Turkish gays and the military
Military service is mandatory in Turkey, and its policy on homosexuals serving in the military is quite different from the recently repealed US policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Turkey’s armed forces consider gays ineligible to serve. From Istanbul, Matthew Brunwasser reports on Turkey’s policy of “will ask, must tell.”
The United States just struck down don’t ask don’t tell, allowing gays to serve openly in the military. The policy was based on the premise that openly gay soldiers would compromise military effectiveness. In Turkey, where military service is mandatory, it’s a little bit different. The armed forces there consider gays “sick” and therefore ineligible to serve. To screen out the gays from the new recruits, Turkey has a policy of “will ask, must tell.”
If you’re a Turkish man, there are only two ways to avoid doing your 15 months of military service: having a physical or mental disability. In Turkey that includes being gay. Emrecan Ozen, an openly gay man, got his exemption in a relatively speedy eight days.
Ozen said, “I went to a military hospital to meet a psychiatrist there and he wanted me to get some photos taken, I actually had brought some photos with me but he didn’t like them. he wanted me to take some more and gave me four days for it.”
So Ozen says he arranged for a sex date and took some more picturess. The psychaitrist said the first photos were missing something.
“They weren’t very explicit,” Ozen says. “They were mostly from previous lovers and kissing and stuff. He wanted much more explicit pornographic photos. The idea was to be a ‘passive receiver’ I guess. I’m trying to be radio friendly when I speak.”
Recently, gays have reported the military using other methods to “prove” whether potential recruits are really homosexual. Some psychiatrists order week-long hospital stays for “observation” — or interviews with parents. But Ozen isn’t as bothered by the humiliations as much as he is by what he sees as the military’s archaic belief that homosexuality is an illness.
Ozen says: “I was diagnosed with advanced psycho-sexual disorder. I don’t know what it entails, but for homosexuality, sometimes this is the diagnosis. Sometimes it’s just homosexuality, sometimes it’s just psycho sexual disorder. But mine is advanced psycho-sexual disorder. I guess they were very happy with the photos.”
The turkish military declined to comment but it did issue a statement explaining its policy on homosexuality and denying that it asks for photos – or even considers them. No one really knows how the military defines “proof” of homosexuality. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about what getting a “rotten” health report means.
Firat Soyle, a lawyer at Lambda, a gay rights NGO in Istanbul, says, “People contact lambda asking for legal advice. A frequently asked question is: I don’t want to go to the military, how can I get a “rotten” report? Or they ask, if I get that report, how will it effect my professional life? Will I face discrimination?
The document showing exemption from military service states only that someone was ineligible for “health” reasons. But that doesn’t necessarily shield someone from problems.
According to Soyle, “the problem actually starts after that. If that person’s boss pushes that person to find out what kind of health problems he has or if they try to find out from the military office in an illegal way, they might find out about the psycho-sexual sickness part and that can lead to problems.”
Gays in Turkey commonly face discrimination and brutality in civilian and military life, activists say. It takes a lot of courage to come out. Just ask Mehmet Tarhan. He held a press conference announcing that he was a conscientious objector and gay, but refused to “prove” it to military officials because he doesn’t recognize homosexuality as a sickness. He spent 10 months in prison. Because serving is mandatory, Tarhan says the military policy creates a terrible quandry for gays, forcing them to come out – for the wrong reason.
“I’m supposed to go to the military and tell them that I am sick, while at the same time trying to tell the public that this is not a sickness?” Tarhan says. “This cuts your identity in two. After struggling with a gay identity in Turkey, that’s the biggest slap in the face. When I talk to people who have been through this, they complain more about this dilema than the photography.”
Gays in the military is still not a big story in Turkey, but this could be changing. The case of a Turkish soccer referee who was fired after his “rotten” report was made public has gotten a lot of press. His lawsuit against the Turkish soccer federation starts next month. Activists hope it becomes a landmark case in anti-gay discrimination.