Trans people are risking their lives in Istanbul

Wary and standoffish, she doesn’t do the big hair and false eyelashes ubiquitous among her co-workers. She had last been seen entering a client’s car. She says her experience of sex work has been a “disaster.” Just recently, she tried to kill herself. They are in denial,” says Tan. Beste feared further attacks from her family. Writer Lorraine Mallinder and photographer Nathalie Bertrams reported from Istanbul. The police are also her tormentors, regularly threatening violence or imprisonment unless she shells out payments. “The police are a problem. There is no shortage of demand. Arzu, 28, sees five or six clients a night, receiving 100 lira ($28) an hour “for all services.”
“I hate this work,” she says. Now the 18-year-old sits at the window of a transgender brothel in Istanbul’s run-down Tarlabasi neighborhood. Last year, the Anatolia Muslim Youth Association, one of the most extreme religious groups in the country, hung posters on the city streets, calling for LGBTI people to be killed. But, while homosexuality was decriminalized in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, way before most European countries, there are no laws protecting LGBTI people from hate crimes. “They rounded them up, stripped them naked, cut off their hair and beat them before expelling them from the city,” she says. Not that their response surprised her. It’s a typical tale. But Beste is determined to fight for her basic human rights. Credit:

Osman Orsal/Reuters

Officials imposed the ban on security grounds. You get your feelings under control,” Tunc says. “Many are married with children. Only last year, Beste was at high school, dreaming of going to university to become a vet. She prefers the sort of punk princess look typical of many girls her age. Credit:

Nathalie Bertrams/PRI

Three clients are bunched in a little group, dancing bare-chested under disco balls in front of a mirror, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the trans women around them. “Nobody gives them a job, nobody allows them to access education, nobody’s family accepts them.” Few survive beyond the age of 60, he says. Esmeray, 43, a former sex worker turned journalist and playwright in Istanbul. Arzu feared reprisals from the criminal gangs that control the streets where she works. Her body was found burned in a forest. Any hopes of legal progress have evaporated since the 2013 Gezi Park riots, in which LGBTI activists took a front-line stand against the increasingly authoritarian regime of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Unlike the streets and the brothel, the bar staff and sex workers talk without looking over their shoulders. As the government retaliates, rounding up suspected coup participants and cementing its power, the outlook is darkening for the country’s transgender people. “Hande Kader could happen to me or another friend.”

One of Turkey’s best-loved singers, Bulent Ersoy   was banned from singing for several years after a Turkish military coup in 1980. They stole my bag and my money.”
She went to the police, who told her it was her fault. In a country where being gay is heavily stigmatized, men often gang up to attack and rape transgender sex workers, she says. Emirhan Deniz Celebi, 26, a transgender man who leads a rights group in Istanbul. In present-day Turkey, double standards prevail. Last summer, part of Turkey’s military attempted, and failed, to overthrow the president. The statistics make for grim reading. She has vivid memories of the police’s violent crackdown on transgender people on Ulker Street, close to Tarlabasi, in the early ’90s. Arya Tan, the 30-year-old manager, watches over a “family” of 11 or 12 trans sex workers, keeping tabs on their safety when they head off to a local hotel with clients. “One month ago, I was raped by five guys. “I cannot cry when one of my friends is murdered because I have gotten used to living with that. I give money to everyone,” says Arzu. The affair earned the district chief of police, Suleyman Ulusoy, the nickname Suleyman “the Hose” (Hortum   Suleyman), because he used hoses to beat victims. Credit:


The conspicuous nature of Istanbul’s transgender sex trade seems remarkable in a predominantly Muslim country, one of the many paradoxes of a society at the meeting point between East and West. Turkey has the highest known   number   of trans killings in Europe —   43 between 2008 and April 2016, according to rights group Transgender Europe. Credit:

Nathalie Bertrams/PRI

“They don’t attack terrorists like they attack us,” says Emirhan Deniz Celebi, 26, a transgender man heading up rights group SPoD. On the one hand, Hande Kader was a turning point for people becoming interested in trans issues, he says. The atmosphere here seems more relaxed. Listen: The World in Words podcast on the secret language of Turkey’s LGBT community They know that I see everything at the bar,” she says. Before that, she tried working on the streets, but left after the police roughed her up and threw her in a cell for a night. They are not up for talking. “Dying a natural death is a wish of all trans people,” says Deniz Tunc, 33, a friend of Kader’s. But after a series of attacks from her family, who beat her, destroyed her clothes and locked her in her room, she left home. “I protect them. Gender-bending stars like Bulent Ersoy are showered with public affection, while transgender people on the ground face a daily struggle to stay alive. With her bobbed hair and glasses, she resembles a beady-eyed school teacher, noting every interaction between the workers and the men who seek out their services. Credit:

Nathalie Bertrams/PRI

On Tarlabasi Boulevard, transgender sex workers openly ply their trade. When you ask them, they say they are not gay. I will be who I am eventually.”
Beste and Arzu’s names were changed to protect their identities. “This is the problem of all transgender people,” she says. They trust me. Listen to   The World’s report here. Huzun Coskun, a transgender 30-year-old, is a bar tender at a bar called No Name. “I wish for a new life, a new school and a home,” she says. Credit:

Nathalie Bertrams/PRI

The danger right now is that Erdogan feels legitimate in the current crackdown because he won a majority in the last elections, Esmeray says. She has only been working at the brothel for a few weeks. LGBT rights activists hold a rainbow flag during a   transgender pride parade that was banned by the authorities in   Istanbul   on   June 19. This year’s gay pride march — the largest in any predominantly Muslim country, drawing tens of thousands of participants — was   banned   by Istanbul city authorities after hardline religious groups threatened violence. It’s a means of channeling self-hatred. But Esmeray, 43, a former sex worker turned journalist and playwright (known in the media world by her first name only) believes things have not really gotten worse. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been steering the country away from its secular traditions toward a religiously conservative mindset, homophobia is on the rise. She also pays 120 lira ($34) a night for accommodations, because she says no conventional landlord will rent out their property to a transgender woman. In the No Name bar on Tarlabasi Boulevard, transgender women chat with potential clients against a backdrop of strobe lights and banging techno beats. Arya Tan, the 30-year-old manager of the No Name bar in Istanbul. “I will never give up living the way I feel. “In Turkey, around 95 percent of transgender women end up doing sex work,” says Celik Ozdemir, 40, spokesperson for the Istanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association. It’s a battle for survival. She earns less here, 50 Turkish lira (US$14) per client, but feels safer, even though police regularly wait at the door so they can extort money from the sex workers. Such cases of systematic police harassment have been widely reported by human rights groups like Amnesty International. She doesn’t want to sell her body   any more, but feels “obliged.”
There is literally nowhere else for her to go. Unable to talk at the window, she tells her story via WhatsApp, a phone texting app. Last year’s pride march was also stopped, with police firing water cannon and rubber pellets at participants. And while it’s true that the country has undergone a   series of attacks   blamed on ISIS and armed Kurdish groups over the past two years, critics believe that the timing of the event, which coincided with Ramadan, was the more likely reason. Most go unreported, but, in August, the brutal killing of Hande Kader, a 23-year-old sex worker and activist, shocked the nation. The criminal gangs are a problem. On the other, hate crimes are becoming more frequent in the current political climate.