East for a GLB identifying American student to study abroad. Among Southeastern European countries, Turkey is not much of an outlier in the same terms.
*I only refer to GLB individuals, because transgender individuals face many different challenges than cisgender GLB individuals do. I cannot speak to how their experiences in Turkey would be and think it would be pertinent to ask someone who identifies as transgender to share their experiences.
Well for starters I would say that my experience in Ankara was most likely different than other study abroad programs. Out of 22 students there were 4 of us that I think identified as LGBTIQ. Also LGBTIQ was A. who was our study abroad facilitator. So those two things alone probably made it different than other programs. I am not one that has the luxury of choosing the closet whenever convenient, as one friend once said “Helen Keller would even know you’re gay.” That being said I never felt unsafe in Turkey due to my sexuality or faced intolerance, but then I was not on the prowl looking for men or looking for gay establishments. Now that is not to say that I might have faced intolerance and just mistook it for just a random rude person. Before I had arrived in Turkey I had heard some very scary things about being LGBTIQ in Turkey and other predominantly Muslim nations, even the CLS handbook stated in a roundabout way that one might consider being closeted while there. Turkey is an odd place sexually; I’m sure the warnings that the LGBTIQ students got before leaving did have some validity. But while I was there I once saw a transman walking down the street blowing kisses to all the men she passed, and surprisingly they would smile or cat call back at her knowing full well that it was a trans male. Instead of sexuality that had more to do with the idea of masculinity in Turkey. I would say that my time in Turkey was incredibly enriching and I would suggest just as LGBTIQ people have to be extra aware in certain areas and places in the United States they should do similarly when traveling overseas.
I aim to give an overall telling of my experiences in Istanbul and Ankara. My experiences in Turkey as a lesbian overall were quite positive. In some ways, it’s much easier there than in my small Pennsylvania town. I guess the first place to start is that no one ever thought I was actually a lesbian. In the US, between my short hair and I guess general demeanor, I’m usually instantly pegged as a lesbian. This literally never happened in Turkey. My host family, friends, and strangers all assumed I was straight (sometimes kind of forcefully-see below) which made my life easier in a bunch of ways.
When I first got to Turkey, I was worried about wearing my usual clothes (nothing crazy, just V-neck tees, shorts over tights, boots-things that normally scream “gay” to Americans), but that quickly subsided. Though most days I wore long skirts (out of weather-related necessity), if I wanted to go out in my usual clothes, no one batted an eye. People tend to notice the fact you are American much more quickly than to even think you might be gay. It’s just really not on their radar at all.
I think because it’s not on their radar, sometimes the assumed heterosexuality can be annoying. My host mom offered to set me up with probably 75 different boys and would not be told no. The fact I didn’t have a boyfriend meant I definitely needed one in her eyes. Also, the short hair was really noticed by men who thought it was really interested. I got a lot of attention on buses, on the streets, generally out and about, because of it. It does draw in quite a lot of attention, which mostly manifests itself as flirting from men (which nearly all of my American friends dealt with too). So, blending in can manifest itself as everyone assuming you’re straight, which can be annoying.
I never told my host family in Ankara, but I did tell the family that I nannied for in Istanbul, that I was gay. I didn’t feel comfortable making that leap with the people I was living with my first summer, simply because due to language skills it was really hard to gauge exactly what they thought on the issue. My host family was super modern though, so I doubt it would be a problem, but it’s not something I would take a chance on. This was hard at times, but was ultimately my own choosing. It’s something to be aware of though. Being “out” is a hard conversation to have, especially if you’re learning. My second summer, I did tell the family I worked for, mostly because my Turkish had improved and they spoke enough English that I could get a read on their thoughts. It was a non-issue in that case.
I told nearly all my Turkish friends though that I was a lesbian, and it was no big deal at all. They took that information and never treated me differently for it. Most were curious and asked a lot of questions in the exact same manner my friends from home acted.
My only caveats to all this is that all my experiences were with Ankara or Istanbullus, most of whom were young and fairly western. I only spent a day in Konya and a weekend in Kapadokya, so I can’t speak for other places.
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