Of pride and shame: the Turkish gay community in the Netherlands

The presence of a Turkish boat at the Amsterdam Gay Pride parade is a massive step forward for homosexual Turks and homoseuxal Muslims at large. Its inaugration, however, has not been without its critics. 

Joyce van de Bildt
17 September 2012

Of the eighty boats participating in the parade at the beginning of August, most eyes were drawn towards the so-called 'Turkish Boat'; the first of its kind to appear in the boat float in Amsterdam as part of its annual Gay Pride celebrations. This unconventional presence also drew criticism and even threats originating from the Turkish community. In particular, the manifestation of national pride in combination with gay pride is questioned.

The Turkish Boat gave a face to those immigrants and Dutch-born citizens with Turkish ancestry who were brave enough to defy the social norms of their community and come 'out of the closet’. There can be few such visible steps in breaking the existing taboo when it comes to homosexuality among Muslim communities in the Netherlands. It concerns a group that usually convenes behind closed doors and rarely chooses to expose its identity so openly and extravagantly.

Turkish symbols were overtly apparent on the boat, with the country's flag draped over the vessel, and with its passengers dressed in red and white and wearing traditional items such as the fez and fake moustaches. Painted signs on the boat read the slogan "Turkish, Dutch, Gay and Proud!" Indeed, the organisers of the Turkish Boat sought to emphasise both pride of their ethnic identity and their sexual preference. It was exactly this combined emphasis that drew criticism from the heterosexual members of the Dutch-Turkish community. For example, they were shocked by those Turkish Boat participants dressed in tall, white headdresses, dancing the sama; a Turkish ritual dance originating in the Sufi tradition of Mevlevilik, founded in the religious city of Konya in the south of Turkey.

Following the event, the Amsterdam police reported it had received serious threats addressed to participants of the Turkish Boat. The majority concerned threats on internet forums or personal Facebook pages. Apparently, one such page called for the “hanging” or “burning alive” of the people on the Turkish Boat. One of the boat crew members, Nevzat Cingöz, claimed he was threatened by religious Turkish organisations and by Turkish ultra-nationalists. Despite his longstanding involvement in the homosexual community, this was the first time he had faced such serious threats, he said.

Not all of the Dutch-Turkish community's responses were as negative. Many expressed the view that being gay is fine, but parading sexuality alongside Turkish national symbols makes it inappropriate. This indicates the problem that Muslim migrants have with homosexuality as identity, and not necessarily as a phenomenon in itself. They question whether national pride is compatible with gay pride.

Turkish gays in the Netherlands have enjoyed the country's free and tolerant environment when it comes to homosexuality. At the same time, they face pressure from their family and social environment to conform to the traditional roles of men and women. Although Turkey is one of the few Muslim minority countries where homosexuality is allowed, it is still a major taboo and not something one boasts about. An example illustrative of the sensitivity of the subject is the fact that the Turkish Boat was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Education and the Foreign Ministry. It was reported by the organisers that although they had approached Turkish entrepreneurs for financial support, none of them had agreed.

Although homosexuality remains a sensitive subject in many families or social circles, in the Turkish community this is exacerbated because of the possible negative consequences 'coming out of the closet' could have for one's family honour. The latter issue relates to another slogan that was displayed on the boat, namely "My pride, whose shame?" Serdar Manavoglu, one of the organizers of the Turkish Boat, explained to the Dutch news channel NOS that “[…] honour is a key issue within Turkish families. […] it is our duty to open up a debate on what honour entails, and who is responsible for it”. The rationale is that if only honour were individualized in the Turkish community, homosexuality would be less problematic. This, however, is a far-off goal in collectivist Turkish culture.

