16 min

Tales from the Turkish crypt

Ottawa researcher explores homophobia, violence and murder

UNSOLVED MURDER. Bulent Sam, chief medical examiner of Istanbul, reviews photos of murder victim Beyza, a transsexual stabbed 24 times. Credit: Douglas Victor Janoff

On a warm Tuesday afternoon in late September, a streetcar gently parts the roaring crowds along Istiklal, a pedestrian mall that cuts through the heart of Istanbul. Although I’m tempted to hop on the old tram, San Francisco-style, I remind myself that walking is usually the fastest way to get around this city of 14 million.

My flight from Paris was late; in front of the iron gates of the Dutch consulate, two Turkish men in their mid-20s are waiting patiently. Taner Torum – serious and slight, with a jacket, tie and wire-rimmed glasses – introduces himself and gingerly kisses me on both cheeks, blushing slightly. Ozgur Yucel is more bohemian, with long black hair, a striped shirt and a melancholic air.

Taner is holding up a flyer, which he translates for me: “Canadian criminologist Douglas Janoff will speak about gay murders at the Congress of the European Academy of Forensic Science, Sep 27.”

More precisely, my idea is to create a transatlantic roundtable discussion: after doing a presentation on queer-bashing in Canada, I will invite Turkish police, activists and victims to discuss violence that’s happening right here. In principle, Lambda Istanbul, Turkey’s largest queer organization, has agreed to participate. Now I have five days to pull this all together.

Taner and Ozgur lead me through a bazaar where scarf-clad women are rummaging through bins of brightly coloured clothing. We walk up six flights of stairs to Lambda’s tranquil office: two large rooms with exposed-brick walls, a tiny library, and a kitchen, which doubles as a smoking area. At the entrance is a photo of last summer’s first-ever Gay Pride Parade, which attracted 50 people.

Lambda has only a handful of active members, mainly gay men in their 20s. Four work on the committee focussed on violence, discrimination and policing. The most dynamic member is Can Yaman, a striking young man who wears mascara, eyeliner and a silver earring. Our translator is Cihan Huroglu, a slender, political science student with an eye for detail.

Can pulls out a grey pamphlet that Lambda distributes throughout the community. It offers tips on how to deal with physical violence, workplace and family harassment, and mistreatment by doctors, psychiatrists and the military. Lambda receives no government or international funding, but its volunteers still manage to collect data on queer-bashing, take complaints from victims, respond to media requests and do public education.

Now it’s my turn. I tell them about a book I just wrote that analyzes 100 homicides and more than 300 queer-bashing incidents that have occurred in Canada over the past 15 years.

“Are they all hate crimes?” Can asks.

I explain that police and community groups in Canada often disagree about what constitutes a hate crime. And I point out that almost none of the homicides I analyzed were labelled as hate crimes. Police and prosecutors usually negated the hate motivation; instead, they linked the killings to drugs, alcohol, sex, robbery and revenge.

The Lambda volunteers have gathered evidence of 30 murders involving queer victims in Turkey over the past three years. In 2002, for example, an Istanbul professor was stabbed to death by two men, one of whom claimed that the victim tried to rape him.

“There is an iceberg under here!” exclaims Can, in his charming way, leafing through a pile of clippings.

The Internet is a common modus operandi. Three years ago several gay men were killed after meeting men in chatrooms. Typically, a killer would turn up at a victim’s house with one or more friends in tow, knowing that the victim would be alone and vulnerable. The Lambda volunteers are shocked by the intensity of the violence; a gay man was recently stabbed 62 times in Sirt, in southeastern Turkey.

“Two weeks ago, we heard about a man who was tied up and raped for two days,” says Cihan.

I give them a sneak preview of my presentation: I explain the “extreme violence thesis” – the theory that queer victims experience more violence because of their sexual orientation. I describe the research of Michael Bell and Raul Vila, two Florida pathologists who studied the bodies of 67 male homosexual homicide victims. They compared them to 195 other male homicide victims and concluded that queer killings were more violent.


Back at the hotel, I review the notes of my interview with Toronto sociologist Tarik Bereket, an expert on Turkish homosexual identity. He recently completed his Master’s at the University of Windsor under the tutelage of Barry Adam, a renowned researcher on the gay and lesbian movement. Tarik, who was born in Canada, is a Turkish Cypriot who spent six years in Ankara. For his thesis, he interviewed 20 Turkish men – some of whom were married – who engage in same-sex activity.

