Source: Ayşe Arman, “Bir gay’in askerlik anıları: Güneşli havalarda, 50 faktör güneş kremi sürüyordum”, (“A gay man’s conscript experience: I would use SPF 50 sunscreen in sunny days”), Hürriyet Kelebek, 16 August 2014, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/kelebek/hayat/27009085.asp
“All men born in Turkey must serve in the military when they reach a certain age. Well, I was born here too and I am a man…”
“I am gay and I have just returned from the military upon the completion of my military service. You have published several stories on the ordeals gay men, homosexuals and trans individuals must go through in order to avoid serving in the military. As for me, I would like to explain to you why I chose to serve and tell you of my experiences during military service. Would you be interested?”
I called him immediately and we met for an interview.
Kaan Arer is an impressive man. He is educated and knowledgeable, frank and sincere and very intelligent as well. He is a mathematician and the winner of a TÜBİTAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) award.
He requested that we not reveal his face in the photos accompanying this article as he continues to work as a teacher.
Kaan Arer has a blog where writes about homosexuality.
Some of his pieces are quite brave. He has written about an occasion, during his military service, when his boyfriend visited him on a day off. He wrote of how they made love in a café restroom. His description of this event, quite far from being tawdry, is sensitive and elegant.
I wish him all the best in his life as a mathematician and as a writer.
What is your name?
- Kaan Arer
Is that your real name?
- No, because I am a teacher. If I revealed my real name, that would be the end of my career.
What do you teach?
- Mathematics. Everyone needs mathematics. Life is mathematics!
Nice. How old are you?
- I’m 27.
When did you first realize that you were gay?
- (Laughs) I was a bit naïve. I did not know that there were different categories of people, that there were heterosexuals and homosexuals. When it came to sex, I used to think that men made love to men and women to women. If some women liked men, then they would sleep with them. In short, I thought everyone just slept with whomsoever they chose. For instance, my parents had sex because they liked each other. I liked a friend of mine who was a boy so I thought I could sleep with him. Then, one day, I realized that men are supposed to like women. I was appalled! I had been mistaken and wrong all along! I had to change. But how? The tough part was that I had a high-pitched voice. My father kept warning me, “We have to do something about your voice!” or “Don’t make those hand gestures,” or “Don’t say things like ‘oh my!’ Those words make you soft, a poof.” Entering high school, I was homophobic despite being gay, precisely because of such pressure.
One cannot escape from one’s own reality or essence
What about in high school?
- I tried not to think about sexuality. Because when I did think about it, I thought about men. And that upset me. I had a girlfriend in college and we were together for four years.
What do you mean? Did you have sex?
- Yes. My first sexual encounter was with a woman. I don’t have a phobia towards vaginas. I am able to have sex with women. But I prefer male bodies. I am not a bisexual. I was trying to pretend I was heterosexual by sleeping with a woman. But it was impossible.
Did she ever suspect anything?
- My girlfriend? We had some hilarious experiences. I was staying in a double room in the dorms. I was in love with my male roommate, though I was unaware of it then. He had a girlfriend too and the four of us used to hang out together. I found out later that the girls would get together and gossip, “well, these two are together all the time and they seem really into each other. What if they are bisexual?” They were forthright girls and they confronted us with this. I was such a homophobe that I vehemently objected. I threw a fit. I went on for such a long time that my girlfriend finally gave up and said, “Fine, just drop it. You are so homophobic!”
And then what?
- Well, you can’t escape from your own reality, your essence. My girlfriend and I broke up after college and I began to question who I really was, what I was doing in life and what I wanted to do. That’s when I was awarded a TÜBİTAK scholarship because I had ranked first in the graduating class of my university. I went abroad for graduate work and it was at that time that I began to read up on homosexuality. As I kept reading, I realized that there were other people like me. And I thought, “For society to accept gay people, they must be acquainted with people like us and they must know us.” So I began to come out to people I trusted and believed in. I first told my sister, and next my aunt. I came out to her on a rainy day. My aunt and I were returning from a psychiatry seminar. I turned to her and said, “There is something I would like to tell you.” She said, “Sure, dear.” I said, “I am gay!” Obviously, it wasn’t quite so easy. I was crying. It was raining. My aunt hugged me and said, “I wish you would have told me before, you must have been through so much. I would have liked to have been by your side as you lived through that pain!”
