New documentary gets personal with Istanbul’s transgender sex workers

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Last October I visited a friend in Istanbul. Coming from San Francisco, I found surprising similarities between my city and this metropolis halfway across the world. The topography, with its rolling hills, felt just as unforgiving; the Bosphorus bridge that connects the Asian and European continents over the strait could somewhat resemble the Bay and Golden Gate bridges if you squinted your eyes enough; and the city’s diverse residents appeared to coexist peacefully, as they sometimes did in the city I was temporarily escaping.

Standing with my friend at an outdoor bar in the Taksim area of the Tarlabasi neighborhood”•this is the European side, mere blocks from Gezi Park where police were omnipresent”•I glanced at the open windows of the bombed-out, Ottoman-era buildings where transgender women waved to pedestrians, tourists, and would-be johns. I knew about these women because of a story my expat friend had told me before I came to Istanbul. (I should mention he’s in an Iggy Pop cover band that performs in the very neighborhood I was in). 

The story is this: He needed to get his makeup done before a show, and after being turned away from every makeup counter on the shopping strip, inspiration struck: Why not let the “sisters” make him up? After all, they were doing a better job than the timid girl at Sephora who only looked at him in confusion. 

Turns out the sisters did a great job. I saw pictures.

This transgender community so close and exposed to bustling tourist centers made me wonder just how tolerant Turkey is. It’s a predominantly Muslim country where neighborhoods are often named after Mosques—and where I was shunned for wearing shorts.

In fact, diversity isn’t so effortless in Turkey. There is currently no legislation that protects LGBT persons, and being LGBT is widely considered an illness. In 2013, LGBTQNation reported that four transgender women had been murdered in a span of seven months, while eleven more had been assaulted. 

“We want Turkey’s Ministry of Family and Social Policies and the Ministry of Justice take direct actions about hate crimes against LGBT people, however they keep silent,” Ömer Akpınar, a spokesman for KAOS GL, told LGBTQ Nation. “There is very little work transgender women can find due to discrimination so they turn to sex work.”

There’s another reason Istanbul reminds me of San Francisco. Industry is flourishing there. Due to major construction projects in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, there is a population surge, and developers are looking to Tarlabasi, a central neighborhood in the city. It’s a poor but diverse area with residents consisting of Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, and African migrants, as well as transgender sex workers. Crime is high, but it’s a vibrant community despite its slum-like conditions. In 2009, architects condemned ancient, run-down buildings in the neighborhood as unsafe. They claimed reconstruction would be in the best interest of residents, but gentrification also carries the threat of eviction and prohibitive housing costs. This might be the only affordable rental market for transgender women—indeed, the only option they have. “We have no other option but to rent in Tarlabaşı” said one transgender sex-worker. “Normal landlords won’t rent to transsexuals and prostitutes; anywhere else and we’d be killed.”

Maria Binder is a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist who develops concepts for education programs and cultural events. The lack of representation and education among Turkey’s trans community is a natural subject for her. Binder’s documentary, Trans X Istanbul, premiered at the Istanbul Film Festival in April. She had hoped to create a cinematic study of how hate speech morphs into criminal acts like murder. Over nine months, she and her crew followed events that ultimately did lead to a transgender woman’s murder. But Binder is adamant about portraying the women not as victims but as people who take control of their lives. 

In the film we meet Egru, a transgender woman living in Istanbul who has been an activist for 25 years. She meets Binder’s 85 year old mother, who is a retired nurse. Together they establish a retirement home for transgender sex workers. Through this narrative, the documentary showcases Istanbul’s urban transformation. Binder balances her heavy subject matter with humor, and she has mentioned that when the film premiered she actually heard laughter in the audience. 

It’s a smart strategy to make such a taboo subject accessible. I, for one, can’t wait to watch the film, and encourage anyone interested in this vibrant, endangered community to do the same. 

Here’s to the sisters!

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