These days – in academic circles and community organizations like the AIDS Committee of Toronto – it is fashionable to eschew the words gay and queer in favour of MSM: men who have sex with men. The theory is that many men – for example, men in prison and men living in conservative and/or religious cultures – have sex with other men but never talk about it. And never in a million years would they label themselves as gay or even bisexual.

I asked Tarik to help me clear up some misunderstandings about Turkish male sexuality. For example, I wanted to know why some westerners come back from Turkey saying, “All Turkish men are gay.” Tarik believes that the majority of Turkish men are willing to have sex with men as long as they can maintain the “manly role.”

“The ‘pasif’ is the individual who is penetrated,” Tarif explained. “He is conceptualized as the ‘homosexual’ in the relationship and subject to stigmatization. On the other hand, no stigma is attached to the ‘aktif.’ He is still able to keep his culturally valued status as a ‘real’ man as long as his sexuality is not discussed openly.”

I ask whether there are, proportionally, more transgendered people in Turkey.

“Yes. Before the 1990s,” Tarik said, “the majority of homosexuals accepted effeminacy, identifying themselves with images of womanhood. Even now, there are many gay men who try to find space in the patriarchy by aligning themselves with the opposite gender. Nowadays, however, young, urban, educated middle-class men are realizing that this is not the only option and that it is okay to be gender-conforming and engage in same-sex relations at the same time, whether one is active or passive.”

“Coming out” in the Western sense can have fatal consequences in Turkey: closely-knit families often perceive that a gay child can jeopardize “family honour.”

“As long as men do not openly challenge the rules in public,” said Tarik, “there is a degree of acceptance when their children transgress gender and religious norms.”

Ironically, Tarik noted that what family members knew was less important than “what was revealed to other people outside the family.” One of the young men Tarik interviewed was the subject of rumours in his neighbourhood. “A family member shot him and warned him that the next time the family heard such things, they would literally kill him in the name of ‘family honour.'”

This might explain the number of calls Lambda receives about family violence. A gay teenager recently called to say he had been shot by his father but had survived.

“We’re a small organization,” laments Cihan. “We cannot offer these young people anything: no housing, no money, no social assistance. They drop out of high school and run away to Istanbul. But they have no jobs or education, so they end up working as prostitutes, which means they’re subjected to even more violence. It’s a vicious circle.”


In the 1970s, Australian political scientist Dennis Altman wrote about the “homosexualization of America.” Tonight I am witnessing the homosexualization of Turkish society; although there are dozens of gay bars in Istanbul, only two or three cater to “gender-conforming” Euro-gays and lesbians. The rest are raucous, dangerous places; the Lambda guys have been warning me to be very, very careful. Taner, who worked at a transsexual bar when he was a student, is one of my guides. He points out the movie theatre where men have sex and the transsexual club with the high-class clientele.

On a crowded narrow street off Istiklal a mangy brown dog sniffs through piles of garbage; the occasional drag queen teeters by in high heels. We pass a bathhouse where male prostitutes ply their trade. We turn a few corners and end up in a dark alley, where gay and transsexual hookers peer down at us from the second- and third-floor windows of an apartment building.

“Don’t come here late at night,” Taner says. “And don’t come alone. The place is full of prostitutes and thieves and police.”


On Wednesday I go to the Congress, where over a thousand forensic researchers from around the world are attending hundreds of sessions: DNA, blood spatter analysis, forensic entomology and handwriting analysis are just a few of the topics covered. An unappetizing luncheon discussion is called The Killing Room: Gathering Evidence of Fatal Blood Loss.

I meet up with Sinem Yyldiz, a vivacious graduate student who recently surveyed Turkish gay men on their experience of homophobia. One of her responsibilities is to make sure my roundtable discussion goes smoothly on Saturday. I do have a niggling concern: I’ve invited a victim to speak at my discussion. I ask Sinem if the audience would be terribly shocked if I asked him to take off his shirt to show his stab wounds. Sinem is concerned about how the press will handle this. She decides to take a picture of his chest and flash it on the overhead projector.

She introduces me to Asli Atamer, a petite blonde clinical psychiatrist from Istanbul University who organized Turkey’s first academic forum on homosexuality last year. She and her professor, Fatih Yavuz, administered sexual assault questionnaires to 90 gay men and transsexuals.

Thirty percent of the respondents said they had been raped. All of the perpetrators were men; 16 percent of the assailants were family members. Only 15 percent of the assaults were reported to police, and more than half of the victims had never told anyone about the incident.

