Öykü Ay: “The Lord helped and we’ve opened the first trans shelter” in Turkey

Source: Ezgi Başaran, “Rabbim yardım etti, ilk trans sığınma evini açtık” (“The Lord helped and we’ve opened the first trans shelter”), Radikal.com.tr, 19 January 2015, http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/ezgi_basaran/rabbim_yardim_etti_ilk_trans_siginma_evini_actik-1274664

Turkey’s first trans shelter is opening. The hero of this initiative is Öykü Ay. Also known to the trans community as “the veiled,” Öykü says, “The Lord helped and we’ve opened the first trans shelter. Thousands of thanks to all the girls. It boosted our morale. It showed us that we can handle any difficulty once we’re united.” Here is the most encouraging story of late…

WHY?

Sometimes I meet people whose life experience, or even sheer existence, is the answer to many complicated questions; it tells all that a 300-page book about politics can’t tell. Öykü Ay is one of those people. One of the most encouraging things I have heard about lately is the opening of a new trans shelter. Yes, a shelter for trans individuals. Think how frequently you read in the news about a trans individual’s beating, murder, or suicide under pressure. And now they have a roof to gather under thanks to Öykü Ay’s organizing in the trans community and the community’s own ability to organize. You are about to read the story of that shelter and that of Öykü Ay, who identifies as a religious person. While reading, please think about the concepts of morality and religiousness imposed upon us by the government. How those concepts are unable to describe real life. And, of course, think about what it means to have the strength to do good despite all the systematic misfortune, bad treatment, and ostracization. Just think.

öyküay

Where and when does your story begin?

I’m from the East. I was born in a village of Malatya. To a family with 3.5 daughters and 2.5 sons.

Where do the halves come from?

From me. That’s how I say how many children there are in the family. It’s a joke. You didn’t get it, but that’s fine.

Yeah, I didn’t think that way.

Anyway, I studied teaching. I was an intern grade school teacher for about a year in Adıyaman. But I couldn’t handle it for long because I was too feminine. Pressure from family, pressure from society… It’s hard to be LGBTI in the East; it’s very painful. I ran away from there.

You came to Istanbul…

No, I went first to Antalya. I had relatives there. They were working on the construction of a very big hotel. I worked as a tea vendor there. We had a nice boss, who noticed my femininity and vulnerability, helped me out a lot, and registered me at the tourism school. I studied there. Then I came to Istanbul. I worked as a waiter at a café. The owners were an Albanian family, very good people. They transferred the café to me; I just paid rent to them. The Lord Almighty has never left me in dire situations. That’s how I made a living until the owner passed away. Then I learned about Aksaray, Kumkapı, Taksim. I only used to know Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy before that. But there were hundreds, thousands like me in Istanbul. My self-confidence got a boost; I saw I wasn’t alone. But in the meantime, my family had come to know fully my gay identity, because they had been to visit me in Istanbul. They ran back to their hometown. I’ve never completely cut off my communication with my family. My dad and I didn’t speak to each other for two years; then we made up and became two very close friends. We used to stay up and talk until the morning when he got sick. He said he respected me a lot. But he couldn’t recover; I lost him.

What was the turning point of your life?

My decision to become a woman, of course. I had no job, no money. I couldn’t ask my family either. I had a thin wedding ring. I entered a hair salon in Tarlabaşı and I said, “Take this ring and make me a woman.” But I had hair all over. I even had a beard. They did a make-up like wall paint and attached a hairpiece to my head. I put four pairs of stockings on top of each other and a mini skirt. They disguised a man in woman’s clothing. That’s how my story started. I worked as a sex worker. I ran a nightclub in Beyoğlu for many years. I made my name in the community. My ego was satisfied. I would manage the place, go up and dance, and keep track of accounting, all at the same time. I’d put a water-filled condom in my bra as a substitute for breasts, but I was still full of self-confidence. Over the years, I’ve had my plastic surgeries. Then I moved away from the disco and bar scene.

Why?

Because drug use became widespread. I’m disgusted by everything about drugs. I can’t ever do drugs or accept them. I was very bothered that people would take ecstasy and come to me. I had reached a certain age and satisfied myself anyway. In the meantime, I lost my big sister after my dad. I had thought death would never visit us, but that didn’t turn out to be true. I was shaken and I covered myself.

“Covered” meaning…

I put on a headscarf. They call me “the veiled” in the community.

Did you have a religious epiphany?

Yes and no. It was about 12 years ago. I wanted to spend more time with my family, and I realized that I could walk in the streets with my mom and big sister if I covered my head and put on an overcoat. No one would turn their head and give me and my family weird looks. No one would bang metal bins together and yell “f….t” at me. If I didn’t open my mouth and say something, if I didn’t make a sound, and if my big sister didn’t call me by my birth name, no one would even understand that I was trans. Not that I’m ashamed of being trans. I don’t want that to be misunderstood. I did it partly to give my mom and family a breather. Also, praise be to God, I’m a Muslim, and as a woman, I like the way veiling looks on me. It’s not just an accessory to me. Of course, I read the Quran; I used to do weekly Quran readings with my neighbors. I’ve always tried to live as a good Muslim and I still do. But I don’t go to Quran meetings anymore.

What happened?

