Homophobia in Sports: “Even discussing it is a subject for discussion”

A news item found in the archive of the Sabah newspaper lays bare before our eyes the fiercest debate to have been experienced in Turkey in recent times over homosexuality in football.

Source: Serkan Akkoyun, “Tartışması bile tartışma konusu” (“Even discussing it is a subject for discussion”), Sporx, 13 September 2015, http://www.sporx.com/tartismasi-bile-tartisma-konusu-SXHBQ489664SXQ

On the morning of 3 May 1988 there was earth-shaking news in England. The death of a football player by the name of Justin Fashanu the previous day had become, because of the manner in which he died, a social incident for which the person responsible was being sought.

England’s former famous 37-year-old football player had ended his life at a moment that no one had expected. Perhaps some people in his circle who were close to him expected this death, but what led the public to understand what actually had happened occurred with the revelation of why this well-known figure had committed suicide. Fashanu was homosexual. After he made this known, he fell prey to the idea that this world was for him no longer all that livable a place, on account of the pressure, criticism, ridicule, and, worst of all, ostracization coming from society. On 2 May 1988 he committed suicide.

The beginning of the events that led Fashanu to his death was his announcement, after he had left football, that he was homosexual. On the one hand, his daring to do this at the end of the 80s, in an environment where homosexuality was not so comfortably discussed, and among a rigid people like England’s, took everybody by surprise. “Somebody has to start somewhere”, he said to journalists who had asked him why he was doing this. Only, at the time when he was living in America, the unsavory events that we need not mention here, the accusations that were made against him and could by no means be proven, had weakened his ties to life. Toward the heavens he made a sign requesting a “player substitution”, but it was not seen. He then hurled himself outside the field boundary and walked straight to the locker room.


In a male-dominated game, anomalous names like Fashanu never gain acceptance. In the end, even if U.S. citizen Robbie Rogers, who announced that he was gay while he was active in football, was for a while a topic on the national agenda, he was later forgotten. Perhaps it was truly because he “was not a good football player”, but he was sent to the reserve team by his team, Los Angeles Galaxy, in spite of his being 27 years old. With same-sex marriages being recently permitted throughout the country in the U.S., LGBTI individuals’ efforts to seek justice, once again attracting the interest of “others”, are not taken seriously as far as football is concerned. For here there exists fundamentally a mental confusion in the form of a concept and its persistence. When one considers that being deprived of basic rights like adaptation to society, work, and housing is the leading problem that LGBTI individuals in particular experience, the question whether a football player actually experiences these things arouses disbelief. Only here it is necessary to state that the football community, compared with other communities, is a crowd that has much more rigid and inflexible rules. In other words, after a football player discloses that he is homosexual, it will be much more difficult for him to preserve the place that he has in the football world. Even after Fashanu died, his brother said that he did not believe that he was really gay. As in every family with a homosexual child, the inability to acknowledge that their children are homosexual is one of the big problems of the football community.


Granted, in Europe and distant continents matters are progressing a little differently from the way they are progressing among us. At the first match at which Robbie Rogers appeared with LA Galaxy after his disclosure that he was homosexual, the wild applause that he received from the stands was a rather mature behavior still far removed from our stadiums. In Europe as well, the stands are for the most part homophobic — that, too, is acknowledged. What makes us different, however, is hidden in our view of this situation. In the era in which we find ourselves, negative comments that a footballer makes about homosexual football players will elicit a reaction from commentators and the well-educated class in Europe and America. Even if such a situation has not been experienced in recent years in Turkey, years ago news reports were more than enough to throw the place into turmoil.

A news item found in the archive of the Sabah newspaper lays bare before our eyes the fiercest debate to have been experienced in Turkey in recent times over homosexuality in football. The news item, from 2004, was the following:

“The famous ballet dancer Tan Sağtürk’s comments, ‘With respect to homosexuality, football players surpass us. I have friends; that’s how I know,’ drew a big reaction from the football world. While most of the football players were reacting to Tan Sağtürk’s words, the harshest of them came from Istanbulspor’s goalkeeper Ahmet Dursun. Asserting that he had not seen or experienced such a thing in his own occupational group, he commented, ‘Such allegations are made not only about football players, but about basketball players as well. One must ask Tan Sağtürk, is homosexuality suited to football players or to ballet dancers? One must also ask homosexuals whether they want to be football players or ballet dancers.'”

Apart from Ahmet Dursun’s perceptive thesis concerning the separation of sexual preference according to occupational group, Necati Ateş, İbrahim Toraman, Emrah Eren, and Orhan Kaynak — football players at that time — also reacted to the statements and to Sağtürk, as follows:

Necati Ateş: “He is homosexual. If he were a man he would not speak that way.”

