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The Rainbow Crescent: the Integration of the Gay Turkish Community in Germany

Age 12: A teacher enters your classroom of German and Turkish students with a pamphlet about homosexuality.  Your friend Mehmet shouts out from behind you; “We don’t have gays in Turkey, only Germany does!”  

Age 18: Your first boyfriend, a German, introduces you to his fellow gay friends.  What do you hear? “Here’s my cute little Turk!”  

Age 25: While watching television with your brother, you muster all your strength to repeat the simple yet dreaded words that you’ve rehearsed for days.  You’re gay.  His response? “You’re not really a Turk anymore!”  

Age 28:  At a cafe in Schöneberg, a cute guy flirts with you and asks where you’re from.  You respond and he’s surprised because you don’t fulfill any of the stereotypes.  So he decides to compliment you with, “Oh, you’re not Turkish at all!”

So what do you think you are, after all?

Cemil: “I say that no human being will ever understand me, because I will never…my inner—Cemil—will never be open to anybody.  No human will ever understand me.  I always play.  This is the truth” [Mercan, 2004].

Homosexual males from Turkish migrant backgrounds belong to two minorities in Germany, but feel at home in neither.  Their dual identities appear to be mutually exclusive; in order to be accepted by one community, a gay Turk believes he must reject the other.  As a result, many gay Turks attempt to mask the double lives they lead, as sexually active members of the gay community and as upstanding men of the Turkish community—sometimes as husbands and fathers.  Others, however, are making these so-called parallel societies intersect.  They are forging a new hybrid community that integrates openly gay Turkish men as full members of both the gay and Turkish community in Germany. 

Growing Up Turkish

Older generations in the Turkish migrant diaspora have preserved a forty-year-old culture coming from rural Eastern Anatolia, a culture more conservative than that of both their home and their host country today. The family is key in the reproduction of this culture through the socialization of new generations into patriarchal gender roles and strict expectations towards sexuality.  Sons in Turkish families appear as future patriarchs, economic breadwinners, and the defenders of honor and order within the family.  Sexuality plays a pivotal role in the construction of the gender roles embodied in the dominant male and the submissive female.

Bali Saygili is the federal appointee for Turkish Gays and Lesbians for the LSVD, the federal organization of gays and lesbians in Germany.  His office handles the needs of the gay migrant community and their families.  Whenever he travels to Berlin schools with large Turkish populations, the first reaction to any discussion of homosexuality is; “We don’t have gays in Turkey, only in Germany”.  The Western homosexual-heterosexual binary does not exist in traditional Turkish society.  Indeed, Turkish men often engage in open displays of affection like kissing and hugging with intimate male friends, which Western heterosexual men would consider “gay”.  Whereas the West defines homosexuality by the sexual act, Turkish society does so through gender roles.  Those who refute patriarchal gender roles – exclusive homosexuals, lesbians, and male bottoms – are socially disgraced and excluded.  Ibne, effeminate men, are deemed sexually perverse because they do not fulfill patriarchal gender roles in public or in bed.  Patriarchal Turkish society only tolerates occasional and discreet acts for male top homosexuality.  On the other hand, Kulampara, very masculine men, are permitted to penetrate whatever they want, women, donkeys or ibne, because they sustain the stereotype of man as the active and dominant sexual being; “Nobody would consider himself as ‘abnormal’, ‘perverse’, ‘sinful’, let alone ‘homosexual’ for fucking an ibne” (Bochow, 2004).  

Coming Out Turkish?

When Turkish migrant families encounter the open and exclusive homosexuality in Germany, which Germans define as “gay behavior”, they dismiss it as a German mental sickness.  To many migrant families, homosexuality is dually understood as a disease and a choice.  Gays and lesbians from the Turkish migrant community have chosen to infect themselves with this German disease and have betrayed their own culture by assimilating into the perverse Other.  According to Bali Saygili, any discussions of sexuality, let alone homosexuality, are strictly taboo in the Turkish migrant community.  To prevent their kids from being confronted with topics of sexuality, some Turkish parents excuse their children from sex education courses in school.  As a result, new generations of German Turks remain severely under-informed about sexuality and sexual health and, thus, fall pray to the traditional prejudices that feed homophobia.

