Rising stigmatization in modern Turkey (Part 1)

"Political parties across the spectrum, from the AKP to the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) and even the CHP (Republican People's Party), appear to have unified in making the LGBTQI+ topic a taboo subject."

By Irfan Aktan

Jeyan Kader Gulsen and Zekiye Kacak Bakirhan, the filmmakers behind "Bu Ben Değilim" (This Is Not Me), assert that LGBTQI+ identities are once again becoming taboo in modern Turkey. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been deliberately targeting so-called enemies at various times to achieve specific political objectives. The ruling party, lately, has been leveraging anti-LGBTI sentiments.

Aiming to reshape society, the concept of family, and legislation to suit its political agenda, the AKP has been successful in making anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric nearly pervasive, effectively suppressing democratic dissent. Advocacy for the human rights of LGBTQI+s, who face persecution simply for having a different sexual orientation than the majority, and challenging the infringement of their rights is quickly becoming a relic of the past.

Directors Gulsen and Bakirhan present a poignant and impactful testament with "Bu Ben Değilim" (This Is Not Me), which addresses the harsh reality of gay men concealing their sexuality under social and political duress, often remaining in heterosexual marriages as a cover. Their film confronts us with a bitter truth that, while widely known, is seldom discussed openly. The narrative follows the lives of individuals such as Mehmet, who, despite being a married father, leads a secret life with his lover Mustafa, and Yusuf, who is forced into a traditional marriage arrangement. Through their work, the directors shed light on the struggles those living double lives face due to prevailing societal norms and pressures.

  • Was the production of your film "This Is Not Me" impacted by the government's portrayal of non-heterosexual orientations as a threat or contagion to the sanctity of the traditional family unit during that time?

Jeyan Kader: During the production of our film "This Is Not Me," which spanned from 2018 to 2020, we encountered an increasingly hostile environment towards LGBTQI+ individuals. This period coincided with escalating hate speech against LGBTQI+ people and the government's active prohibition of the Pride Parade, signaling a significant regression in LGBTQI+ human rights. Initially, we perceived creating a film about LGBTQI+s to be a relatively "soft" topic compared to the challenges of addressing the Kurdish issue through cinema or discourse. However, we quickly discovered that tackling LGBTQI+ topics in our film became nearly as contentious and challenging as handling the Kurdish issue. Consequently, we experienced and continue to endure hardships related to these sociopolitical challenges during and after the film's production.

  • How?

Jeyan Kader: We face restrictions and various hindrances when showcasing our film. Currently, we are witnessing a revival of the taboo surrounding LGBTQI+ issues, which is leading to a rapid deterioration of LGBTQI+ rights. The situation is deteriorating so swiftly that each year seems indistinguishable from the last, marked by a stark decline. Consider the contrast depicted in our film. At the same time, the Pride March was able to proceed in 2018 despite challenges. Now, the mere gathering of a couple of individuals is met with intolerance and arrests. Political parties across the spectrum, from the AKP to the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) and even the CHP (Republican People's Party), appear to have unified in making the LGBTQI+ topic a taboo subject.

We encounter various forms of censorship and obstacles when we attempt to screen our films. We are in a time where the issue of LGBTI rights is becoming increasingly stigmatized. This is causing a rapid regression in LGBTI rights to the point where each year is becoming indistinguishable from the last due to the severity of the decline. Reflect on the scenario presented in our film. While the Pride March took place in 2018 despite difficulties, now even a small gathering of individuals leads to intolerance and detentions. It seems that political parties, from the AKP to the MHP and even the CHP, have come to a collective agreement on stigmatizing the topic of LGBTQI+ rights.

  • Have festivals blocked your film?

Jeyan Kader: Festival organizers and jurors maintain their support without reservation. The actual value of the work becomes apparent when the film reaches its audience.

Zekiye Kacak: Before the recent elections, there has been a concerted effort to sway parents towards an anti-LGBTQI+ stance, employing divisive language that questions whether they would want their sons to be involved with other boys and their daughters with other girls. Such rhetoric is often cloaked in the guise of "protecting the family" and is increasingly being disseminated through public service announcements on television that oppose LGBTQI+ rights. There's a growing belief, fueled by misinformation, that LGBTQI+ identities are being promoted worldwide as part of a scheme to control population numbers. This notion is gaining traction even among educated individuals within my social circles. The government's anti-LGBTQI+ narrative is resonating across various strata of society, extending its reach to those who might otherwise be considered intellectuals.

Jeyan Kader: While same-sex behavior is a natural phenomenon observed across numerous species, including humans, the assertion that there is a burgeoning trend encouraging individuals to adopt a homosexual orientation is politically motivated. Essentially, the reality is not an increase in homosexuality itself but rather the strategic manipulation of the topic by certain political factions. These groups aim to leverage societal attitudes towards homosexuality to construct social and political structures that serve their interests.

  • What do you mean?

Jeyan Kader: Firstly, there exists a significant reluctance to challenge the taboo surrounding homosexuality. This hesitation is so pronounced that even LGBTI organizations distance themselves from our film.

  • Why?

Jeyan Kader: There seems to be a palpable fear lately due to heightened scrutiny. We contacted LGBTI groups and university LGBTI societies, yet they could not attend our film screening or offer their backing. They opt to maintain a gap, perhaps without full knowledge of our activities.

  • What are the reactions of ordinary people watching the movie?

Jeyan Kader: Families and individuals from various backgrounds attend and are often deeply moved by the film.

