We met with Bedi Keskin before the Trans Pride Parade on Sunday, June 21st. Keskin is an Armenian transsexual. In a sense, she is ‘the Other of the Other.’ At 51 years old, Keskin is one of the best stone setters at the Grand Bazaar.
Source: Maral Dink, “Çoğu trans arkadaşım hayatımı kıskanıyor” (“Many of my trans friends are jealous of my life”), Agos, 19 June 2015, http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/11930/cogu-trans-arkadasim-hayatimi-kiskaniyor
Transsexuals no doubt are at the top of the groups who suffer the most from discrimination, hate, and violence. Therefore, high on the list of topics underlined during the 6th Trans Pride Week that began earlier this week is the demand for hate crime laws. We met with Bedri Keskin before the Trans Pride Parade to be held on Sunday, June 21st. Keskin is an Armenian transsexual. In a sense, she is the Other of the Other. At 51 years old, Keskin is one of the best stone setters at the Grand Bazaar. Having begun her career as a man, she has continued the craft as a woman at the same place, in the male dominated space of the Grand Bazaar. And she has done so together with her brothers, nieces, and nephews. She has made herself accepted with the support of her family and her success in the business. There are many things she holds privately inside her. I asked her what I could and she shared what she could. At the end of our conversation, she said something I will never forget: “You have a life to live; I have a life to achieve.”
Let us begin with the years you began to feel like a woman and decided to become a woman…
You understand it at the age you begin to think. You feel as a child that you are not a boy. Even then, I used to wear my elder sisters’ clothes, use nail polish, and secretly put on lipstick. It was there at birth. I was born with the soul of a woman. I was 28 when I decided to unite my body with my soul. I underwent estrogen therapy for a year and a half, I had laser hair removal. The most difficult period is the transition period. I had surgery when I was 30.
How long has your family known?
Parents usually have a tactic they use with their kids; they know their kids really well, but they do not want to confront them and legitimize the situation. My father took me to a psychologist. After the doctor spoke with me for 10 minutes, they wrote a report that stated: “she is a woman.” They saw that I was embroidering and making friends with girls. I was determined. I waited for the stones to set in my work life. I told my family when I was 27.
I said to my family, “I entered such a path. I can continue to live with you if you wish, or I can go if you wish.” They said, “Be with us; we don’t want you to go.” When I returned home, it was as though everything had changed.
How did you tell them?
I had considered going on vacation and never returning home again. I did not want to hurt my mother, father, and my siblings. I am the youngest of 7 siblings. I have three brothers and three sisters. Two of my brothers knew when I left home. I had told them when we were working in the same shop. They were aware but did not want to engage with the fact. “What are you going to do?” they asked, “How are you going to live?” As I was getting ready to leave the house, my brother stood at the door and opened his arms: “You can’t go” he said. “I’ve begun getting injections; change has begun, you cannot stop it” I said. My mother saw and understood that something was not right. I slammed the door and left. On the fourth day, my siblings could not stand my mother’s crying. They brought my mother and father to the house I was staying in. We talked there. “I entered such a path. I can continue to live with you if you wish, or I can leave as you wish” I said. “Be with us, we don’t want you to go” they said. When I returned home at the end of four days, it was as though everything had changed. There was a rupture. The boy child in their head was gone. It was as though I had returned as a woman. We were estranged for a while.
You said that the transition period was the hardest. What did you experience?
People stop greeting you. Fears begin. You fall into loneliness. People you saw as siblings see you during the transition and are surprised; they turn their backs. I had thought I had not wronged any of these people. You find yourself inside a small circle, within your family, as your wider circle shrinks. “Is it going to be like this always?” you begin to fear. At the time, my sister Alis and my brother Harut helped out a lot. Harut came to work with me every day. My sister stopped people from saying things to me. She was probably sad, but she kept it from me.
Now you live with your father and brother. How were their attitudes towards the outside?
It is as though the men around me need to prove themselves more. Perhaps they feel like they have to prove that “I am not like that.” Because there is a misperception. There are people who think this is contagious. I have two nephews who worked near me and then got married. They had to be honest to the other side. They told them about me. I did not feel anything from the other side. But I thought and felt sad about the possibility that the other side might worry about their children being like me. Now my nephew has a child. They are like my grandkid.
How was your compulsory military experience?
I was drafted for 18 months. We are from Anatolia after all, my father was strict. Had I known how understanding he would be, I would have wanted to abstain from the draft. They really pressured me. There was trouble. At times I wanted to go explain [the situation] to the company commander and return home, but the thought of leaving my family in a difficult position made me stay. I was 48 kilos when I began military service. I returned 80 kilos. They imposed special penalties on me. With a huge load on my back, I ran 10 km every day. I was fragile, they tried to toughen me up. I, on the other hand, did not want that body. The more they imposed roughness on me, the more shaken I was.
