11/09/2013 | Writer: Kaos GL
Trans activist and sex worker Sinem Kuzucan had to resign from her teaching job because of pressure due to her gender identity.
“Violence Stories from Turkey” is a project by Intercultural Research Association that aims to archive and document the phenomenon of violence in Turkey; to prevent events of violence and their victims from “becoming ordinary” and “turning into statistics”; to investigate the conditions of violence in order to make future projections; and to bring together NGOs, civil society, and advocates for the defense of victims’ rights. The project publishes photographs and interviews with victims or witnesses in a simple and flexible format that allows the interviewees to express themselves.
Trans activist and sex worker Sinem Kuzucan had to resign from her teaching job because of pressure due to her gender identity. Kuzucan talked to “Violence Stories from Turkey” about the existence of trans people in the public, the Misdemeanor Law and the Turkish National Police’s performance system that limits the living space of sex workers.
How did you first encounter the concept of violence? Were you ever subjected to violence before realizing your gender identity?
The most severe violence in the life of a trans person is evil stares. I mean the stares like “What is it, who is it?” When a child realizes that something is different about himself or herself, he or she does not really understand “identity”. I had the same experience. You do not really know who you will resemble, who you will become- your mother or father. Even though you have not figured it out, your family, kids on the street, friends from school see your difference. “Sissy Ali, Sissy Murat” are the nicknames. In fact, you figure what is going on when you hear these names. This is where the violence starts. This broadening discrimination excludes you from your family, from education, from employment. You cannot find any place in life.
What kind of trauma does this pressure and social discrimination create?
The social violence a trans person is exposed to in her early life affects her whole life. Your access to education is prevented because of discrimination from schoolmates. You are deprived of family support, as well. They say things like “what will others say, why do you behave like this, do not trot like a girl” and when this turns into physical violence, you have to leave home. You don’t have a school after leaving home. Without the two, you are hardly employable. The violence and discrimination you are subjected to at this point in your life changes your whole life. I lived through this; if I had suppressed my identity, I would have a so-called “normal” life.
We are taught by society that there is either man or woman. In my teaching job, even though I am a trans person, I was forced to tell the same story about the nuclear family to my students. This is how it was taught to us as well. Egalitarian legal regulations are important for transforming these discriminative attitudes. If this society is in its current situation due to monotypic laws and regulations, then it can be transformed through new regulations. We should start with the law. When it comes to trans murders, they reduced penalties on the pretext of provocation for years. In the past, trans murderers would be sentenced to two years or they would not be punished at all. Now at least they are sentenced to fifteen years. As laws become more egalitarian, society will have to adapt with time. Temporal periods are never easy.
How were your relations with your family and relatives until you discovered your gender identity?
My family’s roots are from Eastern Turkey but I grew up in Ankara. My childhood was full of insults. With the fear that someone from the neighborhood would talk behind my back, I did not make any friends in the neighborhood. They also made fun of me in school but I shut my ears until high school. I got on well with my family in the beginning; I helped my mother with housework, cooking and cleaning. As you see, I was the good child of the family. All the other boys were playing football, being naughty and breaking windows. I was cleaning the windows, staying at home quietly.
Until when did this good child thing go on?
It went on until I learned my gender identity and met people like me. After I started to express my identity openly, I was no longer a good child. They said “apparently he is not a well-behaved boy but a transvestite”. Still I say to mom “You were content with me doing the housework and cleaning the windows those days, were you not?”, and she says “we thought you were a good child.” Once your trans identity comes out, you draw all bad reactions upon yourself. It was same with me as well. My family gave a verdict of death on me and were discussing where to bury me. So I was kidnapped by someone from my family who understood me. I had already been subjected to violence; I was covered in bruises all over. I had to abandon my home in the last grade of high school in that state. After that, I did not see my family for years.
How did you go on with your education?
