ISTANBUL -- Sechil sits in an open, crowded café here, smoking a cigarette and occasionally tucking wisps of hair back into her hijab. She pulls out a pink identification card, legal proof in Turkey that she is a woman. Except that she isn’t fully one. The name on the card is Mehmet, a common man’s name, and the Turkish translation of Mohammad, the Muslim prophet.
But Sechil, 40, who has identified with her female name for more than two decades and says she has “always known her true gender,” underwent gender reassignment surgery in Istanbul two years ago. She was born with male body parts, but it took her nearly 26 years to make the full transition from man to woman -- a process she says was only possible because she had the money to pay for lawyers and doctors to help her.
And she is looking at the upcoming election for parliament next month as the biggest chance for Turkey’s transgender people to begin overturning the stigma they face in this Muslim society, where Istanbul’s cosmopolitan attitudes coexist with religiously tinged conservatism elsewhere.
Sechil, who did not reveal her full name or her hometown because she says she fears retribution from people back home, is part of a flourishing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Istanbul, which hosts the largest annual transgender rights march in the Muslim world. Transgender people from more conservative Muslim countries such as Syria and Iraq have moved to Istanbul, Turkey’s most cosmopolitan and liberal city, to live.
Yet LGBT people still struggle to fit into mainstream Turkish society, and transgender people especially so. They are often assaulted in the street, even killed by their own family members. They have trouble finding jobs. Most enter into the sex trade, lacking any other employment opportunities.
“It is really difficult, but they don’t have any other choice,” Sechil says. “What are they going to do? No one else wants to employ them.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party is seeking a victory at the polls on June 7 to remain in power, has denounced homosexuals and transgendered people as contrary to the culture of Islam.
Sechil denies that claim. She is a religious woman; she fasts during Ramadan, prays five times a day and considers herself a devout Muslim. “God just wants me to be me,” she says.
But this year, a transgender woman is running for parliament for the first time, one of only four openly LGBT candidates seeking national office.
Deva Ozenen is running for the newly formed Anatolia Party.
“Having a transgender woman run for parliament is a massive achievement for the community,” Sechil says. “There was a point not long ago that transgender people couldn’t walk down the street without getting harassed. Now there is one running for office. It is such an improvement.”
If she is elected, Ozenen -- who, as a Christian, faces another obstacle beyond her gender in this majority-Muslim nation -- will have her work cut out for her. Ozenen is running a small, long-shot campaign that is based on fighting discrimination against LGBT people.
“If we are waiting for Turkish society to get ready for us, we’ll wait a long time,” she said in an interview with The Independent. “We are going against the tide. We are trying to get our rights and we don’t care if society is ready for this or not.”
In a report published last year, Amnesty International said LGBT people continue “to face discrimination in employment and in interactions with the state authorities. No progress was made [by Turkey] in bringing provisions to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity into the Constitution or into domestic law.” And “a number of murders of transgender women were reported during the year,” the report also said.
When she was 14, Sechil’s parents found out that she was in a relationship with her male cousin. She had to flee her hometown in eastern Turkey, she says, for safety reasons -- and soon after began taking hormones to start her transition.
“I would have been killed,” she says, running a napkin nervously through her fingers.
But no issue may be more pressing to Turkey’s transgender people than the process of getting gender reassignment surgery.
The transgender community in Turkey, Sechil says, hopes that if it is represented in parliament it might have a better chance of gaining quicker approval for gender reassignment surgeries. It’s possible to get the operation in the country, but as the law stands now, Turkish citizens can legally undergo gender reassignment operations only if preceded by sterilization.
In March, the European Court of Human Rights declared the requirement of permanent infertility in order to undergo gender reassignment surgery to be incompatible with human rights. LGBT activists in Turkey are asking that the government do the same and eliminate the requirement from the law, especially since it is forcing people to look for unsafe alternatives.
Men and women here are now more than ever, doctors say, seeking to get court approval for gender reassignment surgery. But thousands of people in Turkey have had to wait years, some even decades, to get the official court order that allows them to undergo the operation. The process is daunting, especially for people who do not have the money or guidance to navigate the law. As a result, many are resorting to unsafe and unregulated medical practices to speed up the transition process.
Sechil and at least two plastic surgeons in Istanbul told International Business Times that the laws in Turkey are creating a new, harmful and misguided trend. Men who want to speed up the process of transitioning to a woman now board small ships off the coast of Izmir in southwestern Turkey -- incidentally, where Ozenen is running for office -- and head for international waters far from Turkish law and oversight to undergo castration. The operations, performed at sea, are expensive, illegal and very dangerous -- and people who undergo them then return to land with the hope that the government will have no other choice but to give them a pink ID card.
But it is not that simple.
“This is exactly the kind of thing I try to avoid and advise my clients against,” says Suleyman Sennur, an attorney and advocate for transgender individuals who want to undergo gender reassignment surgery. He helps his clients navigate Turkish law and apply for a court order needed to obtain the surgery legally. “This kind of thing actually pushes the process back, not forward. If an individual gets a procedure like this done off the books, then I need to go and convince doctors to write a note saying the patient had the procedure done legally.”
The unmonitored procedures are extremely risky, Dr. Ali Gurlek, a prominent plastic surgeon in Istanbul and one of the few doctors in Turkey who perform gender reassignment surgery.
“There are complications to these kind of procedures, especially with recovery,” he said.
Sechil, who spent nearly five years of her life going through the process of obtaining a court order for the surgery, is done with the surgeries, but nowhere near the end of the legal process. Although the surgeries are complete, her identification card has the name of a man she no longer identifies with -- a name that she says is a constant reminder of her painful past. Some people have managed to get their name changed, but that’s rare, and the process leading to it seemingly arbitrary.
“When you pass your ID card over to someone at the airport or at the doctors, they stare at you,” Sechil says. “They are so confused when they see me but then see my name.”
Sechil was lucky in a way, though, she says, because she had the nearly 10,000 Turkish lira, the equivalent of $3,800, to pay Suleyman to help her with the legal paperwork.
“Most of my friends have had problems. Some of them even changed their minds about getting the surgery because of the long process. One judge wanted to reverse my friend’s entire process,” Sechil says.
Without help from inside parliament, Sechil says, things cannot improve for transgender people in Turkey.
LGBT activists and analysts say that although societal attitudes toward transgender people are becoming more accepting in large cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, Turkey still lags behind many other countries when it comes to discussions about LGBT rights.
KAOS GL, one of the largest LGBT rights watchdogs in Turkey, published a report this month claiming LGBT people were still largely discriminated against in the country.
“In Turkey, as in many other regions of the world, prejudice and discrimination not only cause LGBTIs to be excluded from health programs and limit their access to health services but also deprive them of the most basic human rights,” the report said.
That discrimination is in part due to the leadership in the Turkish government, the organization said.
“The government, which refuses to recognize the very reality of LGBTIs, fails to take any legal precautions to protect LGBTIs whom it deprives of basic human rights.”
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced its election manifesto last month, titled the New Turkey Contract/2023, for the June 7 elections. The manifesto lists 100 goals of the ruling AKP, including the establishment of a new constitution and equal citizenship, but fails to mention protecting the rights of LGBT people in the country.
“There are so many problems in Turkey. All doors are closed for us here,” Sechil says. “We should be able to live freely and take our lovers to cafés and to live openly without being judged.”