I push myself through a crowd to grab my first drink with some friends. We are at Ritim, a rooftop club in Istanbul just a few steps from Taksim Square. As the Turkish club music blares around us, my buddy Alex whispers to me “So Mike, have you found any cute guys so far?” At this point, I really did not know how to answer. It was my first night in Turkey and everyone around me had always instilled in my head that this was a very religiously conservative country. In my mind, it was certainly not a place for me to be “out and about.” I kinda just nodded my head awkwardly like “yeah, sure” and watched him walk off with some pretty girl. I’ll just drink to my eternal solitude. C’est la vie.
Two hours pass by, and now I’m beyond ready to ditch this place. As I shove through the crowd once more, an extremely handsome guy stops right in front of me. He’s Turkish. We look at each other and realize instantly the attraction between us. We started dancing together, which later turned into kissing, which later resulted in everyone around us cheering us on. Wait, what? That wasn’t supposed to happen. Instead of questioning my surroundings, I just decided to dance to the music and enjoy the rest of my night surrounded by the cool air of the Bosphorus as well as the arms of this dashingly attractive Turk. Oh and we still didn’t give him a name yet… I’ll go with Ayaz.
The next day I wake up to a text message from my mysterious Turkish lover from the night before (Ayaz, if you’ve been paying attention). He invites me to meet him in Asia for a cup of tea. Obviously, I’m not gonna turn down that offer! For those of you not familiar with Istanbul, the city spans two continents: Europe and Asia. It’s just as epic as it sounds.
Next thing I know, I’m on a ferry heading to Asia!
Soon enough, I arrive at Kadıköy station. After running up and down the streets of the Asian side of Istanbul for around a half-hour looking for Ayaz, I eventually find him. I shout out a “Merhaba!” and we sit down for some refreshing tea.
As I pour the çay into our glasses, I ask Ayaz,
So, how actually IS being gay here in Turkey?
If you can’t tell, at this point I was extremely confused. Everything you’re about to read is a mix of what he told me, my experiences, and my own personal research.
So first, let’s start with the government. Same-sex activity has been legal in Turkey since the days of the Ottoman Empire. That’s one point I guess. However, if you are gay and a bottom (wtf?) you cannot serve in the military. I’m not kidding when I say that you need to fork over “evidence” that you are the passive partner (could be a sex tape, could be just some pornographic photos), the government hands you a bright pink slip exempting you from service, and “Congrats!” the Turkish government now officially knows way too much about you and possesses some pretty severe blackmail material.
This past decade, there was a chance for the Erdoğan’s regime to grant more rights to the LGBT community when the new constitution was being drafted. Unfortunately, same-sex marriage and discrimination protections for LGBT people were purposely excluded. In addition to that, let’s just say that the government has cracked down a little bit more on the gays in recent times. The 2018 Istanbul Pride parade was raided by police who set off teargas and fired rubber bullets at participants. Oh, and did you know that Grindr is banned? Like seriously, when you open the app, all you see is a bunch of black boxes. Anyways, just to sum it up, the government is not pro-gay, but it’s still more progressive than most of the Middle East (aside from Israel).
So now we have established a general idea of what the government thinks of the gays. How about the Turkish people themselves? Well ok, it depends…
I started my Turkey trip in Istanbul, which is the largest city in Turkey and even the largest city in all of Europe. Due to this, it’s pretty cosmopolitan and forward-thinking compared to most of the country. There are multiple vibrant gay bars and clubs around Taksim Square, but even in straight nightlife, nobody seems to care if you are gay. I mean, I saw it for myself… and then Ayaz confirmed it. I’ve received numerous colorful comments in Italy while in straight spaces, but nothing in Turkey.
In my normal day-to-day exploring around Turkey, I did not have any issues at all being gay. Like – at all. In Istanbul, nobody cared. In Izmir, nobody cared. In Antalya, nobody cared. If anything, people were supportive. It’s not like I was running around with a rainbow flag or anything, but if someone asks if I have a girlfriend (and they’re of a younger generation) well, I’m not gonna make up some story. Plus I low-key might have met someone in Izmir… but that’s another story for another time! I’ve just realized that, in many areas of Western Turkey, it was not really an issue. Again, this is mostly from my personal experience as a traveler. I’m sure people who actually live here have seen many issues that I have not and deal with more problems on a rights standpoint that make living here a bit more complicated.
BUT. Yes, I’m throwing a BUT out here. I have heard many times that Antalya, the Aegean Coast, and Istanbul do not fairly represent all of Turkey. It is well-known that the major cities in the West of the country are a lot more progressive than, erm.. well… the East… and smaller towns in general. In fact, there are even areas of Istanbul you certainly do not want to enter if you’re a proud member of the Skittles Club. However, they are not really near the center and you probably wouldn’t go there anyways as a tourist.
Also, you should probably not hold hands or kiss someone of the same-sex on the street. It’s kind of frowned upon. I mean, you can put your arm around their shoulder (as Ayaz taught me) and be affectionate in other ways. However, Turks are not really big on PDA in general, even if you’re straight. If in doubt, get a room!
So do I recommend traveling to Turkey if you are gay? Hell yeah. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences in this amazing country and the people are some of the warmest you’ll ever meet. Just take precautions as you’d take anywhere and you’ll have an unforgettable time. I mean just look at how outstandingly beautiful Turkey is!
Anyways, what is being gay like in YOUR country? How do the government and the people generally view those who are gay? Let us know in the comments below!