There was quite a short time for me to finish high school when I left home. For six months, I lived in the houses of trans people in Ankara, in various places and in train wagons. I had a math teacher who knew about my gender identity and the things I had been through. He did his best for me to finish high school. I finished high school with his help and I went to Istanbul. I worked as a sex worker in Istanbul for two years. You do not have any other choice as a runaway child. You don’t have any other example either; all trans people do this. This was 20 years ago, so there were no rights or any recognized organizations. Your existence or non-existence is barely noticed. It is a dead-end.
Without any association or organization, how did sex workers communicate with each other?
All the trans people already knew each other. They always had to change places because of oppression and violence. Trans people coming from Ankara to Istanbul know and support each other. You are always in communication because you work to keep your friends’ lives safe. There is no other alternative.
How did you continue your education after high school?
I was aware of the situation when I was working in Istanbul as well. Education does not exist among trans people. After working as a sex worker in Istanbul for two years, I decided that I did not want to continue this. I wanted to go on with my studies and I took the university exam and I got into Ataturk University. The faculty of education was in Erzincan at the time. It was really hard for me to make the decision to go; how could I? I was a trans sex worker who had left her family. Despite it all, I decided to go to Erzincan and study teaching. I had my hair cut close-cropped and disguised as a man. I was again in the cross body. I disguised but these things do not just fit in a trans person. Society and the media must also understand this; we are transsexuals, not homosexuals. It is our identity. Masculine behaviors are not askew with male homosexuals; they can hide themselves if they want to but trans people cannot. Even if you try to be masculine, your identity is obvious. Erzincan is a small city anyway; all the people from school and the town know about your trans identity. You do not have to confess; it is written all over your face.
How were your relations with the people in university and in town?
Let me explain it this way: even if the cafeteria was full, no one would come near my table. For them, my table was a bad place. I mocked this situation by saying “I always have a table at my disposal”. When I realized that my identity was obvious even when I tried to hide it, I decided to dress the way I wanted to. I was walking around with my ripped pants and wearing earrings in a place like Erzincan. They were fed up with me and would say, “We are sick of beating you but you are not sick of getting beaten up”. They gave up messing with me later on. Nationalist professors were also enemies with me. One of them would ask me to his room and say “we have to talk”. Every time I went to his room, he would shut the door on to my face and he would take pleasure from it. He did this at least once a week and I tirelessly went to his room. Once he said “I call you and then shut the door on your face but you still keep coming”. And I said “I come because maybe one day you will talk to me”. I made them tired as you see. After all I left everything behind and went there, I was determined to stay till the end.
At the end of the second year, I transferred to Ankara Gazi University thanks to my good GPA. Erzincan wasn’t really different either but I encountered nationalists more often at Gazi University.
Did oppression and violence increase in Gazi University?
I had to start from scratch in Gazi. The violence was very different in Gazi but in both schools I went through similar things, I witnessed society’s hypocrisy in both Ankara and Erzincan. Society applauds Bülent Ersoy as they stone and kill other trans people. You also see this clearly in the university; the nationalist groups cross your path, insult you and beat you when they are all together as a group. However, when they are by themselves they secretly want to meet you at your home with a bottle of wine. If you respond to their sexual demands they try to ignore you as much as they can. Your only weapon is your own body. I understood it there; they do not leave anything to trans people other than their bodies. If you use your body according to their wills, they leave you alone or at least ignore you. Being ignored means tranquility in university. It seems bad but you accept being ignored rather than being subjected to violence or discrimination.
How did you begin working as a teacher? Did you face the oppressions you encountered during your education in your occupation as well?
After graduation, I delivered my documents and I got my appointment. I worked in Antakya for 2 years and in Muş for 2 years. I was comfortable in Antakya. I had various troubles in Muş because of its conservativeness.
Did you hide your gender identity while you were working?