How long have you been working at the Grand Bazaar?
I began in the summer when I was 10. I worked at the shop. I told the master workman, “Every store has it, why don’t you include some diamond work in the shop?” The master did so. I used to get carried away staring at the window display for hours. I would melt looking at diamonds. As soon as I finished 5th grade, my father took me to a stone setter. Once I saw the diamonds, I decided this was the place for me. I moved up to being an apprentice within a year, and I learned very fast. I worked as a stone setter for 38 years. I am 51 years old. I haven’t been doing hands-on work for the past year; my eyes are very tired, but I have not left the Grand Bazaar.
You continued working as a stone setter in a family business at the Grand Bazaar. How did you manage to remain a transsexual in such a male dominated space?
I did not think it would affect my work life because everyone expressed praise about the strength of my craft. There was a feeling of mutual trust that I left behind. I worked very honestly. I am a good artisan. I worked with some of the top people at the bazaar. No one can say I made mistakes in my life or my business. We used to work on the top floor of the building with my brothers and nephews. When I came to the building, they would say, “here is my son.” I plugged my ears to it all. During the transition, I was having laser hair removal and my skin peeled. I hid it with tissue paper. When my skin healed, I said to myself: “Who are you hiding from? Don’t you trust your humanity? If you are a good person, why care if the other person mistreats you?” So, first, I accepted myself. I was prepared for good and bad reactions. As long as I was assured of my own humanity, I began to not mind others so much. I held onto my work. Then, during my transition period, an offer came. A master I had worked with before wanted to expand the business and wanted to work with my family. I told my brothers to go explain to him my situation and tell him that we would work with him so long as he accepted it. He said, “I want her craft, her private life does not concern me.” Of course, I had many difficulties, but I made myself liked by everyone.
To be both Armenian and trans is to be doubly Other. Have you felt this at times?
One day at the Bazaar, two Armenian shopkeepers were talking. When they saw me, one said to the other: “Gocak e Gardzem” (“a transsexual, perhaps”). I turned around and said: “Tun inc es?” (“What are you?”). “Oh, she is Armenian” they said, surprised. One time, when I responded in Armenian to another shopkeeper, I overheard them later saying “she must have an Armenian lover, that’s why she has learned Armenian.” They did not know how to treat me among the goldsmith community in the beginning. If they let out anything, it might be offensive. I resumed a dialogue by putting them at ease with my conversations. They gradually overcame their fear.
How is your daily life?
At home I have a 85-year-old father who needs care. I live with my brother and father. There is housework, laundry, cooking, and cleaning. My sister has a grandkid, I spend time with them. I don’t have a lot of friends. We used to be crowded. There were those who went abroad to live more comfortably.
Have you been abroad?
My boss took a few of us to the US; I worked there for a year. I thought of it as a place I could stay. But I felt very strange. Friends from work with whom I travelled only engaged with me at the shop; they did not want to be seen with me on the street. A lot of them established a life there. Americans’ approach to me was not that good. There was a lesbian and gay association. I went there. They asked me: “What are you?” I said I am a transsexual. They could not figure out an identity for me. I could not find a friend. I had considered staying there for good, but I ended up being lonely for good. I came back.
What is the hardest aspect of being a transsexual?
Half-lived love. Love that does not end on your end, but comes to an end on the other side. I have had two long term relationships, one for five and a half years, the other for twelve years. Separation is how it all ends…
Are you happy living with your brother and father?
I have a family and a job. Many of my trans friends are jealous of this aspect of my life. They have skills that they can use to hang on to social life, but they have not been accepted. I sometimes envy them. I am a minority, I live very carefully living inside my family. I am a transsexual and I have many colors in me. I live only some of those colors.
“I did not know how exuberant trans parades are”
Where do you see the basis of hatred and discrimination against trans people?
It ends in the family. You must not be afraid of the other side. When families are raising their children, they need to tell them about people like this. If a child does not have it in them, they won’t, they need not fear that. When children learn about transsexuals, they would not view them as strange when they are grown up.
What do you think about the documentary “My Child”?
I liked it a lot. A person always looks at things from their own angle. One does not know what family elders think. In that documentary I saw my family’s perspective. If the family claims you, no one can say anything to you. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if they were not supportive of me.
Do you go to trans associations and parades?
I can’t go to the associations very often. I have been going to the parades for the past two years– I didn’t know that they were so exuberant. I felt apprehensive about being seen on television, but then I realized that they’re very crowded.