What happens to a gay man in the barracks?

Source: Ulaş Gürpınar, “Bir eşcinselin başına kışlada neler gelir?” (“What happens to a gay man in the barracks?”) Agos, 19 August 2013, http://www.agos.com.tr/haber.php?seo=bir-escinselin-basina-kislada-neler-gelir&haberid=5557

Military service is defined as “service to the homeland.” The treatment that homosexual men are deemed worthy of in the process that leads to the bestowing of their “unfit to serve in the military” report tramples on the most basic of human rights. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) continue their resistance against “protecting the rights of homosexuals” in the New Constitutional Reconciliation Commission. In the meantime, a homosexual man’s (Ü.G.) experiences, hard even to read, bluntly demonstrate why there is a need for constitutional protection.

We have had numerous opportunities to read about the process through which homosexual men in Turkey (do not) get recruited for military service. There are multiple instances when photos during sexual intercourse were required as “proof” of homosexuality and videos were requested upon the decision that the photos were “insufficient” due to various reasons. Then again, there are men who have been unable to prove their homosexuality to the army and were thus forced to serve in the military.

Ü.G.’s life changed as soon as he received the envelope summoning him for military service. Until then, he felt like he had nothing to do with the military. He was so sure that he would never be enlisted that he did not realize he was a draft evader. He thought his deferment was still valid. He went for his health check and told the doctor that he was gay. The next day, he found himself in military hospital. They brought out a test, easily accessible online and they made him take it. He was subjected to questions like “If you were to draw a picture, would that be of a flower? If you were to draw a house, how old would it be? Are you afraid of the dark? Is your favorite color pink?” so that he could be inspected scientifically (!) in regard to his homosexuality.

Ü.G. explains that he did not answer the questions as predicted. He describes himself with the words: “I listen to heavy metal, I don’t like flowers and I love the dark.” But these answers did not satisfy the doctors at the military hospital. Because if you are gay, you must like flowers, you have to be afraid of the dark and you should just be pink. When he saw transsexuals waiting in the same line as him for inspection, he said in distress, “If they are trying to enlist even you, they would make me a commander in the army.” After two weeks of tests, repeated visits, waiting in lines, harassment and overall humiliation, he was devastated to receive his report. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) dictated, “Suitable to serve in the the military, cannot serve as a commando.” He was then handed his 7 TL worth of documents and abruptly found himself in boot camp in Erzincan.

Successive Harassment

Going to Erzincan added insult to injury for Ü.G. because he is originally from Erzincan. All of his extended family and relatives were there and he had not shared his sexual identity with them. When I asked him the reason for this, he explained, “My parents are primary school graduates and they are very old. I cannot tell them. They would not understand. It would make them sad. There is no need to upset them at this age. My other relatives are psychopaths anyway, I don’t want more trouble.”

His news reached his legion before he arrived in Erzincan. He had to face another doctor. The military doctor who was aware of the situation did not hesitate to engage in psychological harassment. He asked Ü.G. about his illness and Ü.G. responded, “I have none.” He continued, “I am gay and I should not be here.” At that point, the colonel doctor replied with a display of the deep-seated mentality on this matter: “What else do you want, you are in heaven!”

Even though he was forced to serve in the military, no one wanted to see him around the camp. Since his sleeping in the barracks was deemed inappropriate, he was housed in the hospital. But for how long? After a week, he was sent back to his legion. They quickly made him the typist so that he could not be around much for anyone to see. He was subjected to endless verbal and physical harassment throughout the day. His fellow soldiers fought during meal queues to line up behind him and stand closer (!) to him. When he would be buying something at the canteen, no other soldier looked at him. But if no one else was around he continually heard insults such as “come on in and I will give you everything you want.”

Shocking treatment from LGBT reps

I asked him how he was able to put up with it all. He said, “I had to put up with it. Everyday I told myself it would end and that this day too would pass.” Twice he suffered stress-related gastric bleeding. Since he was used to gastrointestinal disturbances, over the years, he had devised methods to cope with it standing up and he overcame the condition during military service as well. We are not talking about the common cold here, nor a scratch, a headache or a nosebleed, he had to overcome gastric bleeding.