Turkish gays are well socialized into these attitudes towards gender and sexuality when they discover their homosexuality in their adolescence.  For the first time, their emotions and hormones lie in direct conflict with their socialization and gay Turks discover what Abdurrahman Mercan calls “a disjunction between their personal and their social identity” (Mercan, 2004).  With homosexual desires come severe shame, alienation, and fear of a family disowning them and social exclusion.  Saygili observes that socialization leaves a unique imprint on gay Turks’ view of their own sexuality, which many German counselors have difficulty to understand; “Even today, many Turks who come out still think of their homosexuality as somehow a disease”, which shapes their self-confidence, lifestyle choices, and behavior patterns.  Closeted gay Turks need an emotional outlet to navigate these feelings of shame.  Hard-pressed to find it among their Turkish family and friends, closeted Turks experience a newfound alienation within their tightly knit community.

Suat, a 30-year-old gay Turk who came to Hamburg when he was a teenager, does not plan to come out to his parents because he is “afraid of the consequences” of being disowned by his family and shunned by his community.  In one study (Ramazan, 2003) 64 percent of Turkish parents said they would rather see their children be alcoholics and 21 percent be heroin addicts rather than be gay.  According to another survey of the coming out reactions of Turkish parents, 38 percent of Turkish parents get their children married and 23 percent send them to a psychologist. (Mercan, 2004)  Families also regularly sever all ties, including financial, and leave the homosexual impoverished, which can be catastrophic in working class migrant communities; Saygili noted, “Many times those with the courage to come out to their parents are those with the luxury to be financially independent”.  Ipek Ipekçiog˜lu explains the cultural price of exclusion for homosexuals of migrant descent in Germany.  Since queers of the German majority belong to the dominant culture, they can easily substitute their families within new majority queer communities that reproduce the dominant culture and aesthetic; “So even if they have to leave their biological family, they are not losing access to their culture of origin and their positive self-image” (Ipekçioglu, 2003). For Turkish queers, in contrast, family exclusion means losing access to the social connections of the family and migrant community that reproduce their culture of origin in the host country.  Coming out transforms Turkish queers into aliens to both the mainstream German culture and to their migrant culture: “Because of a lack of substitute communities, [Turkish queers] step further into self-isolation” (Ipekçioglu, 2003).

A Game of Hide and Seek

Due to the profound personal and social toll of coming out in the Turkish community, the vast majority of gay Turks in Germany maintains the taboo of silence and remains in the closet.  The compounded fears of coming out have led gay Turks in Germany to live a double life as married men with wives and children.  Hakan Tandogan, an organizer of the oldest and most successful gay Turkish dance party, Gayhane, looked back at his own coming out; “In the beginning—we’re talking eight years ago—everybody led a double life”.  According to Saygili, either gay Turks pursue anonymous and promiscuous gay life or they develop an intimate long-standing relationship with a gay partner who “had to accept that they would always remain a secret that would be ignored if they passed each other on the street”.  Ali, a 21 year-old immigrant, has been the lover of his married older cousin for seven years whom he continues to visit in Turkey: “His wife serves us tea and he plays with my feet—I said; ‘you know what? You’re Gay too’…‘What about it?’ [He replies].  Two kids and…his wife—somehow hurts me, for her, it isn’t easy either, being cheated on by a gay husband…and sometime I feel ashamed looking in her face.  But then I tell myself—He was my first man, before she was even there” (Bochow, 2004). Even though this case occurred in Turkey, many of our interviewers insisted this behavior is as widespread in Germany.

Other gay Turks remain in the closet to their family but come out in the gay community as they attempt to balance double lives, as an out gay man and as a good Turkish son or brother.  Their sexuality is intensely restricted to private or anonymous gay spaces like underground gay bars, virtual chat-rooms, or private parties.  Saygili alleges; “Normally gay Turks shy away from public expressions of their sexuality… which leads them to discreet chat rooms where they don’t even expose their face… [they have] this instinct to hide themselves for fear of being ‘outed’ and publicly shamed by families and friends”.  Suat confirms that his sexuality is “a personal matter that doesn’t concern family” because “family is too important to be put at risk for sexual matters”.  The choice to be out in the gay community but not at home is sometimes painful and isolating, but absolutely necessary, he declares; “[I am] willing to refrain from things for my own personal well-being like coming out for the sake of my family”. 

