Dispatches

The Not-A-Man Empire: Cross-Dressing in Istanbul

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 DISPATCHES


The Not-A-Man Empire: Cross-Dressing in Istanbul By Jane Czyzselska        



The Taksim Square market, Istanbul, Turkey: It’s a crisp January day,
and brume hangs in the teeming marketplace. I wander through the stalls,
fingering tourist trinkets, packets of fruit-flavored tea crystals and postcards of
Turkish pop stars, pretending not to notice the stranger following me with a
practiced, x-ray stare. But he is determined: “Did I see you on a beach in, er, New
York?” he asks. “Are you English?” he persists. I turn to face my admirer,
throwing him a come-any-closer-and-lose-a-testicle look. This he takes as an
invitation.


    

“Would you like to come home with me?”


    

“No! Go away! Just leave it, mate,” I shout. Still, he doesn’t quite get it. So I
resign myself to physical violence, raise my hands and aim for my pursuer’s
chest. Surprisingly, he steps back, bows and walks away.


    

This is a typical scene on any street in Istanbul. If you are a woman, and
without a “chaperone,” male eyes will lock themselves on any number of your
body parts. A few paces behind, the hirsute owner of these eyes will follow you,
haphazardly hurling questions of every sort in your direction. Like the Pied
Piper, you will invariably attract a following — all jostling, grinning and staring,
competing for a response.


    

“It’s like that here,” explains Öykü Potuoglu, a twenty-six-year-old Turkish
actress whom I just met on my visit to the former Constantinople.
“The men never leave us alone.” She tells me that my instinct was right: the
customary way to deflect an unwanted male suitor in Turkey is to push him
away with your hands — and hard. This kind of response to attention on a

crowded street in London or Manhattan might elicit a push back, but in Istanbul,
a man so handled will retreat, snubbed, into the background. Such an unlikely
act of decorum is a reflection of the deference common among the less educated
Turkish males to the “highly prized”: educated members of the middle class,
Westerners, and the Westernized. More traditional, obviously rural Turkish
women may not be as successful in getting men to back off.


    

Even today, the legacy of the Sultans lives on in Istanbul. The magnificent
Topkapi Palace still stands. Here, the Sultans of the Ottoman empire each kept a
harem of some 900 concubines until the 1920s when, under Kemal
Atatürk, Turkey became a republic. “Historically, there has been a sense
that Turkish authorities own people’s bodies,” Yigithan Yenicioglu,
a high-profile Lambda activist explains. “Certainly today some people are
penalized for openly ‘owning’ their sexuality or gender. If you are a male-to-female transsexual,
for example, it’s very hard to get a job other than as a
prostitute. If you are a young woman, you are generally treated like a third-class
citizen with few rights. If you’re a gay man, you are treated as though you have
a mental illness. And if you are a lesbian, you don’t really exist. Even the straight
men are controlled because they have to behave in the ‘correct’ masculine way.”


    

Turkey takes its patriarchy seriously. Freedom for women, particularly
those with Muslim backgrounds, is limited. In rural parts of the country,
virginity tests on girls are still common and female Orthodox Muslims are
generally confined to a domestic existence. On my tour of the city, I noticed few
women on their own; for the most part they were gathered in clusters or else
accompanied by men. It is only in recent years that women have begun to play a
greater role in public life.



I flew from a grim English town in West Yorkshire where the air hangs
heavy like a dulled wine, to this bright, bustling Eastern metropolis of Istanbul
in order to take part in Turkey’s first ever “Man for a Day” workshop. New York
performance artist Diane Torr (who is also my girlfriend) was invited by
Turkish theater director, Gül Cürses, to give her drag king
workshop as part of an initiative to form a union of sexual minorities and to
kick-start a civil rights campaign here.


    

Diane has been “teaching drag” all over the world since she first
discovered, in 1989, that she was able to pass as a man. At a Whitney Museum
opening in New York, Diane had arrived in drag after a photo shoot with her
friend, sex performer Annie Sprinkle. When acquaintances didn’t recognize her, Diane
decided to indulge her male identity for the evening. Standing alone and aloof,
she was approached by a woman who introduced herself in a self-effacing
manner, asked all the questions, deferred to Diane at every turn and basically
pulled the plug on her own personality. Diane was horrified: “I felt awful. But I
also identified with her. It made me realize that women need to be more
conscious of the way they relate to men.” It was this experience that inspired her
to create “Man for a Day.”