I am not a person who hides her gender identity most of the time. Most of my colleagues in Antakya knew about my identity. Because you are trans, you reveal yourself one way or another anyway. You are different in the way you smoke or in the way you cross your legs there is always gossip about you. So I made friends with those who accept my identity. I did not get into any trouble in Hatay but when I worked in Muş, the gossips reached the Directorate of National Education, the directorate launched 68 investigations on me. They would start an investigation without finishing the other; I was investigated and penalized on apparel, immoral behavior, and many other reasons. At that time, Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) was a newly developing organization. I applied to Eğitim-Sen for the discrimination against me because of my gender identity. They discussed the matter amongst themselves, found me contradictory to public morality and decided to discharge me from the organization. The union was in a male-dominant structure then. Years later, I met the director of Eğitim-Sen as a co-speaker on a panel about sex work. I expressed to him my happiness about the union’s new perspective as a teacher who had once been discharged from the union because of her gender identity. In brief, I was not supported by Eğitim-Sen because it was not like the current structure back then.
I was working as a teacher in a village 170 km away the center of Muş. After the investigations were launched, they started to change my appointments. I was on temporal appointments and was appointed to different villages every other week. I was facing other pressures as well.
I had good relations with Kurdish citizens and People’s Democracy Party (HADEP); so they called me “PKK teacher”. When the Director of National Education threatened me with exile, I was in a mountain village 170 km far from the center. Interestingly, I was happy there! I said “You are threatening me with exile but where could you exile me from here!” Would they exile me to Iran? I was very patient. I struggled so much until 1998 but I resigned in 1999. Because I knew I would have to go back to sex work, I tried to endure but it turned into torture. I resigned in tears; I loved my job and my place of appointment.
So these deterrence policies did not allow you to stay in public service?
Who could stay in public service after going through all this stuff I just talked about? They did not leave me a place to go, a space to live in. While I was going through all this stuff, I was also dealing with my body. I found my body unhappy whenever I looked in the mirror. I am a woman and I wanted to grow my hair, paint my nails but I could not do these things. This was the most brutal trauma and violence that I experienced. I cannot forget what happened in Ankara after my resignation. In Ankara I stayed with my trans friends at first. But you have to find a way to work. I dressed up, got made up, put on my wig and went out to the street. I cried there for two hours. I could neither find a customer nor could the police pick me up. I cried there for two hours. I can never forget this violence. They lowered me to that places. I thought so at the time. I do not feel so “low” now but imagine you stepped from that life into the other…
We call sex work “working/labor” but there is something called forced sex work. Most of the trans people are forced to be sex workers because they do not have any other alternative. They are not allowed to be in another job. I tell everyone I am in contact with “Study and finish university” but I do not have a ground for it; you have no legal guarantees, no support, and you are always humiliated. Suppose that I told the state that I will be a teacher and filed lawsuits against the state and won. Say they appoint me to a village; but that would put my life at risk unless they explained to those villagers what trans means.
What is necessary for the employment of trans people in the public sector?
First, a legal substructure must be founded if trans people are to work in public. Above all, changes in the education system is requisite.
If the educational system preaches for heteronormativity, supports “the holy family structure” by pointing to woman, man and child and if they teach gender variance as perversity, what difference would a trans person’s employment in the public sector make? You first have to change this heteronormative educational system. Turkey is a so-called secular country but certain sects dominate. In the religion classes I taught there were “four right sects” and Alawism was not one of them. One would be taught as a right but not the other. I also had to teach in this way. When these exist, how can you ensure equality? The children you shaped with the holy family structure, heterosexism and militarism are now police officers, doctors, judges or prosecutors. Think about how they would react when a trans person stood before them. The judge has the freedom to insult me as he or she wishes because he or she has the constitutional ground; culture and education stand by them. Today the psychologists, the psychiatrists who have been educated by this state can say “Homosexuality is a disease and it can be treated”. What kind of an education did these people receive that they can say things like that even though they are psychiatrists.
Do trans people still work in the public sector at the cost of hiding themselves? Do people apply to Pink Life for this reason?
