STORY: When I first heard the Turkish word sevici, I had no idea what it meant. Though literally translated it means lover, it seems the patriarchal Turkish society adopted it to refer to lesbians, a kinder word for bullying its gay women than the one used against their male counterparts, ibne,which is more similar to the derogatory English term “fags.”
I was a university student when a young girl and her parents moved into our neighborhood in Istanbul. She had green eyes and reddish, short curly hair and was neither skinny nor fat. From the beginning, she stood out, when playing with other children, because she preferred to play with the boys, rather than other girls, and loathed wearing feminine clothes.
As she grew older, she still refused to conform, continuing to play soccer with the boys, while disdaining the usual girlish things. I recall once, when the whole neighbourhood was invited to a wedding ceremony, she showed up with reddened eyes, obviously from crying. She’d had a quarrel with her family because she hadn’t been willing to don the “appropriate” clothing expected for women to wear at such an occasion.
She kept on hanging out with the boys and her clothes became more and more masculine, which disturbed many in our neighbourhood. While the district I lived in was more secular than in any other part of Turkey, it still wasn’t a place where someone like her was likely to be accepted.
At one point, her parents arranged for her to see a psychiatrist and, despite attending at least a few sessions, she insisted on living as she had, refusing to conform, in a society entirely dedicated to conformity. It caused her a lot of headache and eventually, she dropped out of high school.
The societal pressure on her never diminished one bit. Over time, guys stopped allowing her to mix with them. And, in due course, her family decided to leave our neighbourhood. While they were preparing to move, bearded lean muscular guys carried boxes out to their van. She helped and chatted with them, not flirtatiously, but as “one of the guys.” The mortified neighbors watched this unfold from their balconies and living rooms, with curtains half-open, wondering about the family’s next destination. Many were probably relieved they were moving away, while some dared to help them as a last act of farewell.
Over the years, I’ve heard of similar situations where families moved out of their neighborhoods to insulate their children from the disapproval of others, compelled to leave to escape the shame cast upon them. In conservative Muslim regions, shame is defined by a society that doesn’t approve of a family’s behaviour.
For most of the time she and her family had lived in our neighborhood, I really didn’t understand her or what motivated her behavior. But, one day, I saw her on my way to work. She was wearing a man’s white shirt with black pants. Red, curly hair could be seen clearly under her baseball hat. Her androgynous appearance broadcast a proud self-esteem. She was utterly convincing as a boy.
At that time, I was desperately infatuated with several men, but insufficiently self-aware or brave enough to admit it to myself. Even as I became more conscious of my sexual preference, I didn’t have the courage to jeopardize strong family ties and social standing by being open about it.
And today, I’m still afraid to come out to my family, relatives, and most straight people. I am really only out to my “chosen” family—gay friends and accepting straight people whom I hold close. I’ve been unwilling to risk revealing my sexual orientation to the larger world, because of the conservative culture of Turkey that I live in. I’d love to live my life freely from fear of judgment by those around me. I envy that brave young woman, who understood early in her life, that she didn’t belong to anyone and unleashed herself accordingly.