Indeed, many Turkish migrant families also prefer to maintain this taboo of silence rather than confront the shock that their son or husband may be infected with the German mental disease of homosexuality.  One Turkish mother revealed; “We already guessed that our son is gay.  But when he told us… a whole world crashed down before our eyes.  I wish he had never told us the truth.  How, we suffer every day when he comes home late.  We ask ourselves if he’s been together with a man” (Mercan, 2004).  Within the Turkish migrant community, both closeted homosexuals and their families are willing to engage in the game of “double lives”.

Breaking Out: Forging a Gay Turkish Community

When Bali Saygili, an immigrant from Turkey, decided to come out twenty years ago in Munich, he thought he must be the only gay Turk in Munich.  But after he posted ads in a local paper, he quickly discovered twenty other gay and lesbian Turks and organized them into the first gay and lesbian Turkish organization in Munich.  Compared to a 2001 Emnid Institute study where 4.1% of German men and 3.1 percent of German women identified as homosexual, openly gay and lesbian Turks comprise an estimated 0.6 percent, or 15,000, of the 2.7 million people of Turkish descent in Germany today, with a significantly higher number still in the closet.

Over the last five years, a number of organizations for gays and lesbians of Turkish origin have sprung up within the Berlin gay community to assist queer Turkish migrants to discover the self-confidence and sense of belonging needed to embrace their sexuality. GLADT (Gays and Lesbians of Turkish Backgrounds) was initially founded in 1997 as a subsection of LSVD and later broke away in order to become more independent in representing the interests of migrants. LSVD still retains MILES, a specific office dedicated exclusively to the needs of queers from migrant backgrounds.

These specialized organizations like GLADT and MILES attempt to fill Ipekçioglu’s “lack of substitute communities” within the gay community.  Cemil, a fluent German speaker, needed a Turkish-speaking counselor as Turkish was the language of his emotions, not German, which was the language of his education and work. MILES overcomes the limitations of conventional German-language gay therapy with counseling services for each of the queer migrant subgroups, Turkish, Greek, Yugoslav, Russian-speakers, etc.  They allow homosexuals to speak to one another in their mother tongue about shared experiences and challenges.  In November 2003, MILES conducted the first conference on Turkish queers with over three hundred attendees from throughout Europe, which culminated in the publication of a series of essays, Muslims under the Rainbow (2004).

The Negative and Positive of Discrimination in the Gay Community

Florencio Chicote of the Anti-Discrimination Network (ADN) in Berlin identifies the gay Turkish community as a prime example of compounded discrimination, which cuts across different minority and majority groups.  Queer Turks are often the victims of triple discrimination: racism and Islamophobia from the German straight and gay community and homophobia from the straight German and Turkish migrant communities. Ipekçioğlu frames the identity split between queer and Turkish as an absurd paradox; “If [queer Turks] are perceived as existent, the straight migrant community considers them as assimilated into the German dominant culture or as ‘fallen out’ of the Turkish community and thus ‘Not really a Turk anymore’ but the German queers use the same statement as a compliment, ‘You’re not Turkish at all!” (Ipekçioglu, 2003)  

Racism against gay Turks within the gay mainstream has diminished over the past twenty years.  When Saygili came out of the closet in 1980s Munich, the gay mainstream society did not embrace gay Turks out of “fear and skepticism of foreign cultures”.  Hakan Tan, a middle-aged Turkish migrant journalist, lamented in a 2004 article that Turks “still face racism in the (gay) scene” based on criminal stereotypes of Turks as “pickpockets or callboys”.  Murat Bahs¸i, former board member of GLADT, believes that hidden racism or misperceptions of racism are a significant cause of breakups in interethnic couples.  Moreover, gay Turks point to concrete racist entry-policies at certain gay bars and clubs that refuse to let Turks through the door.