There are ongoing cases in Turkey over this issue. There are about 5 trans people who revealed their identities and who are teachers. There is a doctor. We have a few examples like this. We are trying to enable trans people to work in jobs other than sex work. Trans people have to first file a lawsuit in order to be able to start working in the public sector. We see police violence on TV every day. Some beat women in the police station; the other does so in traffic. They generally do not conduct investigations against policemen; ongoing investigations are only for show. At the same time, more than ten policemen were dismissed from their profession because of their homosexuality. That means that in Turkey, torture is not a crime but homosexuality is.
Although sex work is not a crime, institutionalized measures such as the Misdemeanor Law and the police’s performance system virtually make sex workers criminals. How can these violations against sex work be accepted when it is legal on paper?
In Istanbul’s police stations, bonuses are declared for the arrest of criminals. They get points, premiums and promotions according to their performance. This point scoring system includes crimes like hijacking, gangs, terrorism, etc. There is also a statement that says, “certain person, known person”. Or as they call it, “transvestites”. According to the international agreements Turkey has signed, being a transsexual or a sex worker is not a crime anyway. If you consider them crimes and give points to the police, you are automatically violating human rights. The media does it as well; they publish news of prostitution raids. Prostitution is not a crime; why would they bust something that is not a crime, why would the media publish it?
Publishing these stories is another violation. The real criminal here is the raiding police. I can engage in prostitution; it is not a crime! How can you fine me? Under the Misdemeanor Law, they fine people who engage in prostitution. In order to score points, police officers fine trans people whenever they see them. They fine the same person hundreds of times in a month. If s/he does sex work for two hours, s/he has to work for four more hours to pay these fines. That means the state itself encourages prostitution, it means “work more and pay the state”. They say we do not pay taxes. And we say “document sex work, in this way you can save sex workers from the underground and from human trafficking, and if taxed income is blessed, we can also be blessed.” Sometime I go to the streets after they fine me and the police officers ask, “we just fined you but still have not come to your sense”. At this point, I show them the fine and say “I paid my tax, taxed income is blessed. I can work”.
In Antalya only, the amount of fines collected from trans people comes up to 246,000 TL (approx. 120,000 USD). It becomes a rent economy for them and they exploit trans people. This amount is what they took from a handful of trans people in Antalya in 6 months. Think about the nightmare in Turkey as a whole. One of our friends’ due debt is 40,000 TL (approx. 19,500 USD), she was fined just for going outside. They spot you walking around by yourself and they fine you. How can you engage in prostitution by yourself? It is not a crime; even if it were, you would think it above crime if you do it by yourself.
The state excludes trans people from the work sector and hesitates to make regulations on sex laboring. What is the solution?
Prostitution is not a crime in Turkey. But in practice we see the Misdemeanor Law and prostitution busts. 3 or 4 years ago, Sinan Aygün, now Republican People’s Party Parliamentarian, was the director of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO). He made fun of trans people as a director of ATO on TV and said “Are we supposed to give them jobs instead of our moral, college graduate young girls?” How can trans people be employed this way? If you continue like this, at least leave them alone in sex work. The system itself pushes trans people to the back streets, to nightlife, and to unregistered work. Why do they want to disrupt this? They tell us: “This is where you belong, live there silently. Get murdered there, get injured there but never protest. Keep your silence, keep yourself out of sight, disappear, and get lost”. When we protest and say “This cannot go on like this”, we face the police, Misdemeanor Law, and torture. The state tells us to “shut our mouths”. They either have to regulate sex work or they have to ensure the employment of trans people in other professions. Doing nothing means leaving us to die.
Source: Doğu Eroğlu, “Cinsiyet kimliğim yüzünden öğretmenlikten istifa ettirildim”, (“I was forced to resign from teaching because of my gender identity”,) Türkiye’den Şiddet Hikayeleri, 22 December 2012, http://www.siddethikayeleri.com/cinsiyet-kimligim-yuzunden-ogretmenlikten-istifa-ettirildim/
human rights, labour