İbrahim Toraman: “I have seen no such thing going on around me.”

Emrah Eren: “I hand this immoral comment back to him.”

Orhan Kaynak: “If you know something, say so; don’t leave us under suspicion.”

If we were to ask Emrah Eren again now, would he react in that way? I believe he would not. For in the 11 years that have passed since then, homosexual individuals and societies have found better opportunities to explain themselves, and homophobic persons have been invited, generally and for the most part by the combined force of the young people at the universities — even if a tad harshly — to redesign their perspectives on these people.

The continuation of the news story, however, is more interesting. Tan Sağtürk has no choice but to make a statement after the response he had received, and says the following:

“Speaking to SABAH after his comments, which had become a hot topic and stirred controversy, Tan Sağtürk asserted that his words had been misconstrued. Stating that he chosen football as an example because it was a tough game, Sağtürk said, ‘I had no intention of denigrating football players. Only, I had to give an example. Moreover, the homosexual football players I know are in France. I did not want to divulge their names. One thing is certain: they may not know whether there is a homosexual among them.'”

The most explosive statement, however, comes from Turgay Şeren:

“Professional Football Players Association President Turgay Şeren, spewing fire at Sağtürk, said in a written statement, ‘Let Tan Sağtürk refrain from arousing the suspicions of the sports public with his ugly lies. We will settle accounts with him before the tribunal of justice.'”

Turgay Şeren is angry enough to regard saying that certain people are homosexual as a crime factor, and to decide to bring the matter to court. We may say that this last paragraph is a summary of homophobia. I am certain that even Turgay Şeren has changed his ideas with the passage of time. For changing one’s ideas in a positive direction is the most beautiful proof of the process of a human being’s maturation…


After the social vertigo occasioned by Tan Sağtürk’s remarks, a second blow came from Yılmaz Vural. In an interview he gave to Canan Danyıldız, of the Posta newspaper, Vural, touching upon the issue of “gayness” in football, spoke as follows:

There is always lesbianism in girls’ dormitories and gayness in men’s dormitories. You get to know your body through people who are close to you. It is not that I have seen them doing anything with my own eyes, but I feel it in their demeanor. I do not think that being gay affects ability. It is one’s private life. But remember, a referee friend of ours said “I am gay”, and he was thrown out of his occupation. It is impossible for a football player to disclose this.”


In 2004, besides Tan Sağtürk’s coming out, Rıdvan Dilmen’s disclosures appeared on the discussion agenda. Talking to Elif Korap in the Sunday supplement of the Milliyet newspaper, Rıdvan said the following:

“They are to be found among journalists, among ballet dancers, and among football players as well. There is a homosexual football player with whom I myself am acquainted. And I have heard of several of them. And everyone knows that person. But they come forward and tell lies. ‘There is no such thing; I do not know any at all’, they say.”

“There is a homosexual football player with whom I myself am acquainted.” Here is the kind of disclosure that every correspondent wants to pry out in an interview that he or she is conducting. After Rıvdan Dilmen’s remarks this discussion remained a hot topic for weeks. Who could that homosexual football player be? His name was never disclosed, but was it all that important? For example, he had said that homosexuals were to be found among journalists. Why did that not arouse curiosity? Or a ballet dancer? Yet neither is it hard to understand that when mentioning a ballet dancer he meant Tan Sağtürk, and that he had an intention contrary to Sağtürk’s statements. Granted, solving a mystery seems alluring to a person, but we all know that if that football player had come forward, we too could have had a name in our football history like Justin Fashanu. Apparently God protected him.


There will be some of you who remember Erhan Albayrak, whom Fenerbahçe transferred in 2003 from Germany’s Second League team Arminia Bielefeld… One season before the transfer he had attracted attention wearing the Gaziantepspor uniform. In fact, after the Gaziantepspor match in which Fenerbahçe finished the first half behind 3-0 and in the second half won 4-3, he had become the Hamit Altıntop [of Galatasaray] of that time, saying, “If you lose a match like this, you cannot look for a culprit.” It may be that since both of them had grown up in Germany, their primary education had been the same. But before Erhan was transferred to Fenerbahçe, an demonstration of joy that he had experienced got him into trouble in Turkey.

