What Israelis Can Learn From Turkish LGBT Activists, and Vice Versa

LGBT activists from Turkey arrive in Tel Aviv to share ideas and soak up the energy

From left, Müge Akbasan, Ali Erdogan, Sevcan Tiftik, Zeynep Kayacan, and Can Eren.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Müge Akbasan, 27, Ali Erdogan, 28, Sevcan Tiftik, 29, Zeynep Kayacan, 30, and Can Eren, 24; arriving from Istanbul

Hello, what are you planning to do in Israel?

Müge: We’re here for the Pride Parade, we came via the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. I’m the chairperson of SPOD [the Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association], the only LGBT organization now operating in Istanbul. The organization cooperates with the consulate, which suggested that we join the delegation coming here so that we could get to know LGBT activists in Israel. Zeynep is the coordinator of our hotline, Can is a hotline volunteer. Sevcan comes from the Kaos GL organization and is also active in SPOD, and Ali, who volunteers in the organization, is an academic who studies queerness.

What’s the LGBT situation in Turkey in terms of the law?

Müge: You’re allowed to be lesbian or gay, but the law doesn’t protect members of the community from gender- or sexual orientation-based violence.

Ali: In Turkey, you’re allowed to undergo a sex-change operation and get a new ID card, but it involves an exhausting bureaucratic procedure.

What is the hotline used for?

Zeynep: We get phone calls about problems of violence and discrimination, and we advise the callers or refer them to a lawyer, to a doctor if it’s about HIV, and to a psychologist if it’s about questions relating to transgender issues or mental wellbeing. The hotline also gets questions about military service. There’s compulsory military service in Turkey, but gays don’t have to serve.

But can they serve in principle?

Zeynep: They can serve, but they will face humiliating treatment. There’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. We also work with LGBT refugees, refugees who are sex workers and HIV-positive refugees. We give them legal and social support, and help them deal with the governmental bureaucracy.

Where do the refugees come from?

Can: From Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq.

Is it a heavy responsibility to be the only organization of its kind working in the city?

Müge: We’re not alone. We cooperate with other organizations, so it’s not hard for us to reach those who need us. We hold open meetings that are intended to create a safe space for young people where they can speak freely, and we hold workshops in workplaces to raise awareness of the LGBT community.

Sevcan: We work with teachers, social workers, lawyers and psychologists; we give them tools for supporting the community.

In Israel, the most tolerant and accepting place is Tel Aviv.

Can: Istanbul welcomes people who are different and they feel freer there. But our hotline also gets calls from people from other cities who want advice about how to establish a local community in their city. That’s solidarity.

Swajan: Student movements are a large part of all this. At the Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, the ODTU club organizes intra-university gay events. There’s a lot of pressure now, because in November 2017, the governor of Ankara banned LGBT events. Since then, it’s been hard for the activists to operate there.

What will happen if they prohibit the [upcoming Turkish Pride] parade?

Müge: In any event, we will have many events during that week. There will be queer Zumba, panel discussions and more. People will probably try to march anyway; we shall see what happens.

Well, you know what they say: There are no polite revolutions.

Zeynep: People try, but they are arrested or beaten. There are no polite revolutions, I agree. But the safety of my friends is more important to me than the revolution itself, because the revolution is us. To attack the police won’t help. We need to be strategic, smart and also a bit evasive in order to get what we want. There are all kinds of ways to carry out a revolution.

What’s it like for you to come to us in Israel?

Müge: It will be very helpful to share ideas and experience. I follow events in Tel Aviv and I’m thrilled to be here with all this energy.

Zeynep: The plan is to get drunk, run wild and enjoy ourselves. Because we’ve heard about what happens in Tel Aviv. Each of us has brought three bathing suits.

Shira Clara Winther and Ruth Tsuria.
Tomer Appelbaum

Shira Clara Winther, 31, from Copenhagen, and Ruth Tsuria, 34, from Union City, New Jersey; flying to Heraklion, Crete

What beautiful matching rings you have. What’s their story?

Shira: Once When we once saw work by the designer Pernille Mouritzen, who creates enlarged versions of traditional engagement rings, our mom became enthusiastic and bought rings for all the girls in the family.

Are you sisters?

Ruth: Yes. And we’re going on a relaxing vacation, because we work hard. Have you heard of the film “Yedid Nefesh” [“Conventional Sins”]?

Tell us about it.

Shira: It’s a docudrama that I made with our mother, the documentarist and activist Anat Zuria. We did everything together – direction, editing, screenplay. We arrived at the subject through Mom’s activity. In her previous film, she looked for people who are working against gender separation in the public domain. One was Meir Bar, a Hasid with a tough life story, and through him we explored the issues we dealt with in “Conventional Sins.” The film follows him as he reconstructs harsh events from the past, which his community tries to silence, along with actors who also grew up Hasidic.

Ruth: What’s special about this film, other than its artistic style, is that the victim is not only a victim, he is active and he studies the subject.

What was it like to work on the film, Shira?

Shira: I was totally into it; I learned Yiddish for the film. We won an award at the 2017 Jerusalem Film Festival and got a commendation at the Copenhagen Film Festival.

That’s interesting, because in this case it seems as though you were dealing with a subject that is not connected to you.

Shira: We are a half-religious, half-secular family. Mom’s filmmaking doesn’t deal with her, but rather with the milieu she lives in. As artists, we are interested in getting to know the Other. Now we’re working together on a film about the demands of motherhood.

What’s it like to work with your mother on a movie about the demands of motherhood?

Shira: It’s a process we had to go through together. In our joint work we bring certain things to the surface and talk about them honestly. It’s docu-hybrid, but docu.

Is the entire family close in the same way?

Shira: It’s worth investing in such bonds within the family, and that’s what I try to explain to friends. Ruth and I have been best friends from age zero – except for one crisis in the middle – even if I live I Copenhagen and she’s in New Jersey.

So, Ruth, what are you doing in this half of the globe?

Ruth: I’m here for a home visit and to have fun. I was in the region, at a conference in Europe. I study religion and sexuality in the media. I’m interested in how people use the digital world in order to consolidate fundamentalist notions.

Interesting. Fundamentalism on the open and accessible web?

Ruth: Yes. Fundamentalist positions, not permissive ones. In the meantime, I have found that in the Jewish world people actually make use of the digital space for purposes of repression instead of liberation. For example, the site Kippa site [kipa.co.il] has a section called “Ask the Rabbi,” which is fascinating for many reasons ... For example, someone asked if girls are allowed to masturbate, and the rabbi replied that they are not allowed. But the most interesting part is the comments. A lot of other girls responded to the girl who wrote in and asked how she dared ask the rabbi a question like that. It’s clear that the rabbis, or whoever has power, will use the web to establish their views – so the web, which is supposed to be a mirror image of reality, makes it possible to entrench extreme positions.

Well, as you said earlier, you both deserve a rest in Crete.

Ruth: (Laughing) We do. We deal with “light” issues and so we need some rest and recreation! Our problem is also generational – as millennials, we are used to instability.

Shira: I’m actually stuck in the 1990s, the previous generation, which thought it was still possible to change and fix things. At the Copenhagen Film Festival, someone asked if movies can change social consciousness and the world, and only I and a Swedish friend of mine said that we believe they can.