Gender Benders, Gay Icons and Media: Lesbian and Gay Visual Rhetoric in Turkey


by Serkan Gorkemli

In 2007, Kaos GL, a bimonthly publication of the Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association in Ankara, Turkey, devoted its November/December issue to “Turkiye’nin Gay Ikonlari” (Turkey’s Gay Icons). The magazine surveyed readers and published a list of the ten most popular gay icons in Turkey. Various well-known celebrities were mentioned, including singers of popular music and performers of classical Turkish music, as well as a writer and a poet. [1] A similar effort to inventory gay icons and bring them to the attention of the gay community and the public was made in India in 2004. “Indian Gay Icons: Queers Like Us, A Tribute to Indian Gay Icons” was described by Bombay Dost, a local LGBT magazine, as “an exhibition of Indian gay icons featuring some of the true leaders of the queer struggle who also spell excellence in their profession” (The Bombay Dost Team). The exhibition was presented at the World Social Forum in Bombay and featured poets, artists, writers, scholars, filmmakers, and activists.

These projects in Turkey and India provide evidence for the emergence and increasing importance of visual representations, including gay icons, in the formation and bolstering of international gay communities in non-Western contexts. Such developments echo similar preceding and ongoing developments of gay icons in the West, especially in the United States and Britain in the twentieth century. However, much remains to be unearthed concerning the exact borrowing and adaptation of the concept of the gay icon, as well as the accompanying practices of visual rhetoric (i.e., the creation, reception, and interpretation) of gay representations, including those of gay icons, in non-Western contexts.

In this article’s discussion of the Turkish gay icons in popular culture and the contemporary lesbian and gay practices of visual rhetoric in Turkey, I analyze three sets of contemporary representations and the accompanying practices of visual rhetoric: 1) two Turkish celebrities who are widely visible gender transgressors in Turkey: the late Zeki Muren (1931-1996), a flamboyant queer male singer, [2] and Bulent Ersoy, a male-to-female transsexual singer, both of whom Kaos GL readers voted “gay icons”; 2) the gay icons issue of Kaos GL, a Turkish LGBT community magazine in print, which adapted the Western concept of gay icons to the needs of the Turkish LGBT community through a critical engagement with the concept; and 3) the collegiate lesbian and gay fliers, website, and “fanzin” (Turkish transliteration for “fanzine,” i.e., fan magazine) of Legato, the acronym for Lezbiyen Gay Topluluğu (Lesbian and Gay Association), a collegiate student group organized through the Internet using mailing lists and a website. [3]

My discussion of these three sets of contemporary representations and the accompanying practices of visual rhetoric will illustrate that the specific content and style of these representations are inextricably intertwined with multiple media. In this manner, I demonstrate that while visual rhetoric can empower non-Western lesbian and gay populations to resist the dominant local representations of homosexuality and produce and disseminate affirming alternatives, the medium utilized and the uneven conditions of production and circulation from one medium to another determine the extent of the relative influence of existing representations. Therefore, a critical view of media and how they shape practices of visual rhetoric are central to understanding the changing politics of queer visibility globally. I conclude the article by discussing the implications of this research in terms of global queering and the related practices of visual rhetoric by international lesbian and gay young adults.

Mass Media and Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy as Household Icons

The search for queer knowledge and communities often involves overcoming obstacles in seeking “fugitive knowledge” (i.e., knowledge that exists but is nevertheless hidden from the public and therefore requires some effort to locate it) about sexual subcultures, and, after obtaining that knowledge, participating in or creating new communities (Hill). For Turkish lesbian and gay individuals in the 1980s and 1990s, this search often began with the gender-bending celebrities Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy, who appeared extensively on stage and in mainstream Turkish media on television, in films, and in newspapers. Considering their wide-ranging visibility, Muren and Ersoy’s placement on the list of top ten icons as queer male and male-to-female transsexual celebrities, respectively, was not surprising. Yet, paradoxically, this visibility did not mean that Turkish society accepted non-normative sexual and gender identities, including homosexuality, and the knowledge about sexual subcultures still remained “fugitive” despite the mass-mediated queer visibility of these two celebrities. As I discuss below in detail, both Muren and Ersoy were constrained in their queer visibility by the strict gender codes of the society and its mass media (as the major conduit of these codes).