I was broke. There’s all the cake and the cookies at Quran meetings but no one asks me how I make a living, how I live. I eat their cake and cookies once a week and then I’m hungry. You can’t live like that. I had to build a system in which I could also help my family. I’ve tried out a couple of jobs, but you know they don’t give us jobs. I’ll clean? No. I’ll cook? No. I’ll pick up trash? No to that, too. For a little while I did what I know to do again. Then my sibling and I started a chicken farm back in our hometown: that’s how I make a living now. But I don’t have a normal job. For years I wanted to have a day job from eight am to eight pm, I wanted to come home tired and brew some tea. That’s what I envied, but it didn’t work out.

How were your veil and religiousness received in the trans community?

Some found it absurd. But in general, they accepted me like that. It’s not just me anymore. There are a couple more of us. There’s even someone who’s a graduate of a religious vocational school, who’s worked as an imam. I know that it’s surprising for people that we’re religious. The main problem here is that we’re not categorized as human. If they accept that we’re human too, it will be understood that anything that can happen to people can happen to us too. There won’t be any surprises. Yes, I say it: I think I’m a good Muslim.

What does it mean to be a good Muslim?

I think it means to have a good heart. Not to infringe on anyone’s rights. Not to hurt anyone. To extend help to everyone as much as possible. This is what I try to accomplish. Let me surprise you a little more. I once voted for AKP, do you know that? In the first elections.

You did?

I swear. Under the previous administrations, we suffered a lot from police officers. You probably remember “Süleyman the Hose”. He would beat [especially] trans people with hoses filled with batteries. We were beaten a whole lot. I wanted everything to change and I voted for AKP thinking they feared God. Just once. Later, it sank in, of course. I looked and I saw that what I thought was there actually wasn’t. My girls are still angry that I voted for them, even though just for once. Anyway, let’s stay clear of politics.

I agree. For the last couple of months, you’ve been working like an NGO or a charity association and you’re organizing your friends to help LGBTIs. You’ve come up with the notion of “trans angel”. Can you tell us what you’ve been doing?

It all started last Ramadan. One evening, at the breaking of the fast, an LGBTI activist wrote on her Facebook: “You’re all sharing pictures of your evening meals. Trans people are without food and water, they’re in awful conditions; the least you can do is not to share those pictures. Not everyone has what you have.” It moved me a lot to read that. Next day I wrote on my Facebook that we should help the three-four trans people who were at the LGBTI organization’s guesthouse. Food, clothes, blankets… I was stunned. This living room that you’re seeing right here and my bedroom were full to the brim. A couple of friends and I brought the food to the guesthouse. We paid four months’ rent for them. I documented every step of it with the names of the donors. Of course, there’s the reciprocal trust that we’ve built over the years. I noticed two things throughout: One, a small push is enough for us to start helping each other. Two, we can actually accomplish more.

That’s how you came up with the idea of the fashion show, right?

Exactly. I met Pınar Selek many years ago. She was doing research on the difference between women’s clothing and the clothing of trans people. I was a model for her in a way. I really like Pınar, I’m so happy now that she’s been acquitted from all the charges. I recently remembered those days. As trans people, we love clothing and we love showing off what we wear. That’s why I thought of doing a fashion show. I wrote an ad on Facebook: girls, let’s increase the help we’ve started to extend to the trans people who have nowhere to live, no food, and no safety. Let’s turn that guesthouse into a shelter.

Wonderful… What were the reactions?

[Help] poured. Everyone sent messages saying “Sign me up, sister.” I received contributions to the fashion show from trans people all over the world, not just Turkey. The girls would either make their own dresses or buy them. We would sell tickets for the fashion show and auction off the girls’ clothes. We worked on this for two months. We had fights. The fat girls would say, “You exclude us because we’re fat,” and stop talking to us. The girls who work at the brothel would say, “You don’t want us because we work at the brothel,” and get offended. You had to see… it was just that the number of participants was so high that I couldn’t handle all of it. At last, I called Seyhan Arman saying, “Come, sister, or I’ll lose my mind.” She came, organized everything professionally, found a choreographer and a makeup artist. In the meantime Şişli Municipality had promised us a venue for the show, but that fell through. So we looked for a new place and we finally found one. What I’m trying to say that I had a very stressful and difficult time organizing. But that night, oh that night…

How was it?

I cried. I took a peek at the hall from the backstage and I cried. The hall was full to the brim. It went wonderfully. It was very tiring, but it was worth it. We were able to collect 40 thousand Liras. I can say with good conscience because it’s all documented.

And you set up the trans shelter…

We set up a two-story, spotless space. My Lord helped and we’ve opened our first trans shelter. Thousands of thanks to all the girls. It boosted our morale. It showed us we can handle any difficulty once we’re united. And helping is such a good feeling, you know? The other day we organized a night for stray animals in Kumkapı. My trans singer friends came and sang their songs. That was great too.

You haven’t set up an association, have you?

No, I can’t deal with that kind of bureaucracy. I can’t bother with that at all. We just collect donations. A friend had sent a message saying, “You have the heart of an angel.” Since then I’ve been using the term “trans angel,” I mean, we’ve been using it. One of our goals is to raise awareness in society against transphobia. A couple of weeks ago, we lost our friend Eylül Cansın; her psychology was hurt by social pressure. She jumped off of the Bosphorus Bridge. Her death says a lot about this world actually. And we say something in response to that now. Lord keep us from disappointment, let our voice be heard, let society understand us. That’s what we say.

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