I wanted to be sincere. And I am…
Your aunt sounds amazing! What about your parents?
- That’s an unresolvable issue. They still do not know. I do not think that I will ever tell my father because I do not think that he will be able to understand. It would be a nightmare for him. He would make it into the biggest problem in the world. I cannot tell my mother either. She would be caught in between [us]. She would worry about me. I do not want to upset anyone. This problem is related in the documentary My Child. There are some highly educated people who just cannot accept that their children are gay. For them, other people’s kids may be gay; these are modern times. But their own kids? No way!
Does this problem arise from fear of embarrassment in their social circles or because of worries of what would happen to their child in a homophobic country where he could be vulnerable in the face of strong antagonism?
- From both of them. But I think that the major concern is: “How will I be able to protect my child? He is going to be living a life about which I know nothing. I am so unfamiliar with this world. If he were straight, he would just marry someone. He would have in-laws and kids and his kids would take care of him. But since he is gay, he will not get married. Even if he does, he will not have kids. What is going to happen when he gets old? Who is going to take care of him?” It is questions like these that preoccupy families.
How could you be so brave?
- We live in such a hypocritical society. I had no other choice. We take pride in how hospitable we are but we talk behind guests’ back if they visit for too long. We try to convey messages to a daughter-in-law by saying something to our daughter instead. Well, speak directly to the person you intend to communicate with. No. This has become a part of our social language. As I was questioning myself in regard to the kind of life I wanted to lead, I realized that what I value most is sincerity. I wanted to be sincere in my existence, my behavior and my writing…And I am.
I would just whip out my SPF 50 sunscreen
What do homosexual people think of when they first hear the word “military?”
- Several things. The humiliating process of getting examined to receive the “not fit for service” report. The chain of command in the military. The fear of having to kill, being killed or being sexually assaulted. “How can I feel comfortable living together in the same barracks with so many men? Is the place hygienic? What if they mock me? What if they call me a faggot? Can I really handle all that at this age?”
So was it like this for you?
– I am anti-militarist. But I did go and serve in the military even though I could have easily proven that I was gay. I live with my boyfriend. My aunt and sister would have come and testified. If they asked for a photo depicting a sexual encounter (which they no longer ask for), I could even provide that.
But you did not. You did not even say that you were gay. Why? Why did you want to serve in the military?
– I am against mandatory military service. Those who do not wish to go should not be forced to. I wish we had the legal right and opportunity not to serve. But we do not. All men who are born in the Republic of Turkey must serve in the military when they reach a certain age. Well, I was born here too. I am of a certain age. And I am a man. I am no different from those other men. If they must serve, I must serve too. If I were to use my sexual orientation, bestowed upon me by God, as an excuse, I would be using my homosexuality to escape a responsibility.
But was it not hard for you?
– Of course it was. There is no common sense or logic in the military. But it is hard for everyone. This is what I am trying to tell people. If you know yourself and your rights, nobody can dare to do anything to you. They are afraid of you, especially if you are educated and familiar with social media. Listen, they have set up quite strict mechanisms for raising complaints should anyone, including the officers, try to abuse you. They have the Prime Ministerial Center for Communications. They can, within a week, announce that “A soldier has lodged such a complaint” and ask for a defense from the accused. But certainly, if a person is too feminine or trans or absolutely unwilling to go, they should not go. You have to sleep in the same quarters with 60 men…
Are you, by saying all this, trying to tell gay men that they can serve in the military?
– Some of my friends do not have the option of receiving the “Unfit for service” report. Let us say that they wish to work as a civil servant or simply that they do not want to come out. They may be unable to handle coming out of the closet. That is when they experience a huge dilemma. They have to go to the military but are scared. Those are the people I am trying to reach. Do not be scared. Just go. It is not that bad. And I mean, I served in really hard conditions.