In my analysis of Muren and Ersoy’s iconicity and mass media in Turkey, I draw on William J. T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. In this work, Mitchell identifies an important issue associated with scholarly responses to pictures: that these responses have been predominantly interpretive and rhetorical, and as such, “we have failed to give them . . . an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology” (47), rendering them “stronger than they actually are in order to give ourselves a sense of power in opposing, exposing, or praising them” (34). To solve this problem, Mitchell recommends “a poetics of pictures”:

A poetics of pictures, then, in contrast with a rhetoric or hermeneutics, is a study of ‘the lives of images,’ . . . The question to ask of pictures from the standpoint of a poetics is not just what they mean or do but what they want – what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond. Obviously, this question also requires us to ask what it is that we want from pictures. (xv)

Furthermore, Mitchell states,

I’d like to shift the location of desire to images themselves, and ask what pictures want. This question certainly does not mean an abandonment of interpretive and rhetorical issues, but it will, I hope, make the question of pictorial meaning and power appear somewhat different. (28)

In this manner, Mitchell dislocates and modifies the target of analysis from the producers or consumers of images to the images themselves, which, he argues, is not to personify the image but rather “to put our relation to the work into question, to make the relationality of the image and beholder the field of investigation” (49, italics in the original).

Mitchell’s definition of pictures and the centrality of media to this definition further emphasize the relationality of the image and beholder. According to Mitchell, pictures are “complex assemblages of virtual, material, and symbolic elements . . . In a more extended sense, however, pictures arise in all other media” (xiii). Viewed from this perspective, a picture is an assemblage of an image (“any likeness, figure, motif, or form that appears in some medium or other”), an object (“the material support in or on which an image appears, or the material thing that an image refers to or brings into view”), and a medium (“the set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture”) (xiii). Mitchell further elaborates on media in this manner:

Media are the habitats or ecosystems in which pictures come alive . . . A medium is more than the materials of which it is composed. It is, as Raymond Williams wisely insisted, a material social practice, a set of skills, habits, techniques, tools, codes, and conventions . . . The concept of a medium, if it is worth preserving at all, seems (unsurprisingly) to occupy some sort of vague middle ground between materials and the things people do with them . . . The medium does not lie between sender and receiver; it includes and constitutes them . . . Our relation to media is one of mutual and reciprocal constitution: we create them, and they create us. (198-215, emphasis in original)

Based on this view, then, pictures are not as powerful as critics and scholars might think, and as such, they are inextricably tied to media, which, as a set of social practices, are in turn tied to beholders-cum-users so much so that the very existence and meaning of each depend on one another.

The modification of the target of analysis to the images themselves and the emphasis on the relationality of the image and beholder (i.e., the co-dependency of image, media, and beholder under the rubric of pictures) serve as theoretical gestures away from the view of pictures as being exclusively “powerful” and culminate in what Mitchell advocates as “the subaltern model of the picture,” which “opens up the actual dialectics of power and desire in our relations with pictures . . . The picture as subaltern makes an appeal or issues a demand whose precise effect and power emerges in an intersubjective encounter compounded of signs of positive desire and traces of lack and impotence” (34-39). As I illustrate below, Mitchell’s subaltern model of the picture, together with the concepts of relationality and media, provides an effective cofnceptual tool to view and understand Ersoy and Muren’s iconicity in the Turkish context.

Figure 1: Bulent Ersoy

In Figure 1, Ersoy is pictured on the cover of one of her albums. This picture is a complex assemblage of three sets of elements: Ersoy’s cultivated and performed image of heterosexual womanhood; the object of the music album carrying commercial value and appeal; and medium in both its traditional sense as mass media and in its other senses, such as the body. According to Mitchell, the complex dynamic involving all of these three elements should engender “the overt signs of positive desire” versus “what the picture wants in terms of lack” (37), which constitute the intersubjective encounter (i.e., the relationality between the image and the beholder) that determines the exact effect and power of a picture, in this case, that of Ersoy.