“I am a heterosexual,” she explains during a break between sessions. “But I’m tired of this academic research that’s always ‘us’ and ‘them.'”

Next I have a 90-minute interview with a journalist for Millyet, one of Istanbul’s many dailies. I give her lots of examples of anti-gay brutality in Canada.

Now Sinem is gently but firmly guiding me towards a poster session, where colleagues chat warmly amidst grotesque photographs and descriptions of child abuse, rape and domestic assault. In front of a poster entitled Transsexual Homicides, I meet Sevki Soren, a dashing professor of Forensic Sciences at Istanbul University, and his former graduate student, Nursen Musellim.

Nursen’s recent research on the queer community sheds light on issues specific to Turkey: more than a third of the lesbians surveyed were out of the closet, compared to only 2.5 percent of the gay men. More than a third of those surveyed had been assaulted. Transgendered victims were assaulted more often by family members than they were by strangers.

“Many transsexuals have been killed in traffic accidents,” explains Nursen, since many work as street prostitutes on a busy stretch of highway on the outskirts of Istanbul. When they are threatened with knives and guns, they’re forced to jump out of moving cars and trucks onto a multiple-lane highway.

Nursen just completed her PhD and is now working at the office of the chief medical examiner. She’s arranging for me to visit the morgue tomorrow.


On Thursday morning, the taxi driver’s eyes widen when I show him, on a slip of paper, where I am heading. We’re on a bridge crossing the Golden Horn – this ancient city is sprawling around me in all directions. But now I’m having second thoughts; I want to ask the driver to turn around. But what am I really afraid of?

The morgue, housed in a nondescript building at Istanbul University, is an ultra-modern facility, but the smell is heavy and disconcerting. Bulent Sam, Istanbul’s chief medical examiner, greets me warmly. He is dark-eyed, slender and compassionate. He’s also much younger than I expected – for someone who has performed 20,000 autopsies.

“We get about 50 bodies a day,” he explains, offering me tea. “We examine about 10 a day for suspicious circumstances. I’ve seen about 17 transsexual victims in the past 11 years.”

He pulls out File #744, neatly typed and full of horrific colour photos.

“This one is a very typical torture,” he says.

Her name was Beyza, from a village called Gebze in Eastern Turkey. She may have been very pretty at one time, but now all I can see is her shrivelled hands. Her fingernails are painted red; her black hair is matted with blood.

“What makes this a ‘typical’ torture?”

“She was handcuffed. There were 24 stab wounds, but the first ones inflicted were on the extremities. The purpose of these wounds was to make her suffer as long as possible before she died. You see the cluster of stab wounds on the left side of her chest? They stabbed her in the heart to finish her off.”

Half the wounds were from a knife, the other half from a shish, the metal skewer used for shish kebobs. She was found naked, usually the sign of a sex crime. The police found bloody clothes and a used condom near the crime scene.

“Criminals these days are very careful,” Bulent says disapprovingly. “They watch crime shows on television. So they take precautions.”

He theorizes that this was an “honour killing” – unfortunately all too common in Eastern Turkey. Since there was no forced entry, he speculates that the killers were two male relatives who came for a visit. Forensic investigators found two different hair samples and two different types of DNA, but a match was never found.

This is not CSI: the killers are still at large. After a quick tour of the morgue, I rush back to the Lambda office to meet two transsexuals who are still very much alive, even though they have had a few close calls.

Esmeray, who wears no make-up, gives workshops on homophobia and transphobia for Amargi, a progressive women’s organization. We sit in the smoking area with Cihan, who translates every word.

“Two or three days ago a transvestite was killed in Istanbul,” Esmeray says, sipping her tea. “She fought with the police, hit her head on the pavement, went into a coma and died.”

The photos of Beyza are seared into my mind.

“In 1996, a survey estimated that there were 3,000 transsexuals in Istanbul,” says Esmeray. “But now we think this number has tripled. Because of the economic crisis, poor transsexuals are fleeing the poorer regions and coming to work as prostitutes in the city.”

I ask what percentage of transsexuals work as prostitutes.

“Ninety-nine percent. I know 10 who aren’t prostitutes, but thousands who are. Even though I’m not a prostitute, society assumes that I am. Every time I walk down the street, men ask me how much I charge.”

“Are they saying it as an insult?”

“No, most of them actually want to have sex with me!”

Then she says something, and Cihan blushes.

“She said that a hole is a hole. In Turkey men will fuck anything.”