Turkish immigrants have lived in the Netherlands since the 1960s, and a third generation of Turks was born and raised there. This ethnic community has interacted with Dutch people and society on a daily basis, and has greatly adapted or at least learned about Dutch values. It is known that the Netherlands is a pioneer when it comes to gay rights. Emancipation rapidly developed in the 1970s, as advocacy groups demanded equal rights and a place for homosexuals in society, and introduced initiatives to break with conventional patterns and stereotypes. Among the key initiatives were the Gay Pride Parades, which started to take place in the Netherlands and in Belgium in the mid-seventies under the banner 'Pink Saturday'. This and other achievements eventually led to many other western countries legalising or normalising homosexuality. For example, since 1990 homosexuality is no longer listed as a 'mental illness' by the World Health Organization. Emancipation was advanced when gay marriage was legalised in the Netherlands for the first time in 2001, followed by Belgium in 2003, and Spain and Canada in 2005. Overall, in the Netherlands, legal equality for homosexuality has been greatly achieved. Yet, challenges remain, especially when it comes to education about homosexuality. Civil servants may still refuse to perform a gay marriage. It should be remembered that even in such a ‘tolerant’ country as the Netherlands, homosexuality is not fully accepted and remains something ‘out of the ordinary’ for at least part of its citizens.

The immigrant community in the Netherlands is largely Muslim, with the three largest Muslim immigrant groups coming from Surinam, Morocco and Turkey. Ostensibly, the majority of Muslims would reject homosexuality because it is unacceptable from a religious point of view. In Morocco, however, homosexuality may be forbidden by law but to a great extent it is tolerated by the community. In Turkey, it is not outlawed, but it remains taboo. In Istanbul, the first gay pride was held in 1993, the first of its kind in a Muslim majority country. It had more than 10,000 participants in 2011. Although homosexuality in Turkey is visible, for example on TV, on the streets and in the music scene, the law does not grant equal rights to gays.

Homosexuals from Muslim immigrant communities often face multiple problems, on top of those faced by gay minorities in general. These specific problems include not only psychological issues, but also isolation, unsafe sexual behaviour, and honour-related violence. Many of these problems are caused by the inner conflict between their own homosexual feelings on the one hand, and the religious beliefs with which they were raised on the other hand. Some members of these communities live double lives, in an attempt to remain loyal both to their homosexual feelings as well as to their ethnic community and the family's expectations.

One of the problems is that these homosexual youth are even more hesitant to confide in a parent, family member or a friend when it comes to their sexual preference. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in January 2006, an elderly member of the Dutch-Moroccan community declared: "Something is wrong with our community. It is terrible that homosexual youngsters are unable to talk to their parents," while another, young respondent added that no one sticks out his neck for homosexual immigrant youth. Muslim gays prefer to stay out of publicity, and the imams who support them also wish to stay anonymous. The result is increased isolation.

Similarly, these youth do not have role models they can relate to or identify with. On the Turkish Boat, the song 'Yarali Gonu' was played over and over again; a song by the Turkish singer Zeki Muren's who lived in the closet his whole life. Although Dutch-Turkish gays relate to idols such as Zeki Muren, they do not have such leading examples in their own community. Television has provided a promising figure head, however. One of the latest additions to the cast of the Dutch soap series 'Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden' ('Good Times, Bad Times'). Sinan Eroglu plays the role of the Turkish 'Bilal', who gets engaged to a Turkish girl but is secretly gay. Nevertheless, considering the limited popularity of this soap series among immigrant youth, it is questionable how much this character resonates with the Muslim audience.

According to recent estimates, there are about 22,000 Turkish gays in the Netherlands. Bearing in mind the fear among Turkish homosexuals to speak out about their sexual preference, the veracity of these numbers is uncertain. As long as co-members of the Turkish community ignore that it can be possible and honourable to be both Turkish and gay, coming out of the closet will remain extremely difficult for this group. Among the Turkish population in Europe, will these notions change over time under the influence of western perceptions? Certainly, the Turkish Boat is an initiative that challenges traditional norms. Regardless of its success in changing fundamental notions within the Turkish community, the Turkish Boat has established its appearance in the Gay Pride in the Netherlands, and will hopefully encourage Afghani, Moroccan, Iranian, and other boats to join the parade in the future.

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