vividly remembers the night, more than a quarter of a
century ago, when police herded her and dozens of other
transsexuals and transvestites onto a train as part of
a campaign to clean up Istanbul. "We did not know
where the train was taking us. The police beat us and
locked us up in the wagons. They gave us no water or food,"
she said, evoking scenes reminiscent of World War II.
The roundup took
place just before the 1980 military coup in Turkey,
which led to the suspension of democracy and the jailing of
hundreds of thousands of people for their political
views. Some were executed. Many people fled abroad.
Turkey has taken big strides forward in human rights,
scrapping the death penalty and clamping down on torture,
with an eye on future membership into the European
Union. But Belgin says it still fails to protect
people like her.
"I first wore
this dress in 1970. Not much has changed since then,"
said Belgin, a retired prostitute who now works for Lambda
Istanbul, a group that campaigns for the rights of
transsexuals, transvestites, gay men, and lesbians.
Rights groups say
transsexuals face increasing violence, and this
reflects a wider trend in Turkish society--the growing
influence of Islam in daily life since the
center-right AK Party, which has Islamist roots, came
to power in 2002.
"Now the police
raid their bars and take these people into detention
more frequently," said Huseyin Ayyildiz, branch secretary of
the Human Rights Association of Turkey, in Istanbul.
He said this
reflected the AK Party's promotion of more Islamist-minded
police officers keen to defend conservative family values.
is not restricted to transsexuals or homosexuals, the
rights groups say.
having difficulty getting licenses to sell alcohol,"
Ayyildiz said. Islam prohibits alcoholic beverages.
In Ankara, the
capital, a transvestite known as Deniz who works as a
prostitute complained that many clients were ignoring her
calls. "Most of my clients are pious Muslim men, and
they are very afraid that the police will publicize
their names," said Deniz, who also declined to give
her full name.
Turkish men are guilty of hypocrisy. "Men who secretly
come to us at night for sex jeer at us on the streets," said
Belgin, 53. She said she has to work as a prostitute
because prejudice prevents her finding another job.
She said many of
her friends had been murdered over the years and that
violence against transsexuals, most of whom work in the sex
industry, shows no sign of abating.
"Some people talk
about human rights. I have never seen them," she said.
"Here you can kill a dog or a transsexual. There is no
difference. The murders of my friends have never been
resolved. The police turn a blind eye in such cases."
Gender-reassignment surgery is legal in Turkey, but
there are no laws to protect transgender people from
discrimination as there are in some Western countries.
A tradition of tolerance for cross-dressing and
same-sex liaisons that existed in the old Ottoman Empire has
efforts by transsexuals to set up an association in the
conservative-minded town of Bursa were blocked by the
authorities on grounds of protecting "public
Over the years,
many transsexuals have moved from the provinces to
Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis that at least provides
anonymity and a network of support. Belgin sees little
change in police attitudes.
"There was a
police chief [in the past] who was known as
'Bone-breaker Cetin' because he did not leave transsexuals
before breaking their bones," she said. Another liked
burning the arms of transsexuals with a cigarette
lighter. "He would then ask how they would endure the
fires of hell in the afterlife if they cannot stand
this," Belgin said.
And now? "They
come with hate and feelings of revenge and do not hide
their aim of cleansing Beyoglu [the hub of Istanbul's
nightlife] of its transsexuals."
spokesman Ismail Caliskan rejected the accusations that
the police breach human rights. "The police have always been
a target of such accusations.... [Human rights
groups and transsexuals] always say 'The police beat
us.' These claims are not true," he said. (Reuters)