In 2008 I spent 5 days in Istanbul where I had not been since 1986. It became obvious to me that the West had taken over a slice of the East. Prada, Gucci and Starbucks had blended with Turkish coffee houses where herbal hookahs were still smoked, and people relaxed to the strains of the Bagamon. Outside on the street a frantic rush of people glued to their mobile phones. In an elegant restaurant on top of one of Istanbul's seven hills, tray bearing waiters walked back and forth over a rug into which was woven a larger than life pin-up nude of Marilyn Monroe - an icon whose body is almost sacred to the West. Night-life in and around Taksim had flourished. I could hear the echo of the music wafting into my hotel room. Before my departure I searched the internet for any trace of Gay night-life in Istanbul. Did it exist? My imagination could not evoke scenes beyond glittering Harems, tales from One Thousand and One Nights, wild belly dancing and exotically beautiful women.
Alone in my hotel room, I wondered if there were cafés where gay women could meet. Where they could talk, share, dance. I wondered whether two women could walk down the street hand in hand. Could women choose a life other than that of the traditional, which they had been leading for hundreds of years? Were gay women - and men - forced to lead a double life in order to fulfil their desires?
Recent articles in the Dutch media talked of Istanbul's thriving gay night-life and its transsexual bars. Yet nothing about women. Due to the dictates of their male dominated culture, gay women in Turkey live in the shadows. They're hidden. But, as it is in every society, they do exist - they're either visible on the surface, or they go underground.
I returned to Istanbul in 2009. This time to discover what gay and transsexual life was really like. I travelled with Ipek, my Turkish photography assistant, and through her contacted Kaos GL in Ankara with a request to put us in touch with gay women, men and transsexuals who would be willing to co-operate in the project. As a photographer, I realise how revealing a portrait alone can be. However, on this project, I also felt the need to include thoughts and life stories hidden behind the silence of the image.
We began by going to the bars and cafés, talking to individuals and introducing the project; in search of subjects who were courageous enough to speak up, pose and participate. As full as these male gay bars were, finding volunteers proved difficult. The fear of losing jobs, and alienating wives, friends and family members, proved too great a risk. I was looking for an open interaction with people who would work with me towards a shift in perception regarding the gay world and how it has changed in the past 20 years.
Contrary to expectation, and perhaps because I am a woman myself, it was easier to encounter women who were willing to reveal their true identities. The self-portrait projects I worked on in the early 80's, which they could see on my website, gave them the necessary confidence to allow me to see through them. Eventually, we did find both men and women who were courageous enough to lead openly gay lives. But it was obvious that most were living a double life - married with spouse and children. Otherwise they would end up alone.
Regarding this subject matter, I have often been asked why, as a South American/Dutch citizen, would I choose Turkey? My reply is that, growing up in South America, I encountered the very same taboos. The burden of tradition and the power of the media made it extremely difficult to come to terms with your true identity, and to openly express a sexual inclination other than that which society deemed acceptable. Although Turkey is momentarily in the process of joining the EU, their human rights laws do not coincide with ours. Gays are discriminated against and transsexuals fear for their lives.
During the months we spent in Turkey, we came very close to many individuals who openly posed and told their stories. One twenty four year old transsexual said she was very much in love with her boyfriend, but did not dare tell him she was transsexual. She wanted to achieve the impossible and bear a child. They told us that there was a good market for men with breasts, so they didn't dare to undergo a full transformation. We heard that same-sex love amongst women was not taken seriously - if a male is not involved it can't be real. Once their families found out, gays and transsexuals were often subjected to psychological treatment. They confessed that, no matter how much they loved sex, they would not have willingly chosen for a life on the streets.
As I am one to celebrate mystery, diversity, and above all, authenticity, the fundamental freedom to live a life whole and fulfilled for all human beings is something I hold dear. So many of my subjects expressed a deep-rooted longing to be accepted and acknowledged; not to be driven into the obscurity of shadows by a fear driven society. Uniformity dulls the senses. Let the world flaunt its colours and let us all see the light of truth through our own and each other's eyes.
Only half of the participants gave permission for their portrait to be shown in Turkey. Nevertheless, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all of them for their courage, their openness and their trust.
Diana Blok 2009