Gay Turks also suffered from exoticization, which, contrary to racism, is a form of positive discrimination where the German gay mainstream ascribes certain attractive racial stereotypes to gay Turks.  One needs to look no further than the back-page personal ads of box.de magazine for the fetishization of gay Turks in Germany as dominant, bisexual, and hairy exotic lovers to act out the fantasies of ethnic Germans.  The very fact of dating a Turk can even be perceived as something exotic.  When Suat started dating men ten years ago, his German boyfriend flaunted him to his German friends as “my cute little Turk”.  Many gay Turks fear that their exoticization and objectification by the gay mainstream pigeonholes them to the inferior role of exotic lover or one-night-stand and not as a serious romantic partner.  Bali Saygili believes that the use of exoticized stereotypes by Germans and Turks has lessened over the years; “we were once the exotic lovers and now we are considered more or less normal”.  GLADT helped to counter these stereotypes with an award-winning poster campaign representing a map of Europe with photos of callboys in every country.  With the slogan “you accept them only for some hours”, the campaign argued that gay men needed to stop indulging in foreigners only as one-night fantasies.

“Race is not the problem but the difference of lifestyles is” Murat Bahşi provocatively claims. Turkish-German relationships in the current gay community suffer most from misunderstandings of cultural differences and lifestyles.  The most important factor in interethnic relationships is openness to different cultural sensitivities, socializations, and expectations.  Many gay Turks do not pursue relationships with gay Germans because they fear that Germans will not try or want to understand their unique life experiences as a gay Turk living in Germany.  Some ethnically German men, like Bali Saygili’s partner of eleven years, will admit to being skeptical about a clash of cultures and lifestyles.  

The representatives of GLADT and MILES give different estimates of interethnic relationships between German and Turkish gays.  Mehmet of GLADT speculated that Germans and Turks are deeply intermixed with the percentage of interethnic relationships at fifty-fifty.  GLADT believes that the two communities are not simply integrated, but intimate.  In contrast, Bali Saygili of MILES argues that the gay community has a long way to go to counter misunderstandings and fears of lifestyle clashes by both the German and Turkish gay community.  Saygili presents a much lower percentage of interethnic relationships at ten percent. (Official statistics don’t exist.)

Germans often find it difficult to accept the double lives of their Turkish partners, the paramount importance of family, the taboo of silence, and their divergent expectations of coming out.  Many of Suat’s German boyfriends did not understand why it was so essential to keep his two lives separate.  He nervously avoided requests by German boyfriends to meet his parents.  Mehmet’s mother pleaded with him not to move out of the family home but stay until marriage as expected; [My German boyfriend] always answered me immediately when I told him that I had problems at home ‘just move out, plain and simple’.  I thought it’s so dumb because [my German boyfriends] didn’t know my situation and that it is not so easy to just move out…They just followed the German way of thinking”.  Instead of confronting cultural misunderstandings, many gay Turks choose to pursue relationships exclusively with Turks who share the same lifestyle and cultural background.  Suat, who had previously only dated German men, discovered in his current half-Turkish boyfriend “[someone] who understands all the little things which I had to explain to my German partners all the time”.  

“If he’s cute, he can come”: Integration and Acceptance in the Gay Community

Despite the need to assuage fears of mutual misunderstanding, the gay Turks have established a permanent home in the current gay mainstream.  The German gay community provides a good model of integration for its straight counterparts, since most gay Turks feel more comfortable in the gay community than most Turks feel in greater German society.  To test the acceptance of gay migrants within the gay mainstream, we conducted an unofficial survey of seventy gay German men ages eighteen to fifty at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day Parade at Nollendorfplatz.  The questionnaire asked the respondents if they would date an American, a German, an African, a Turk, an Asian, and a pregnant woman.  We believe that the survey was less representative of discrimination within the gay community.  Hesitant to respond negatively and appear racist, many skeptical respondents tended to be overtolerant, with 75 percent of gay men surveyed agreeing to date pregnant women.  Surprisingly, the group most discriminated against was not pregnant women, but Asians, with 30 percent of respondents declining to date them.  German respondents next discriminated against Turks (14%) and Africans (8%).  Few gay Germans continue to accord migrant gays an inferior status based on racial stereotyping.  In bars and clubs, the vast majority of gay Germans do not consider race important in choosing partners; “Hey, if he’s cute, he can come!”, one respondent retorted.  As a an often victimized minority, the modern gay community in Germany perhaps does not merely accept racial and cultural differences but looks beyond them.