Years later, a photograph of him that had been taken with his teammate Arthur Wichinarek in the locker room after the championship match at which they, with Arminia Bielefeld, rose from the Second League to the First League, became a headline for the newspapers in Turkey. According to the photograph, which showed him kissing Arthur on lips, Erhan was gay. Even at that time the two players had no choice but to bring “clarity” to this incident, which is still more discussed than Erhan’s football itself:

“After the championship match, we were overjoyed, as a team and as fans. At that match, I gather I had given an assist to Wichinarek, who scored two goals. Under the influence of alcohol, Wichinarek kissed me on the lips, even though I gave him my cheek. Afterwards I did not consider it very important. But months later I was confronted with it. As a Turkish football player, I cannot commit an act that offends my nation.”

Society had demanded of Erhan that he be ashamed of kissing a man on the lips, and Erhan submitted and accepted the demand. It is possible that Erhan regarded a Turk’s being homosexual as an offensive act. After that, Arthur spoke as well:

“I merely wanted to express my joy. In our culture this act is accepted as normal. Among Turks too, men’s walking hand in hand or arm in arm is accepted as normal. But this would be misunderstood in Western Europe. This incident, characterized as a scandal, has its origin in differences between cultures. Before condemning people, it would be wiser to find out what cultures they come from. I am married and am the father of two children; as a matter of fact, Erhan, is engaged as well.”

Because of an incident that was only to be glossed over with the reply, “Yes, at that moment we kissed each other on the lips, but that had to do with the culture of one of us, and the inattentiveness of the other; I think you have been very worried; no, we are not homosexual,” both football players were compelled to offer a very lengthy explanation. Leaving the disclosure of homosexuality to one side, that period was a period where even its possibility could elicit a reaction. At this time, what has changed? It is not discussed (!)

The year 2004 was a year when discussions of homosexuality in Turkish football were part of a busy agenda. Long before Tan Sağtürk’s and Rıdvan Dilmen’s remarks, a discussion of gayness took place on Güntekin Onay’s program Telegol, on which Ahmet Çakar, Adnan Aybaba, Ziya Şengül, and Turgay Şeren appeared. How so, you ask? As follows…

It was the beginning of February. Galatasaray was on its way down from the top and getting bad results in the league. Prior to the tough match with Bursaspor — most likely — Fatih Terim had reportedly unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt, loosened his tie, and let it dangle on his chest on both sides; as he was working on his next ordeal in his office. At this moment the telephone rang. The number was not registered. Nevertheless, sensing that it might be something important, he said “hello”. On the other end of the line a voice that he did not recognize but that he remembered introduced itself:

“Good evening, dear Hoca [teacher]. I am a member of the Galatasaray Congress…”

Stating his name, he finished his sentence and continued. According to what the Congress member said, Galatasaray football players Ümit Karan, Berkant Gökten, and Suat Usta were at a nightclub. The previous day they had likewise been at that nightclub until morning and had consumed alcohol. Without interrupting his grave demeanor, he finished the conversation, and immediately called his right-hand man, his assistant Müfit Erkasap.

“Müfit, you are to go right away to the address I give you…”

He furnished the necessary information and explained why he had to go there. Erkasap did what he was told. He went to the bar and found Ümit Karan there. He confirmed the information that Berkant and Suat, too, went to the bar. Terim immediately put Ümit on the bench. Various penalties were imposed on Berkant and Suat as well. A few days later, however, the incident came up on Telegol’s agenda, only with a slight difference. The bar that the players had gone to was a gay bar…

In reality, the establishment was not a gay bar, but gays went there, too — which is normal. As there is no difference at all between between them and other people. But in the football community it was very important to emphasize this situation. When, furthermore, Berkant’s urinating on a wall at the bar was added to the incident, as well as the subsequent actions of three football players (Volkan Arslan’s name was also included) in which they started a fight, the ratings went wild. Berkant had joined the broadcast and, as Kemal Sunal says in the film “Man #100”, had revealed that “this case is a different case, it’s a pissing case,” and disavowed it. But the actual bomb was set off by the German-Turkish youth with his reply to the question, “Why did you go to a gay bar?”

“There are women there, too; it’s a mixed bar”

According to the Hürriyet newspaper’s story about the incident, however, authored by İlhan Söyler, the three football players had, before going to that establishment, gone to a gay bar. Whatever the case may be, the core of the incident was the fact that three football players had gone to a gay bar.

After some time, the incident was concluded and forgotten, and remained in the archives. At the end of that year Berkant Göktan was sent to Beşiktaş; Suat Usta, to Konyaspor. As for Ümit Karan and Volkan Arslan, they remained on the team. Fatih Terim left Galatasaray; while Fenerbahçe was the season champion with 76 points, Galatasaray finished the league in sixth place with 54 points, trailing Gaziantepspor and Denizlispor…

*Adapted from a piece published in the August issue of the Football Extra magazine

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