Zekiye Kacak: My neighbor, who also attended the screening at Nisantasi City's Shopping Mall on October 28th, shared, "I usually have strong reservations about these topics, but your film opened my eyes to understand the gay community." The movie creates a powerful sense of empathy among viewers. This isn't just specific to our movie; generally speaking, when individuals are open to discussing, considering, and hearing about LGBTQI+ issues, they realize the humanity at its core. There are likely efforts to stifle dialogue on the subject, to stop people from contemplating it and hearing what's being said. Our goal is to encourage as many people as possible to listen, observe, and attempt to comprehend this voice, this narrative.

  • What exactly does the movie "This Is Not Me" tell?

Jeyan Kader: The film narrates the tales of traditional men who have left their rural homes to seek anonymity in the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, where they engage in heterosexual marriages as a facade to conceal their true homosexual identities. Through the journeys of the three protagonists—Mehmet, Mustafa, and Yusuf—the movie portrays the reality that individuals from the LGBTQI+ community don't fit a single stereotype related to class, ethnicity, or educational background, as often suggested. Instead, it reveals that LGBTQI+ individuals could be the very people we encounter daily, such as our next-door neighbors, the local butcher, or the neighborhood barber, all of whom may outwardly seem to lead conventional heterosexual lives while simultaneously experiencing an entirely different reality.

  • Do they also engage in political activities?

Zekiye Kacak: Like every citizen in Turkey possesses unique political beliefs, the male characters in our film also embody distinct political viewpoints.

Jeyan Kader: Mehmet, Mustafa, and Yusuf each hold strong convictions. It's also a misconception fueled by discriminatory biases that homosexuals are ostracized from religious, cultural, and moral values, often being depicted as fringe or radical individuals. Yet, this perception is a significant fallacy.

  • Do the characters in "Bu Ben Değilim" have a relationship with the LGBTQI+ movement?

Jeyan Kader: Mustafa has a somewhat political identity, unlike the others. He stands out as a hero and a leader, a confidant known for his exceptional awareness and insight. Simply being who he is, Mustafa represents a political statement under the present circumstances in Turkey.

  • What is Mustafa's story?

Zekiye Kacak: Mustafa's early years were spent in Rize before he moved to Antalya, where he spent his formative years. It was there, in a time before the advent of smartphones, that he encountered Mehmet in an online chat platform. They engaged in a lengthy correspondence, never having met in person. Eventually, Mehmet extended an invitation to Mustafa to come to Istanbul. Their initial meeting sparked an immediate mutual attraction. Following their encounter, Mustafa returned to Antalya, quickly gathered his belongings, and relocated to Istanbul. Mehmet secured a job for him at the same construction site where he was employed. Unbeknownst to Mustafa, however, was that Mehmet had a family with a spouse and children.

  • Is Mehmet a construction worker?

Zekiye Kacak: Yes, he came to Istanbul from Samsun to work in construction. He works as a construction site supervisor. His wife and children are in Samsun. They also come to Istanbul for a while, and things get complicated.

Jeyan Kader: Mustafa, initially in his twenties and hailing from Antalya, crossed paths with Mehmet, a man in his thirties from the outskirts of Samsun. The two embarked on a romantic journey that spanned approximately a decade and a half. Time has passed, and Mustafa has entered his forties, while Mehmet has reached his fifties.

Zekiye Kacak: Indeed, their relationship unfolds over an extended period. Eventually, when Mehmet's wife and two children arrive in Istanbul, he is compelled to reveal his marital status to Mustafa. With time, Mustafa comes to terms with the situation, and thus, they commence a life of dual existence that persists for many years. Amidst this ongoing saga, they experience conflicts, and Mehmet subjects Mustafa to violence. There are moments of separation and reconciliation, a cycle that stretches out across 15 years.

Jeyan Kader: Mehmet spends years grappling with his sexual identity, struggling to deny his homosexuality. He frequents brothels and engages in heterosexual encounters, attempting to abandon his true inclinations by his means. Therefore, the situation extends beyond a married man maintaining a relationship with a male partner in a covert manner. The crux of the matter lies in Mehmet's inner turmoil, his vacillation, his bouts of depression, and his overall sense of being trapped, which constitute significant issues.

  • When does Mehmet begin to face his true self?

Jeyan Kader: This self-confrontation was initiated during the four-year filming period. Mehmet hasn't disclosed his true self to anyone but us and Mustafa.

  • Even without revealing his face on screen, it seems likely that those familiar with him will recognize his identity when they view the film…

Jeyan Kader: We were concerned about this issue, but at a certain point, Mehmet adopted the mindset of "I don't owe anyone an explanation." Even when we were filming in Samsun and feeling anxious about keeping his involvement a secret, he remained calm and composed.

  • Does his wife now know that Mehmet is gay?

Zekiye Kacak: We don't know that. In the movie, Mehmet says, "My wife guesses".

Jeyan Kader: At one point, Mehmet went as far as introducing his lover, Mustafa, to his wife, claiming he was "the brother of a comrade-in-arms," and even brought him into their home. Mehmet and Mustafa briefly cohabitated with Mehmet's wife. However, while Mehmet's wife was out one day, the two men were snuggled up on the couch watching television. Unexpectedly, Mehmet's wife returned home and caught them in the act. Shocked, she exclaimed, "How could you do something so disgraceful?" We didn't have the opportunity to interview the wives of either Mehmet or Yusuf for their perspectives on the matter. Still, we did speak to another woman who shared a similar experience.

  • What was that woman saying?

Jeyan Kader: "I had always suspected he was unfaithful, but I assumed it was with another woman and blamed myself for his disinterest." I imagine Mehmet's wife might feel similarly. The issue, however, isn't unique to Turkey; it's a global concern. It affects not only gay men in heterosexual marriages but also the women they are married to. This aspect of the problem often remains overlooked.

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