We all have a good chuckle and start to feel more relaxed. Esmeray talks about her friend Yulia, a transsexual prostitute who went to the media this year after she was gang-raped by several men who claimed to be police officers. Esmeray herself describes being kidnapped by four truck drivers and driven to an abandoned site, where she somehow managed to escape. Bleeding and completely naked, she asked the assistance of a traffic cop, who laughed in her face but refused to call an ambulance.

“The police are very homophobic,” she seethes. “Of course, with increased democratization, the homophobia is more subtle. Before, they were dragging us down the street by the hair. Now they make us pay fines.”

A friend of hers, shopping for groceries in a supermarket, was recently fined $80 for “corrupting social values.” Transsexuals are also denied housing; most restaurants and hair salons will not serve them.

As soon as Esmeray leaves, Turkey’s most famous transsexual activist appears at the door, wearing bellbottom jeans, a silver-studded belt and black boots. Sunglasses are propped into her bleach-blond hair.

I first met Demit Demir at a human rights conference in Amsterdam in 1998. At the time, she was at the peak of her celebrity, having just flown to New York to accept an award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

But now she looks exhausted: she has dark rings around her eyes, and her dark roots are showing. The pride of Turkey’s queer community is back working as a prostitute. She eases into her chair, pours a tea, and takes a heavy haul off her cigarette.

Demit’s case is well documented: in 1991, she and her transsexual friends were arrested and tortured in a clean-up operation. She was locked inside a police station for five days and beaten with a rubber hose. After she was released, she went to the media and made her hospital report public. The police arrested her again.

“This time they took me to their torture room. They dragged me around by my hair and punched me until my mouth was swollen shut. I was naked in front of five officers. At the time, I still had my penis – and they were all fascinated by it!”

She was jailed for two months with five of her transsexual friends, accused of insulting the memory of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. A year later she was found not guilty. In 1993, she sued Hortum Suleyman, nicknamed “The Hoser” – the precinct chief that she claimed had beaten her and other transsexuals. Eventually the state refused to allow her to proceed with the case.

“Then in 1996, the Hoser came back,” she said.

By then she was living on a street where several transsexuals lived for safety reasons.

“We had our little community. Then the Hoser instructed the police to smash in our doors and throw us out on the street. Our houses were burned. We submitted many official complaints, but nothing ever happened.”

In 2000, television viewers saw a secret videotape that showed the Hoser beating his victims and asking them what colour hose they wanted him to use. The next year he was finally charged with torture. Last February he was handed a 21-year “conditional” sentence, but it involved no jail time.

“I’m just so sick of it all,” she sighs, butting out her cigarette with a final crunch. “I’ve done all I can. After 13 years, I’m giving up.”

I ask about her future plans. She rolls up her eyes.

“I’m working in a whorehouse, trying to save money. It’s not legal, but at least it’s safer than the street.”

Poor Cihan is tired. He has been translating for two and a half hours non-stop, and his sister is getting married tomorrow. I walk back along Istiklal to my hotel. I’m exhausted too.


I spend Friday relaxing and getting ready for the presentation at the Congress. I visit a few more nightclubs. First stop is the Sahara, a four-room, two-storey club overflowing with hundreds of men. At first glance it seems like a regular, if extremely crowded, gay bar full of excitable young men dancing to extremely loud Turkish pop music. Then I notice the gender dichotomy Tarik is referring to: masculine men are dancing and romancing transvestites and transsexuals, while effeminate and gay-identified men negotiate with tough masculine prostitutes.

By 3am dozens of shapely, fashionable transsexuals spill out onto a narrow alley choked with traffic. Macho guys line the sidewalk, enjoying every minute of this late-night show. On the way home, I ask my taxi-driver if he is attracted to transsexuals. He says of course – and when he’s lucky the girls will give him sex instead of cab fare.

On Saturday, I go to the Congress early to set up my video presentation. I run into Sevil Atasoy, the Congress chairperson, who looks nervous.

“Douglas, we must be careful this afternoon. The police and the gay activists will all be together. We don’t want to electrify the situation.”


“Emotions could get quite heated,” she says sharply. “This is the last day of the Congress and so far everything has gone without a hitch. I don’t want us all to end up at the police station tonight.”

I couldn’t agree more, especially since I’m expected to be back at work in Ottawa within 48 hours. At 2pm, Sevil introduces the panel: Halil Yilmaz, Istanbul’s deputy chief of police, accompanied by a homicide detective; Douglas Posey, a black pathologist from Texas; Can Yaman, from Lambda Istanbul; and Cem Baseshiogulu, a gay victim who was stabbed 17 times.

