Being gay in Turkey’s army

BBC imageIf you haven’t seen it already, Emre Azizlerli from the BBC has produced a comprehensive and accurate account of what Turkish gay men have to endure before they can clinch a much-cherished exemption from military service.

“They asked me when I first had anal intercourse, oral sex, what sort of toys I played with as a child,” one man is quoted as saying. Have a read, or listen to the whole documentary here.

The Turkish general staff refused to give Emre Azizlerli an interview. They didn’t even provide a comment. This is hardly surprising: for all the talk about the army “defending” secularism against a pious government, it is still an extremely conservative institution that fiercely resists any form of progressive thought. It had an entirely separate judiciary as recently as three years ago. Soldiers would always be tried in military courts, irrespective of whether they attacked a superior or stole a car.

The conservatism applies to its approach to gay recruits too. Their defintion of homosexuality comes from an Amercian Psychiatric Association paper in 1968, Azizlerli writes. That’s clearly outdated and wrong, and needs to change.

Turkish society is a only little more open-minded than its armed forces. Homosexuality is not a criminal offence – which, for a Muslim-majority country, is saying something – but that doesn’t make Turkey an easy country to be gay in, especially outside towns like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Most families would consider a gay son a disgrace; homosexuality in women is barely acknowledged.

There are, however, signs of shifting attitudes, albeit at a glacial pace. When Selma Aliye Kavaf, a cabinet minister for women and family issues, said in a 2010 newspaper interview that she believed homosexuality is “a biological failure, an illness” and “something that needs treatment”, she was widely censured. Gay rights groups protested her comments and a lively debate about homosexuality ensued in television chat shows. She was even publicly criticised by a cabinet colleague, health minister Recep Akdağ, who said Turkey is not an easy place to be gay.

Ms Kavaf’s AK Party deselected her from the party list ahead of last year’s election. The vehemence of the reaction against her, and Mr Akdağ’s subsequent comments, demonstrates Turkey is no stereotypical Muslim country. But there is so much more to do, and enshrining sexual orientation in the new constitution would be a start.

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