The object of the album carrying commercial value and appeal presents its most overt sign of positive desire: to transfix, move, and mobilize the beholder to buy the album. The feasibility of this scenario depends on the image within this picture: the sideways-glancing close-up of flamboyant heterosexual womanhood in its regalia (heavy makeup, large flashy earrings, a hairstyle called “lion’s mane” that was popular in Turkey in the 1980s, and bare shoulders, perhaps suggesting nudity), complete with backlighting. The image is typical of the visual genre of album covers in the global music industry, in that it fetishizes female singers as objects of desire to sell albums, and as such, it is familiar to most audiences. However, the Turkish audience knows that Ersoy is a male-to-female transsexual who is not a biological woman, but rather is performing such womanhood, which might undercut the sex appeal of the picture for some and thus possibly the commercial appeal of the album for a mass audience. Compared with its overt positive desire to appeal to sell the album, then, the picture of Ersoy wants, in terms of lack, the power to persuade its audience on its own through its claim regarding the singer’s gender identity. Nevertheless, Ersoy’s popularity has increased over the years, and her albums have featured similar cover pictures and have been highly successful. Perhaps medium, the third element in the complex assemblage of Ersoy’s picture, will help explain this contradiction. I will hold off my discussion of medium until after my analysis of Muren’s picture below, which harbors similar contradictions in a slightly different manner.

Figure 2: Zeki Muren

In Figure 2, Muren is also pictured on the cover of one of his albums (both Figure 1 and 2 were published in Kaos GL‘s special issue on gay icons, which I discuss in the next section). As in the case of Ersoy, virtually all Turkish audiences would recognize him. While slightly different, the same three elements compose the complex assemblage of Muren’s picture: his ambiguous image, resulting from cultivated gender bending; the object of the music album with commercial value and appeal; and medium as mass media and the body. As was the case with Ersoy’s cover, the object of the musical album presents the picture’s most overt sign of positive desire (that, like all album covers, it is intended to attract the beholders and cause them to buy the album) through Muren’s image. But in contrast to Ersoy’s seemingly indisputable womanliness that projects the expected sex appeal of female album covers, Muren’s image does something unexpected: not only it is untypical of the album covers of other Turkish male singers, whose rugged, sometimes mustachioed looks on their album covers are used to appeal to their audiences by spotlighting their masculinity, but also, based on his pompadour, makeup, fur coat, and glitzy diamond jewels, Muren seems to embrace gender ambiguity and deliberately cultivate the looks of a wealthy, older Turkish woman. This deliberate gender bending might seem to risk interfering with the goal of selling the album since it thwarts audience expectations regarding masculinity and thus could cause confusion, which might render the fate of this particular album uncertain.

Like Bulent Ersoy’s transsexuality, however, Muren’s gender play and ambiguity did not seem to disadvantage him, and he has been one of the most popular and successful singers in Turkey. Assuming that both the producers and the artists would want to maximize sales, such gender play and ambiguity were probably intentionally incorporated into their album covers. Therefore, it is possible that both singers had a certain competitive advantage over their rivals in the music market thanks to constant exposure through, among others, sensational news coverage. As my discussion in the rest of this article shows, however, there were limits, self-imposed or otherwise, to such gender play and ambiguity. To understand how Muren turned gender ambiguity into commercial success, and how Ersoy did the same with transsexuality, it is necessary to examine the medium, the third component of the assemblage of their pictures.

For both singers, the medium played complex, significant roles in the creation of their public image and their relationship to the Turkish audience. The medium included mass media, such as audio (vinyl records and cassettes, CDs, and digital recording), audio-visual (first television and then the Internet), and print (newspapers, magazines, and tabloids), and the body, with its flesh and appearance malleable through plastic surgery (in the case of Ersoy), cosmetics, clothes, and accessories, along with an androgynous voice. The Turkish audience was exposed to Ersoy and Muren through these media; they employed the medium of their bodies in their stage performances, and the mass media multiplied these performances and made them available to their audience. While media made Ersoy and Muren highly visible gender transgressors, which, commercially or otherwise, was a risky endeavor considering the strict enforcement of male and female gender codes in the public sphere, their repeated exposure through the same media negated their gender transgression and rendered them household icons in Turkey.