I present a clip from a documentary on the CBC’s The Fifth Estate about a Vancouver gay man who was stabbed 60 times. Hanna Gartner’s voice booms through the cavernous auditorium, translated for the numerous Turks who are listening on their headsets. So far so good, but now the police have the floor.

“Our colleague has discussed crimes against homosexuals in Canada,” begins the deputy chief. “However, in our country, homosexual homicides do not result from discrimination. The violence is not against homosexuals, but between homosexuals.”

He’s well prepared. In front of him is a chart detailing 36 homosexual homicides that have occurred in Istanbul since 1996.

“Twenty killings took place in the residence of the victim. Most of the victims had a high level of income, lived alone and were unmarried. These people liked to have fun and go to gay bars in Taksim. They usually paid for sex.”

My friends in the front row are starting to get uncomfortable.

“Most victims were passive homosexuals. Naked pictures, Vaseline and porno videos were usually found in their homes. In one case, the victim wore red nail polish, shaved his head and plucked his eyebrows. Many victims were found wearing red tanga underwear.”

Cem, seated beside me, lets out an incredulous gasp. The Deputy Chief goes on to explain that many victims “forced” the killers to take a “passive role” in sex, which caused the killers to “snap.” During the break, the queer activists are shaking their heads in disgust. Cihan explains that the police have been using a derogatory word to describe homosexuals, which he loosely translates as “pervert.”

Cem is up next. He is soft-spoken, with long frizzy hair and a tie-dyed shirt. Journalists and photographers from 10 different newspapers are waiting to hear his story.

“I don’t believe I’m the victim the police described,” he begins defiantly. “I didn’t have porno tapes, I wasn’t rich and I wasn’t wearing red tanga underwear.”

His story is simple: he met a man in an Internet chatroom. After a few months they met for coffee. The next time they met, Cem invited the man to his apartment where they made love. In the middle of the night, Cem woke up to find the man straddling him, plunging a kitchen knife into his stomach.

“My intestines were falling out and I was covered in blood,” he says, nervously stroking his hair.

He bled onto the sidewalk for hours before an ambulance arrived. The only thing that kept him alive was thinking about his mother. At this point his voice breaks off and he begins to shake and weep. By now, 10 photographers have crawled up on the stage, cameras loaded, moving in for the kill. His private moment of sorrow is now a very public event. The flashbulbs go off, temporarily blinding Cem and me.

And now I’m crying, too, thinking, “What have I done?” Perhaps bringing all these people together was huge mistake. The moment is made even more surreal by the enormous image of Cem’s torso, covered in stab wounds, which has been projected across the back of the stage.

Can, Lambda’s representative, snaps us out of this gloom. He denounces lenient prison terms for killers, and the lack of shelters for battered men.

“Why are gay people so silent?” he barks. “Why are we so victimized? These crimes are hate crimes. We’re not talking about simple robbery or provocation. We don’t want tolerance, we want acceptance!”

The audience cheers as the pendulum swings back.

“Many gay people tell us that the police don’t want to investigate when they make a complaint about violence,” says Can. “They tell us, ‘You’re pursuing your pleasure in that relationship. Don’t bother us with your problems.'”

The deputy chief is clearly stung by this accusation and requests that he be contacted directly if this ever happens again. After three and a half hours of discussion, everyone is exhausted. A few Lambda members approach the police and give them some brochures.

“We asked if they would like to meet with us to discuss these problems,” says Cihan ruefully. “They said they weren’t interested.”


The next day at the airport, I pick up a copy of my interview in Millyet. The headline reads “Some men flirt with gays just to hurt them.” Back home, Tarik translates the article, explaining that it made Canada seem like a very dangerous place.

“There was no reflection on the violence facing gays in Turkey. If I were in Turkey reading this article, I would probably think twice about going to Canada. I would think, ‘It’s not so bad here.'”

Cihan wrote to say that the event I organized had generated enormous media coverage. Most of it was sympathetic, in spite of three headlines that referrred to the “Red Tanga Underwear Scandal.” Lambda Istanbul has now started collecting data for Human Rights Watch.

The activists at Lambda Istanbul are cautiously optimistic at the moment. But in Toronto, Tarik is monitoring the current situation with some trepidation: an Islamic-oriented party has recently gained power in Turkey.

“Whether it will adapt itself to the challenges raised by sexual minorities remains to be seen,” he says.

* Douglas Victor Janoff, an Ottawa-based researcher, can be reached at For more information on Lambda Istanbul, go to, then scroll down to “English.”