There are few cities that capture the imagination more than Istanbul, where East meets West: original destination of the opulent Orient Express; spanning across the sparkling Bosporus; steeped in history, culture, and food. There is nothing quite like sitting outside a café in Beyoğlu, drinking a beer and watching the world of Istanbul go by.
However, it’s important to remember that Istanbul is capital of an Islamic country; for all its liberal aspects, Turkey is inching its way closer to Middle Eastern values daily, and this is having a knock-on effect on LGBT rights in Istanbul that gay travelers to the area should take into consideration.
It is 100% a city that members of the LGBT community should feel comfortable in and excited to visit, but visitors should keep in mind the religious and political situation. This guide aims to provide a summary of the situation in Istanbul to help LGBT travelers prepare for a trip there.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey: between adults, same-sex sexual activity was made legal in the Ottoman Empire in 1858, and since modern Turkey’s foundation in 1923 it has always been legal. The age of consent for homosexual sex is 18, the same as for heterosexual sex.
However, there are some rather ambiguous bans in the criminal code on “offenses against public morality” which can be interpreted against LGBT people and homosexuals are banned from military service.
There has also been a nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, with the religiously conservative President Erdogan moving to quell dissent. This has had a major effect on LGBT organizations and communities, as evidenced in recent police violence at the Pride march in Istanbul in July 2018, which had been banned for the fourth consecutive year. Ankara has now prohibited all LGBT activity using the excuse of security and keeping the peace, and things in Antalya and Izmir and not looking much better.
Currently, there are no anti-discrimination laws in Turkey that protect LGBT people from discrimination in the public sphere or employment, although opposition parties have tried to introduce bills providing legal protection for gay and transgender people.
Despite homosexuality being legal, life as a member of the LGBT community in Turkey and Istanbul can be extremely challenging. A report published by Human Rights Watch in 2008 outlined the daily threat of violence and discrimination faced by gay and transgender people, with insufficient reaction from police and the authorities. Unfortunately, the political situation at the moment means this is only getting worse as religion comes to influence society and politics more.
The social situation for members of the gay community is better in cosmopolitan Istanbul than in rural areas but whether or not people feel comfortable coming out to their family and friends is extremely context-dependent and still poses a number of risks.
Istanbul has a fairly thriving gay scene, with pulsing dance floors, gay bars, and hamams; but many locals who participate are living a double life, being unable to be open with their families or at work for fear of the negative impact it could have on their future.
At the time of writing, it’s difficult to see what will happen to LGBT rights in Istanbul. The shift towards conservatism in Turkey as a whole does not bode well, but Istanbul’s long-established liberal character could hold firm against a rising tide of anti-gay feeling and hopefully push that tide back.
Since 1988 transsexuals have been permitted to change their legal gender. In February 2015 transgender women ran for parliamentary office, a huge step. In fact, one of Turkey’s most popular singers is transsexual.
However, discrimination against trans people is still widespread with there being multiple incidences of violence. As you can imagine, it’s always going to be a difficult issue in a country that has color-coded identity cards.
Generally speaking LGBT rights in Istanbul are fairly well-established and it is a very gay-friendly city, although most of the gay life happens indoors or at night. Travelers heading that way should feel encouraged to enjoy their time and feel confident about receiving a great welcome. Also, technically they have full legal protection.
It’s important to be aware, of course, that this is not going to be as open as travel in Bangkok or Berlin, for example; but equally, there are nowhere near the levels of repression that are seen in the majority of countries in the Middle East. Gay travelers should be discrete, but as public (and daytime!) displays of affection are frowned upon in Istanbul between heterosexual couples as well, this is a rule that would apply to anyone.
Interestingly, you will actually see a lot of men holding hands or walking with their arms around each other’s’ shoulders; this is a common expression of friendship.
Istanbul is absolutely vast, and there are dozens of areas to explore. For the most part, gay travelers should feel comfortable venturing all over the city and not let any fear limit their adventures.
As in many cities, the center tends to be more cosmopolitan and accepting, so LGBT travelers might feel more confident in sticking to the well-known areas where there are lots of other tourists.
The main gay district is around Taksim where there are plenty of gay clubs, bars, and restaurants. Trendy Beyoğlu is also at the forefront of liberal enclaves, and gay travelers will feel completely comfortable hanging around there.
It would be a good idea to avoid less-developed or further-afield areas, as these would tend to be more conservative and wary of any tourists. Tophane, for example, is known as a community that holds more traditional views so be aware if visiting any sights there.
One thing it is important to be aware of in Istanbul is that all visitors to hotels have to be recorded in a police-controlled database, so it is at a minimum a bit awkward and at a maximum impossible to bring a date back.
As with most places in the world, gay couples or single gay travelers hoping to meet people should not run into any problems if staying in international, upscale hotels. Given the prices, they will probably not raise an eyebrow at overnight guests. Luxury hotels will not be expensive compared to Europe or North American (although prices are rising) so if travelers are prioritizing a stress-free trip, this might be the best option.
Otherwise, Istanbul offers a range of queer-friendly hotels and hostels, mainly in the areas mentioned above – the gay quarter of Taksim, or Beyoğlu.
Serviced apartments or Airbnb are other good options to save travelers having to run the gauntlet of reception and to enjoy a bit more freedom and privacy. Be aware that in more conservative areas, doormen working in apartment blocks might notice more than people think and pass on that information.
Travelers might be tempted by the extremely low costs of some hostels but the lower the costs, the more likely it is that police will raid the accommodation. Be sure to book into a reputable hotel in Istanbul to save yourself any issues…
Aside from the wealth of historic and cultural sights, there is a relatively thriving gay scene in Istanbul with plenty of bars, clubs, cafes, and restaurants to choose from. As discussed above, big events like Pride are now extremely rare and often take the form of protests rather than celebrations tourists could join.
Daytime activities would mainly be the top attractions; it’s at night that the gay scene in Istanbul truly comes alive. Turkish people love music and dancing, so really it’s no surprise that a night out in Istanbul is going to be pretty fabulous. In most clubs LGBT people will be welcome; there are also plenty of gay clubs with a specifically LGBT focus.
As always, people should use their common sense and be careful when leaving clubs or bars.
There is also a range of hamams, but as a traditional Turkish experience they are frequented by everyone, so travelers should not assume they are specifically gay focused. In fact, in the current climate, saunas and hamams will actively avoid being labeled as ‘gay-friendly,’ so it is better just to enjoy these as cultural experiences unless you are with someone in the know.
Getting to know people is one of the best things about traveling and that’s particularly important in a place like Istanbul, where the gay scene is not always ‘in your face.’ Heading to Taksim or Beyoğlu to start a night out in a gay bar is a good way to get chatting to locals and then plan your night from there.
In the face of adversity, there’s a strong feeling of family in the Istanbul community, and it’s good to get to know more about it. The most popular networking app is Hornet (Grindr is banned); as always, it’s wise to install a high-quality VPN to protect your privacy.
We also have a handy list of gay travel hook up apps you could try…
Compared to almost everywhere else in the Middle East (Tel Aviv aside), Istanbul is one of the most liberal cities gay travelers can visit. There will definitely be opportunities for partying and fun, as well as seeing the glories the city has to offer; the gay scene feels like a community.
Discretion and common sense are the key pieces of advice. Overt displays of affection will be unwelcome (for gay and straight couples), and some areas might be better to avoid. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the changing political climate – hopefully, it will be better soon.
So be safe and enjoy!