‘I wanted and tried to kill myself’: What it’s like being transgender in Turkey, Europe’s trans murder epicentre

Turkey has the highest transgender murder rate in Europe. The violence transgender people face often goes unpunished as the police is reluctant to investigate these cases and to help them.

The transgender community is worried for its safety as recently re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his socially-conservative party, the AKP, have expressed anti-LGBT views and refuse to put LGBT rights on the agenda.

“I wanted and tried to kill myself so many times but didn’t die, so I thought there is life in me and I chose the name Hayat (‘life’ in Turkish). I was born again,’” says Hayat Celik.

Celik is a Turkish trans woman and activist who coordinates a monthly therapy group for trans people in Istanbul. It’s when she started going to a similar therapy group herself that she fully understood she was transgender and that she wasn’t alone.

In Turkey, female identity cards are pink, and male ones are blue. Before even knowing someone’s name or age, the first thing an ID tells you about them is their gender.

Other markers separate genders: For example military service is compulsory for men. Trans people have to acquire particular documents to be exempted. “I was born in 1980 in a small village, and besides being a man or a woman, there was nothing else. I thought no-one in the world could understand me,” explains Celik.

In a society with such thick walls between genders, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous for trans people to live openly.

In 2016, the body of transgender woman, sex worker and LGBT activist Hande Kader was found raped and mutilated in Istanbul. No suspects have been arrested and LGBT organisations accuse the police of being reluctant to investigate such cases.

The same year, Turkey was ranked as having Europe’s highest trans murder rate.

“Sometimes the police abuse trans people who come to them to report a crime,” says Emirhan Deniz Celebi, a trans man who coordinates a helpline at the LGBT association Sosyal Politikalar Cinsiyet Kimliği ve Cinsel Yönelim Derneği (Social Policies, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation Studies Association, or SPoD).

Hayat Celik is a trans woman and activist (Hayat Celik)

Trans people in Turkey cannot rely on the police for support and perpetrators of crimes often go unpunished.

Celik’s group therapy in July had to be cancelled after the office of SPoD, which hosts the sessions, was attacked by the family of a person who had come to them for help.

Despite the security concerns, Celik says conditions are slightly better for new generations of trans people, thanks to the internet, social media and LGBT+ organisations.

Last year, she published a comprehensive guide gathering information on the different steps of transitioning such as coming out, legal aspects, explaining the different types of surgery and where to find help and support. It also contains advice on what sort of difficulties to expect at work or when studying, and how to overcome them. “I went through so much because I didn’t have access to information growing up, it was important for me to do it,” she explains.

When Celik first came out, her brother and sister took her to see a psychiatrist, thinking she had a mental illness.

“I was scared they would tried to change who I was,” she says. Luckily, the doctor told them she was not ill, and that there was no cure. However, her family has never really accepted this.

Celik struggled in university. (Hayat Celik)

One of the most difficult periods of Celik’s life was studying. Students who wish to study away from home have to apply for a shared room in a student hall. The room is allocated according to their legal gender, and if they have started transitioning, trans people lose the right to stay in a dorm—and with it the right to study.

“I had to hide who I was throughout my education and it was draining psychologically, I don’t know how I managed to study,” says Celik. At university people would ask her, “Are you a faggot?” because she had long hair.

Changing legal gender is a long, and humiliating, legal and medical process, which included until March this year compulsory surgical sterilisation.

Celik says doctors asked her silly questions such as, “Do you stand or sit down when you pee?” The process is even more difficult for those who decide not to undergo gender confirmation surgery. A judge rejected Celebi’s first application to legally change his gender for just this reason.

Many prefer not to undergo surgery, not only as a personal choice, but because Turkey lacks experienced specialists. Celik and Celebi have heard stories of people ending up disabled, losing all sexual sensation or even dying.

Turkish trans people tend to travel abroad or go to private hospitals. In 2013, Celik needed 20,000 Turkish Lira (TL) for the surgery at a time when the monthly minimum wage was less than 800 TL. She had been unemployed for two years and was desperate to find a job.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum on September 20, 2017 in New York City. (John Moore/Getty)

Eventually, Celik received a job offer but the company subsequently revoked it when they learnt she was exempt from military service due to her sexual orientation. She fought back and sent letters to LGBT+ organisations, local councils and agencies. Eventually, the human rights council of Istanbul heard her case and decided in her favour, finding she had been a victim of discrimination.

Celik thinks that this would be much harder today. The current government is no ally.

In 2016, the Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag was working on a draft law to provide grounds to reject extradition appeals if there was concern the person would be mistreated for their beliefs or membership of a particular group. An opposition MP recommended this include sexual orientation and gender identity. Bozdag answered: “[…] As a government we don’t agree with it. I mean, this is our political position, and as a conservative democratic party our approach to this issue is clear. If in the future HDP and CHP (opposition parties) govern, they can bring the proposal to add sexual orientation to the draft law up, but we won’t.”

Last November, Erdogan criticised the opposition party CHP, claiming it had introduced a quota to include more LGBT+ people in their campaign during a local election. He said they were “disconnected from our people,” and instead congratulated his allies from the nationalist party MHP for focusing on “vital topics for our country and people.”

This year, the format of identity cards will change to lose their colours but the division between genders will remain in the Turkish society. Erdogan will lead the country for at least five more years following the recent elections and his social conservatism will continue to affect transgender people’s lives in Turkey.

Celebi says: “I don’t feel safe because I know the government will not protect me. The government will protect the perpetrators.”