What if they say “You are hurting our struggle?”
- Being gay is not a positive attribute that we have. It’s a normal quality that we acquire at birth. We cannot take pride in this quality, which we are born with and we cannot ask for any privileges because of it either.
What kind of a place were you expecting and what did you find?
- I thought of it as going to camp for six months. I had no expectations. I was prepared for the worst. Plus, I was sent to Sakarya, a place where they send people with bad track records.
What was your experience like?
- The military offers you a chance to truly get to know Turkey. You feel it in your bones that you live in a third world country. The system is fifty years behind current times. Logic is not required. They do not want you to think anyway. But I mean, I was myself. I would just whip out my SPF 50 sunscreen and apply it when the sun was out. I wanted to protect my skin.
Were they not like “What is this maniac doing?” Did they not mock you?
- (Laughs) I am 27 years old. I was older than most of the people there. And since I am a teacher, they addressed me as “Hocam” [literally meaning “My teacher” in Turkish – indicating respect]. I could easily point out something that I thought was wrong. What is wrong with me having sunscreen? It is called awareness. I did not want to get a worker’s tan where only your arms are tanned. I also wanted to protect my ears from the sun. There was some construction work to be done. I bought work gloves on my day off and used them to protect my hands. So I was able to bring in my own standards into the military. And nobody asked me why I wore gloves or applied sunscreen. There was only this once that someone said, “Dude, is this foundation you are applying?” And I said, “No, it is sunscreen.” They used to keep littering. And believe it or not, I even taught my own squad about the virtues of not littering.
- Being a teacher, I first glance at the floors when I enter a classroom. If it is dirty, if there is garbage on the floor, I say, “Everyone lives in the environment where they deserve to live. But I do not deserve to live and work in such an environment!” And I begin to pick up the garbage. Then the kids slowly join in. I never littered in the military either. If we were walking and I had an empty plastic bottle in my hand, I would look for a garbage can. A friend once said, “You have still not become a soldier! There is garbage everywhere around here. Just throw it. They will clean the precinct in the morning anyway!” That was the running mentality and I wanted to change it. But the officers were no different. They would drink tea and throw the cup onto the ground. They would smoke and throw the cigarette butt onto the ground. That is why I decided to begin from my immediate surroundings. I saw a friend littering after he smoked and I reprimanded him in front of everyone. He said, “Where am I supposed to throw it? There are no garbage cans!” I said, “Well, if there are no garbage cans, then put it in your pocket.” He said “No way!” So I said that I would do it for him and I picked up his butt from the ground and stuck it in my pocket. He said that he would never allow me to carry his own garbage and took it from me. So people began to acquire awareness like this. I taught some people how to read and write. Those six months were not nightmarish for me. I am happy to think that I helped some people.
During my military service, I learned to build Lego out of egos
Were you the only one or were there other gay men in the military?
- Of course there were. Listen to this: my boyfriend came to visit. We were chatting by the wall near the main entrance of the barracks. He had brought some food and we were eating. Right next to us, there were two other men who were chatting just like us. I knew one of them because he was a soldier too. We tried to sneak a peek at them, wondering, “Are they also gay?” I mean, it is not written on your forehead, after all. And not everyone has to be feminine to be gay. Anyway, we went back in and apparently our boyfriends talked on their way back. My boyfriend telephoned me later and said, “Yes, you have another gay soldier friend!”
What did you take away from all this? What was the most important lesson you learnt from your military service?
- I learned how to build Lego out of egos! If my attitude had been, “I graduated first in my class. I studied in England on a TÜBİTAK Scholarship. I am at this level. How can an officer who is a high school graduate order me around telling me to pick up garbage and clean the toilets?” I would have been in big trouble. I was there only as a soldier. I thought, “I am supposed to do whatever it is that all other soldiers are required to do.” And so I completed my military service with no problems.