This morning, the radio news broadcast from the BBC World Service had a disturbing story from Turkey. Unlike the United States, which has an all-volunteer military force, service in the Turkish army is by conscription, meaning that all males are required to serve. There are three exceptions, for men who are sick, disabled, or gay.
According to the report, the Turkish army has a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, meaning that gay men can complete the military service requirement if they remain closeted about their sexual orientation. While Turkey, unlike many Muslim countries, does not explicitly outlaw homosexuality, being LGBT is still highly stigmatized, so it’s likely that most gay men choose to stay in the closet and complete the service requirement rather than outing themselves in order to sidestep it. However, gay conscripts cannot simply claim to be gay. They actually have to prove it, and are forced to endure a humiliating process in order to do so:
”They asked me when I first had anal intercourse, oral sex, what sort of toys I played with as a child.”
Ahmet, a young man in his 20s, told officials he was gay at the first opportunity after he was called up, as he and other conscripts underwent a health check.
“They asked me if I liked football, whether I wore woman’s clothes or used woman’s perfume,” he says.
”I had a few days’ beard and I am a masculine guy – they told me I didn’t look like a normal gay man.”
He was then asked to provide a picture of himself dressed as a woman.
”I refused this request,” he says. ”But I made them another offer, which they accepted.” Instead he gave them a photograph of himself kissing another man.
Ahmet hopes this will give him what he needs – a “pink certificate”, which will declare him homosexual and therefore exempt from military service.
In some cases, however, further proof is required. Gorkan, another conscript, had been told it would be impossible to get out of military service without explicit photographs of him having sex:
”They asked me if I had any photographs. And I did. . . ’The face must be visible, and the photos must show you as the passive partner.”
Gorkan’s statement reminds me of a puzzling fact my husband Michael and I learned as we were preparing to visit Egypt several years ago. Because we were aware that openly gay Egyptians had been prosecuted under so-called “public morality” laws, we took care to make sure we stayed under the radar, so to speak. (These days, though, we wouldn’t even consider spending any money in a country so hostile to LGBT people, but I digress. . .) In the course of our research, we learned that in many Muslim-majority societies, including Egypt and apparently Turkey, a man can have sex with another man but not consider himself gay. Curiously, a man is only regarded as gay if he is (or ever has been) the so-called “passive partner” in a sexual relationship, i.e. if he’s allowed himself to be penetrated by another man.
Omar Sharif Jr., a prominent Egyptian actor and model now living in the United States, recently wrote a compelling piece for the Advocate in which he expressed grave concern that Islamic fundamentalists in the country’s new government will attack the human rights of minority groups. And he also came out — as half Jewish (a risky thing to admit in Egypt), and as a gay man. In doing so he hopes to start a conversation about these issues in his home country, but he also wonders whether he will be welcomed back to the new Egypt at all: “Will being Egyptian, half Jewish, and gay forever remain mutually exclusive identities? Are they identities to be hidden?”
LGBT people in many majority-Muslim nations face even harsher persecution. Wayne and I have both recently written about an alarming surge of targeted anti-gay violence in Iraq, where Islamic militias are killing LGBT-identified and LGBT-perceived Iraqis, as well as those who dress in the Iraqi version of the “emo” style, by smashing their skulls with concrete blocks
On Sunday, the New York Times published an essay by author Abdellah Taïa detailing the horrifyingly shameful abuse and punishing silence that gender variant children like himself were forced to bear in 1980s Morocco, where homosexuality “did not, of course, exist.” He was, he wrote, “a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid.” Boys who, like him, are gay or are perceived to be gay, “were designated victims, to be used, with everyone’s blessing, as easy sexual objects by frustrated men.” (After all, remember, you aren’t actually gay if you’re the one doing the penetrating.) Because of widespread cultural homophobia, the parents of these children could not — and in many cases, would not — intervene to stop the assaults. Taïa recounts the summer night in 1985 when it all came to a head (Trigger warning for sexual violence against children):
It was too hot. Everyone was trying in vain to fall asleep. I, too, lay awake, on the floor beside my sisters, my mother close by. Suddenly, the familiar voices of drunken men reached us. We all heard them. The whole family. The whole neighborhood. The whole world. These men, whom we all knew quite well, cried out: “Abdellah, little girl, come down. Come down. Wake up and come down. We all want you. Come down, Abdellah. Don’t be afraid. We won’t hurt you. We just want to have sex with you.”
They kept yelling for a long time. My nickname. Their desire. Their crime. They said everything that went unsaid in the too-silent, too-respectful world where I lived. But I was far, then, from any such analysis, from understanding that the problem wasn’t me. I was simply afraid. Very afraid. And I hoped my big brother, my hero, would rise and answer them. That he would protect me, at least with words. I didn’t want him to fight them — no. All I wanted him to say were these few little words: “Go away! Leave my little brother alone.”
But my brother, the absolute monarch of our family, did nothing. Everyone turned their back on me. Everyone killed me that night. I don’t know where I found the strength, but I didn’t cry. I just squeezed my eyes shut a bit more tightly. And shut, with the same motion, everything else in me. Everything. I was never the same Abdellah Taïa after that night. To save my skin, I killed myself. And that was how I did it.
To be clear, I would never intend, in this article or anywhere else, to make any kind of a blanket statement about religion and LGBT people. There are many wonderfully pro-LGBT people who are also followers of Islam, just as there are pro-LGBT Christians and Jews. However, in all three religious traditions, fundamentalism and religious extremism present incredible dangers to the health, human rights, and even the very lives of LGBT people. For these and so many other reasons, radical religious extremism is a cancer on humanity that must be challenged and contained in all religions, in all nations, and at all times.