    

“Doing the workshop is more taboo for women in Turkey than it is in
Europe or the States,” says Diane. “In Europe, you have a history of female-to-male
cross-dressers, such as Dr. James Miranda Barry, who cross-dressed in
order to graduate from an Edinburgh medical school in 1812 and lived as a man
until her death. In the late seventeenth century, Irish pirate Anne Bonny
disguised herself as a man so she could sail and fight with the crew of the
legendary British pirate ship, the Calico Jack Rackham. And then, of course, there’s Joan of Arc.
Here in the Middle East,
however, there is no such history.”

Most of the participating women — some straight, some gay — have
Muslim backgrounds but are not practicing; they are “modern” women. To
take part in the workshop is a real act of defiance, a flouting of the social order.
Diane adds, “Ironically, it’s probably the most visibility that the lesbians in the
group have ever had. Lesbianism isn’t part of the Turkish lexicon of sexual
possibilities. There’s this idea that women having sex with other women is
impossible because it doesn’t involve a penis.”


    

Today’s ten participants — all native Turks except for myself and Anna
Dworak, a Norwegian actress — have gathered in the new gay bar, Kara-k, one
of about fifteen gay clubs in the city. (In the four years since a UN human rights
convention took place in Istanbul, a live-and-let-live vibe has slowly grown in the
city’s centrally located, unofficial “gay district,” Beyolu, where many of these bars
are located.) In a room overlooking the Bosphorous, Diane prepares to
transform us into men with theatrical stubble, beards, natty ‘staches, Ace
bandage–bound breasts and homemade phallic prostheses (cotton-stuffed
condoms). Later she will march the group into the frosty weekend hubbub
where we will try out our new male personae.


    

Diane asks each of us to think for a few minutes about the kind of man we
want to become and about the various nuances of male character traits. We sit in
a circle, bodies square, jaws set tight, waiting in turn to introduce ourselves in
both our female and male incarnations. First up is a lesbian lawyer, Füsun
Kortel. Füsun hates the heterosexual elitism that abounds and longs to be
accepted simply as a woman rather than a masculine woman. She’s tired
of the men at her legal practice thinking of her as male and wants to see if she
can actually “out-guy” them. In drag, she becomes “Farouk,” a hyper-macho
lawyer who “honors women with his cock.”


    

Öykü hopes to feel more grounded on her feet as “Zeki,” an
unmarried carpet salesman. As a woman, she says she feels like a swan, buffeted
by intemperate waters. She wants to feel comfortable walking around Istanbul
after midnight alone and can’t wait to spit on the sidewalk with abandon.


    

Günes Goker — the first and only lesbian to come out on
Turkish TV — wants to see how men perceive women, how they befriend other
men, and how big the difference in experience really is. Her male alter-ego,
“Zart,” is a laid-back student from southern Izmir who lives on money from his
family. As a man, Günes wears brown leather trousers, a baseball cap and

a sweatshirt. Her dark woolen facial hair is styled à la George Michael —
not at all, as it happens, a queeny signifier in Turkey. (News of Michael’s
cottaging escapade in Los Angeles has just reached Turkey and folks can’t
believe he’s actually gay. “He is the perfect image of Western heterosexuality to
most people here,” I’m told later that day.)


    

I myself am twitching under my hairy upper lip. In a black leather coat,
baggy silver pants and trainers, with my hair now
slicked back and a caterpillar-like mustache freshly applied, I am Ricky — a charming, wily journalist from
England here to check out the music scene, the belly dancers and the sundry
opportunities for one hell of a “piss-up.”


    

The introductions are over and Diane runs us through the Typical Turkish
Male, 101. How to stand like men: “Don’t wobble around on one leg. Plant both
feet squarely, and remember, the moment your foot touches the ground, you
own that piece of earth.” How to stare like men: “Everything that comes into
your sight-line is yours. Sweep the room with your eyes and never move them
independently of your head. The male gaze comes from the back of the head,
the visual cortex, not on the surface of the eye.” How to eat: “As a man, your
relationship with food is about function. It’s about the fastest way from plate to
mouth. Don’t be afraid of getting food on your chin or your beard.” And finally,
the three drag king commandments: “Stop smiling, stop apologizing and stop
nodding your head in agreement.”


    

Reeling from this litany of instruction, we take to the floor and make like
Turkish guys. Diane leads the way with her well-rehearsed and hilariously
authentic physical mannerisms. Some of the women are having problems with their newly bound breasts. “It’s
an advantage if you can breathe,” Diane jokes, “but a little bit of discomfort will
remind you of the restraint required to be a man.” After a few improvised
scenarios indoors, it’s time to take to the streets.