The gay community has opened new spaces for German and Turkish homosexuals to meet and party together.  More than discussion groups, cultural organizations, and counseling services, gay Turkish dance parties have become the most popular places of encounter and exchange between communities.  GLADT established the Gay Orient Party to help Germans and Turks meet and find partners.  Since 1996, the popular club SO-36, located at the nexus of the gay and Turkish community on the Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg, has hosted Gayhane, an oriental gay party every last Saturday of the month.  Hakan Tandogan, an organizer and renowned cross-dressing belly dancer of Gayhane, points to the dance floor as a symbol of the possibilities of integration of gays, straights, Germans, and migrants; “The Gayhane, which started for Turks, has ended up drawing everybody you can think of—Arabs, immigrants, Germans, anyone who feels like partying with us”.  The Mr. Gay Deutschland contest has also become a sign of the deep integration of Turks and German in shared spaces of celebration.  For two years in a row, gay Turks have won the representative title of Mr. Gay Deutschland.

Homophobia: A Turkish Problem?

Several Turkish men are sitting on the benches of a Turkish bar in Kreuzberg, impassively observing the street. Two gay men pass by holding hands. Suddenly the Turks are alive, shouting in a broken rhythm. That kind of scene can easily be observed in migrant neighborhoods of Berlin today. It may be easy to assume at first that Turks are homophobic by nature, but to what extent is it true?

Florencio Chicote from the ADN argues that homophobia is not a culturally or religiously “Turkish” problem.  Among the extremely heterogeneous Turkish community in Germany of different ages, origins, and citizenships, culture and religion are no more to blame for homophobia than they are in mainstream German society.  In Chicote’s view, it is not the specificity of Turkish culture that leads to violent homophobic actions, but rather the generally low educational level of migrants.  Most immigrants of Turkish descent come from poorly educated regions of Turkey and often fall through the cracks of the German education system.  The disparity in education level between immigrants and natives in Germany manifests itself in the high levels of aggressive homophobic responses by poorly educated people of Turkish descent. 

Bali Saygili disagrees entirely; “there is a specific Turkish reaction to homosexuality”.  Out of a crowd of straight and gay employees of the LSVD who were hanging gay posters in the densely Turkish neighborhood of Neukölln, only Saygili, the Turkish in their midst, was picked out by a group of Turkish youngsters and harassed.  They shouted that he betrayed the culture of his homeland by engaging in this perverse German lifestyle.  Saygili blames virulent homophobia among Turkish men on a rise of religiosity and traditionalism due in large part to feelings of socio-economic exclusion from the German mainstream.

The stance on homophobia among Turks has become a dividing line between the major gay Turkish organizations in Germany. MILES identifies the problem of homophobia in the Turkish community as cultural and insists on discussing it openly.  In contrast, GLADT considers that there is nothing ethno-specific in the homophobic acts by people of Turkish descent. In their view, ascribing special homophobic tendencies to Turkish culture is discriminative, if not outright racist.  It hints that MILES, being a subsection of LSVD, has succumbed to the prejudices of the German gay mainstream. The disagreement came to a boiling point when, after a particular MILES publication that addressed Turkish homophobia, GLADT “refused all contact” with LSVD (MILES) or “decided to distance itself” from it (GLADT).

Whatever its origins, few gay Turks would disagree that homophobia within the Turkish community requires action.  MILES, in cooperation with Turkish Bund of Berlin-Brandenburg, took the first step with an awareness campaign aimed at breaking the taboo of silence among gay migrants and their home communities.  MILES displayed two sets of 12,000 posters and 50 billboards all over Berlin in 2004 illustrating a group of gay Turkish and German youths with the motto ““Kai ist Schwul und Murat auch. Sie gehören zu uns, jeder Zeit“ (i.e. Kai – a German name – is gay, and so is Murat: They are a part of us—Always). An alternative version in 2005 featured a group of young women. 

The campaign has produced unequivocal responses.  Volunteers hanging posters in Kreuzberg and Neukölln encountered episodes from verbal to violent aggression.  On the other hand, the campaign produced many positive phone calls from Turkish queers and their families asking for information and counseling.  “We even had parents who rang to ask, ‘My son just told me he is gay, how do I react’ or ‘How can we reconnect with our child’ because the family has had problems dealing with their child’s homosexuality”.