As he struggled to cope with it all, he decided to reach out to LGBT organizations for support. During his day off, he knocked on their door with hope. But what he received was like a slap in the face for him rather than support: “There is no one in charge here right now, let me give you a couple of gay porn movies so you can relax/get off.”***

Friendly (!) specialist sergeant

A specialist sergeant in his legion approached Ü.G. and he seemed friendly. He brought him newspapers every day, asked how he was doing and patted him on the back. First, he thought that there was finally someone who understood him. But the true nature of the sergeant’s intentions was revealed after Ü.G.’s term was over. One day, the phone rang and it was the sergeant calling. He said, “I am being transferred to Edirne, it is time we see each other again.” Ü.G. was eager to show his gratitude so he replied, “Bring your family, the wife and the kids and I would be glad to host you.” The specialist sergeant responded, “Fuck the wife, let us meet alone. There were things I was not able to do back then, let us relax.”

He went through boot camp, without alerting his family in Erzincan to the situation, who frequently came to visit. Seeing his mother so content during the oath-taking ceremony, he felt at peace and headed to Cyprus to join his permanent legion.

Ü.G. likens the 15-hour boat ride to a scene in Garage Olimpo. He waited anxiously thinking “Will they push me off the boat?” He kept remembering the name of a person that the helpful (!) specialist sergeant had given him during boot camp. He had said, “This is the only person who can resolve your situation.” He had to find this person when he arrived in Cyprus but it would not be easy. The person he was trying to reach was one of the pashas. After much strain and effort, he was able to find the pasha who told him, “I want no such thing in my army.” He replied “Well honestly, me neither pasha.”

Meanwhile, he got the chance to contact his friends in Istanbul. He was desperate for a familiar voice and for some support but his friends’ words caused him to despair further. They told him, “You are exaggerating. Look, so and so also served in the military. He even had relations with the soldiers in exchange for money for 15 months, saved up and bought himself a car when he returned. You should do the same!” During our interview, this was the only point where Ü.G. raised his voice and was angry, “We don’t even have self-respect and then we expect this society to respect us. Well, we will just keep on waiting.”

Even those with Down syndrome are enlisted

The care and attention (!) afforded by the pasha who declared, “I want no such thing in my legion” facilitated Ü.G.’s transfer to Ankara. The army did not pay for his travels so he had to buy a cheap plane ticket with the last of his money to get himself to the capital. He spent a week in the military hospital among other soldier patients suffering various predicaments. He witnessed how even men with Down syndrome were enlisted. After a weeklong waiting period, his papers were signed and he regained his freedom without facing the council again. But his troubles were not over. He had to alter the report in order to show it to his family.

He got help from friends who could use Photoshop to change the “psychosexual disorder” report to an “ulcer” report. But his family was less than convinced thinking “Son, why would they discharge anyone based on an ulcer?” Thus the family grew anxious with the fear that their son had cancer but concealed his condition from them. He visited doctor after doctor to be able to appease his family’s worries. Finally a doctor who said, “Stress-related gastric disorders are common in those in the military” was able to get the family to abandon the thought of their son having cancer.

Even though Ü.G.’s story is recent, his memory is very much inclined to erase these experiences. When we met, he had trouble recollecting the process, the timing, the people and the places. Despite all of this, he is still able to say, “I got off easy/I dodged a bullet.” I suggested that he read the piece before publication to see if there was anything that might bother him. He said, “What can bother me more at this point?” I could not reply…

***Editor’s Note: This statement by the author has raised serious concerns among LGBTI organizations and discussions with the original publisher led to the understanding that the statement had not been fact-checked with the LGBTI organizations. Though such occurrences may arise in all volunteer-based organizations, we cannot be sure of its verity and would like to note that it be considered within the entire spectrum of LGBTI activism on the issue of the military. 

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