Turkey has some truly amazing places to visit – there are few places that capture the imagination more than Istanbul, where East meets West; the coastline of the Turquoise Coast in the south is stunning and the landscape of Cappadocia is like something from a fantasy novel
However, it’s important to be aware that Turkey, for all its liberal aspects and its cosmopolitan cities, it an Islamic country and one that is moving closer to traditional Middle Eastern values on a daily basis. This is a similar situation to gay right in Indonesia and Malaysia and shows no signs of letting up. Unfortunately, this is having a very real and visible effect on LGBT rights in Turkey that gay travelers to the area should take into account when planning a trip.
It is such a beautiful country that the LGBT community should feel excited to visit it, but it’s vital to keep the religious and political situation in mind. Since the attempted coup in 2016, religiously conservative President Erdogan has worked hard to consolidate his power and silence dissent, and the situation is turbulent. This guide aims to provide a summary of the situation in Turkey to help LGBT travelers prepare for a trip there.
Unlike many Muslim countries, Turkey does not technically outlaw homosexuality. In fact, same-sex sexual activity was legalized in the Ottoman Empire in 1858 and homosexuality has been legal since 1923 when modern Turkey was founded. As with heterosexual sex, the age of consent is 18.
There, however, some quite vague bans in the criminal code on “offenses against public morality” which can be, and have been, interpreted to be used against the LGBT community. Additionally, homosexuals are banned from military service.
In July 2016 there was a failed attempt at a coup and since then Erdogan has spearheaded a nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression in order to maintain his power. This overall move against opposing opinions has had a huge impact on LGBT organizations and the wider community; evidence of this was seen clearly in the police violence at the Pride march in Istanbul in July 2018, which has been banned for the fourth year running. Using the security situation as an excuse, Ankara has now prohibited all LGBT activity.
At the moment LGBT people in Turkey are not protected either in the public sphere or in employment through anti-discrimination laws. This is despite the efforts of some opposition parties who have attempted to introduce bills that would allow gay and transgender people legal protection.
Although homosexuality is technically legal, life as a member of the LGBT community in Turkey can be extremely challenging. A report published by Human Rights Watch in 2008 showed how gay and transgender communities face a threat of violence and discrimination on a daily basis. It further highlighted the lack of response from the authorities and the police.
Regretfully, as religion has an increasing influence on politics and society, this situation is only getting worse. No person in authority wishes to speak out in support of the gay community.
The social situation for members of the gay community is better in cosmopolitan Istanbul than in rural areas, where honor killings still occur; but whether or not people feel comfortable coming out to their family and friends completely depends on their own context and would still mean a number of risks.
Istanbul and some of the most tourist-friendly areas, such as Bodrum, have a fairly thriving gay scene, with pulsing dance floors, gay bars, and hamams; but many locals who are involved in the gays scene by night are living a different life by day, as they are not able to be open with their family or friends, and certainly not at work, where they could worry about the impact it would have on their future.
At the time of writing, it’s difficult to see what will happen to LGBT rights in Turkey. The shift towards conservatism in Turkey as a whole does not bode well, but given the reliance on tourism in many areas and the long-established liberalism of Istanbul, there might be enough open-minded individuals to hold back the wave of fundamentalism.
Although legally speaking trans rights are further forward than in other countries in the area, as transsexuals have been permitted to change their legal gender since 1988, there is still a lot of discrimination against trans people and many incidences of violence.
This is perhaps surprising in a country where transgender women ran for parliamentary office in 2015 and when one of Turkey’s most popular singers is transsexual, but this is also a country that has color-coded identity cards, so gender roles are still very traditional.
As in many conservative countries, there is a certain element of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in place, particularly a country that welcomes on tourism the way Turkey does. Travelers going to Turkey should feel encouraged to enjoy their time and feel confident in receiving a warm welcome. In addition, technically they have full legal protection.
There are nowhere near the levels of oppression that are experienced in many countries in the nearby Middle East, but at the same time, travel here is not going to be as open as travel in Bangkok or Berlin, for example.
Public displays of affection between heterosexual couples are frowned upon as well, so any travelers would be advised to be discrete, not just gay travelers. Interestingly, a lot of Turkish men hold hands or walk with their arms around each other’s’ shoulders; this is actually a common expression of friendship.
Turkey is a huge and varied country and there are multiple areas to explore. Generally speaking, gay travelers should feel comfortable going all over the country and not let any fear limit their adventures.
For a more liberal scene, the only city that would be recommended is Istanbul. The main gay district there is around Taksim and Beyoğlu is also an extremely forward-thinking area. Even Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s capital and most Western-leaning city respectively, don’t have anything that comes close to being described as a ‘gay scene’, so while they’re interesting places to visit, gay travelers shouldn’t expect a party.
As in every country, the more rural the area, the more conservative the views held. Gay travelers in the countryside should take extra care to be discreet. However, the resorts along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have plenty of bars, clubs, and restaurants that will welcome anyone. Bodrum, for example, is famous for its tolerance.
Gay couples or single gay travelers hoping to meet people should not experience any issues if they are booked in international, upscale hotels. Luxury hotels will not be hugely pricey compared to Europe or North America (although prices are rising) so if travelers are would like a completely stress-free trip this will be the best option.
One thing it is important to be aware of in Turkey is that all visitors to hotels have to be recorded in a police-controlled database, so if you want to bring a date back at the very least you’re going to face some awkwardness, and at the very most it will be outright forbidden.
Serviced apartments or Airbnb are also accommodation options that will save gay travelers having to run the gauntlet of a 24-hour reception. However, the doormen working in apartment blocks might notice more than people are aware of and that information could be passed on, so even these options should be located in more liberal areas.
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.
Turkey boasts an extraordinary wealth of history, natural wonders, and culinary discovery. Travelers can visit the ancient port city of Efes, let Cappadocia take their breath away or hike the Lycian way. They can chill on a beach or pack a day full of the sights in Istanbul.
Aside from these glories, gay travelers will have to go to specific areas to find anything like a gay scene. As outlined above, Istanbul or the beach resorts are the best places for gay travelers to go to if they’re looking to party all night. Turkish people love music and dancing, so really it’s no surprise that a night out in Istanbul or Bodrum is going to be pretty fabulous. As always, people should be careful when leaving clubs or bars.
As discussed, big events like Pride are now extremely rare and often take the form of protests rather than celebrations tourists could join.
There is also a range of hamams, but they are frequented by everyone because they are such a traditional Turkish experience, so gay travelers should not assume they are specifically gay focused. Given the current situation, it would probably be better just to enjoy the baths as cultural experiences unless certain otherwise.
Getting to know people is one of the best things about traveling and that’s particularly important in a place like Turkey, where the gay scene is not always ‘in your face’.
In the face of adversity, there’s a strong feeling of family in the Turkish gay community and it’s good to get to know more about it. Hornet is the most prevalent gay social networking app in Turkey (Grindr is banned), it’s sensible to install a high-quality VPN to protect privacy and avoid censorship.
Compared to almost everywhere else in the Middle East (Tel Aviv aside), Turkey is (still) one of the more liberal countries gay travelers can visit. There will definitely be opportunities for partying and fun, as well as seeing the glories the country has to offer.
Discretion and common sense are the key pieces of advice. Clear displays of affection will be unfavorable (for gay and straight couples) and some areas might be better to avoid. Hopefully, the political climate will improve soon.
So be safe and enjoy!