Gay Turks are still Turks: Re-integration of Gay Turks into Family Life

The formation of gay Turkish organizations within gay Berlin has offered gay Turks the foothold to set a new campaign into motion: the re-integration of gay Turks into the Turkish community.  Both GLADT and MILES plan to offer gay Turks and their families the services necessary to cope with homosexuality and the rough process of coming out.  A group of sixty Turkish women (men were notably absent from the word-of-mouth invitation) sit around for a potluck dinner of Turkish specialties for a closed meeting held by MILES.  They do not identify themselves as the sisters, mothers, or grandmothers of a Turkish gay or lesbian.  They attend a “general interest” discussion in Turkish about homosexuality.  This was the scene in June 2005 at MILES’ first culturally sensitive counseling service for Turkish parents.  MILES informs these women in a non-confrontational manner through role-playing and hypothetical situations in order to discuss how these women would react to one of their relatives’ coming out.  The moderator addresses misconceptions of homosexuality as a disease or as a choice and the women learn what services are available to queer Turks and their families.  Bali Saygili hopes that these meetings will prepare these women to discuss the topic of homosexuality and to break the taboo of silence within Turkish families.

So what do you think you are, after all?  As victims of compounded discrimination and exclusion, some gay Turks like Cemil have resigned themselves that they will never be fully accepted by anyone, gay or straight, German or Turkish.  Unfortunately, the straight German and, more so, the straight Turkish community have much work ahead to combat homophobia.  The challenge for organizations like GLADT and MILES today is the re-integration of openly gay Turks as full members of the Turkish community life.  Conversely, nearly thirty years after the start of the gay rights movement, gay Turks have finally established their own minority community within the German gay minority, despite struggles with racism and exoticization.  Most gay Turks like Suat feel more integrated and “at home” in the German gay scene than in the straight Turkish community.  

What lessons does the strong inclusion of gay Turks into the gay community carry for the contemporary integration debate in Germany?  Dr. Bernhard Santel’s passing thought that “integration does not require intimacy” reflects a broader assumption in European nations; a host culture does not have to be intimate with its immigrant communities to create an integrated society.  But in the case of gay Turks in Germany, sexuality, the utmost expression of intimacy, appears to be more of a bridge than a barrier to integration.  Some time in between overlooking the pulsating crowd on the Gayhane dance floor and spotting an interethnic couple secretly holding hands under a café table in Kreuzberg, the provocative prospect popped into our heads.  Perhaps integration is all about intimacy; perhaps integration really starts in the bedroom.

References

 

a. Literature

Abdurrahman Mercan, “Identität und Emanzipation bei türkischen Homosexuellen am Beispiel von TürkGay&Lesbian LSVD,” in: Muslime unter dem Regenbogen: Homosexualität, Migration und Islam, (Berlin, 2004) pp. 152-167

Ipek Ipekçioğlu, Dokumentation des 1. Bundeskongresses türkeistämmiger Lesben, Schwuler, Bisexueller, Transsexueller und Transgender, (Berlin, 2003) pp. 21-24

Michael Bochow, “Junge schwule Türken in Deutschland: Biographische Brüche und Bewältigungsstrategien,” in: Muslime unter dem Regenbogen: Homosexualität, Migration und Islam, (Berlin, 2004) pp. 168-188

Salman Ramazan, “AIDS-Prävention und Migration”, (Hannover, 1992) p. 125

b. Internet Sources

Cem Rifat Sey, “When Turkish Men Love Men,” January 1, 2004, www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,1564,1079381,00.html

Deborah Cole, “Gay Turks tearing down walls in Berlin,” April 19, 2004, Agence France Presse www.gmax.co.za/look04/04/20-germany.html

Kate Hairsine, “Being Turkish and Gay in Germany,” September 9, 2004, www.dw-world.de/article/0,1564,1336100,00.html

c. Interviews

Bali Saygili, LSVD-MILES: Lesben- und Schwulenverbandes in Deutschland:

Zentrum für Migranten, Lesben und Schwule, June 27, 2005 

Florencio Chicote, Turkish Bund of Berlin-Brandenburg: Anti-Discrimination Network Berlin, June 23, 2005

Murat Bahşi,  Gays & Lesbians aus der Türkei Berlin-Brandenburg e.V., personal interview, June 22, 2005

Suat, real name withheld, personal interview, June 29, 2005

 

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