In his discussion of Muren, Stokes argues that Turkish singers such as Ersoy and Muren should be viewed “in terms not of deviance, but of normativity, of gendered decency” (309). To illustrate how Muren has become a figure of gendered decency, despite his gender bending, Stokes discusses what he calls Muren’s “astute tactical moves” (310) in terms of his overall public image, religion, and his homosexuality. Regarding his public image, Muren cultivated an image of decorum and respectability and constructed “a complex but compelling public persona, one of decency pushed beyond its boundaries by a harsh and uncomprehending world (a story told over and over again in his films)” (he made eighteen musical films from 1953-1971) (311). Muren’s diction also contributed to his respectable public image: “‘Good Turkish’ [(i.e., clarity in meaning and pronunciation, formality, and functional communicative efficiency)] evokes class, status, and prestige . . . Zeki Muren’s ‘good Turkish’ was a, if not the, crucial component of his high prestige” (Stokes 314-315). Finally, Muren’s sensitivity toward his audience’s religious beliefs helped further reinforce his public image of decorum and respectability. As an example, Stokes mentions his stage performance on New Year’s Eve 1959-60, which coincided with Regaip Kandili, a religious festival celebrating the conception of the Prophet Mohammed that is observed mainly by women. According to Stokes, Muren’s performance, restrained in terms of decor and his selection of classical songs, and his demonstrated sensitivity to both Christian and Muslim calendars, were an important part of his popularity among the female Turkish audience (311).

Muren had a long-term male partner, Fahrettin Arslan, which was locally known in Bodrum, a popular touristic town on the Aegean Sea where Muren lived for most of his career (Stokes 312). Muren, however, never publicly identified as a homosexual; such a declaration would likely have negated his tactical moves mentioned above and ruined his reputation. Nevertheless, the Turkish mass media picked up on his gender ambiguity and at times questioned him directly. In response, Muren asserted his masculinity under multiple pretexts. For example, responding to questions regarding his clothes, Muren declared, “If women wear trousers, does this mean they are all going to have sex-change operations, too? . . . I don’t wear women’s clothes. I wear the kind of clothes Caesar, and Baytekin, and Brutus wore” (Stokes 313). [4] Muren’s tactics to steer his public image clear of his homosexuality in this manner, through his claim to ancient, allegedly heterosexual masculinity, were also supported by other mass media representations. His films and the newspaper images of him with female stars were constantly available to his audience, fueling the assumption that he was heterosexual.

Similar to Stokes’s analysis of Muren’s “heterosexuality,” Altinay discusses Ersoy’s transformation into a Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman. As in the case of Muren, Ersoy was openly gay in her private life but projected a heterosexual public image during her pre-operation years. After her sex change operation in London in 1981, Ersoy continued to project an image of heterosexuality, this time as a female, through the clichéd heterosexual romances she acted in and the erotic photographs she posed for (Altinay 215). Despite these efforts, however, overstepping the boundaries of normative gender led to punishment. Ersoy’s sex change operation was seen as a threat to Turkish society; she was banned from performing in Turkey during the military regime of 1980-1983. After she came back to Turkey at the end of the 1980s, Ersoy’s public image underwent a striking transformation: she became a conservative, Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman. This transformation was made possible through the following tactics that involved the medium of Ersoy’s body and performances, as well as the mass media.

One of the tactics Ersoy used in constructing her new image was acting conservatively in her widescreen appearances by not kissing and not showing too much skin; in addition, during her early post-operation years, she was engaged to her boyfriend, Birol Gurkanli, and in 1998, she married Cem Adler, who was much younger than her, leading to public discussion about their age difference rather than her transsexualism. In this manner, on the widescreen, she projected an image of a chaste woman, and off-screen, she demonstrated that she subscribed to conservative heterosexual values through her engagement and marriage. The 1980s was also a time when conservative Islam was rising as a result of neo-liberal policies that allowed the incorporation of Muslim capital into the economy after the military regime in Turkey, and Ersoy’s emphasis on her Muslim identity helped further strengthen her public image; for example, she would refer to Allah in her songs and during her performances; she would wear a veil during funerals; and, according to Altinay,

Her emphasis on this aspect of her identity peaked in 1995, when she recited the adhan, the Islamic call for prayer, in her album Alaturka 95 and sparked a heated debate . . . the media’s focus was Ersoy’s gender, and a huge debate started on whether a woman can recite the adhan or not. This gave Ersoy the opportunity to reaffirm her faith in Islam and also have others reaffirm her gender identity as a woman” (216-217). [5]

In addition to religion, Ersoy’s use of language, characterized by extensive use of Ottoman words; her habit of giving generous, expensive gifts; and her expensive-looking jewelry also factored into the performance of her identity; these aspects of her identity conveyed class and status, helping her to project an image of an upper-class woman. Finally, Ersoy also projected an image of a nationalist female citizen; when she criticized the Turkish Armed Forces and therefore was accused of belittling the military in 2008, she aligned herself publicly with ultranationalists, reinforcing her public identity as not only a conservative, Muslim, and upper-class but also a nationalist woman (Altinay 222-224).

The privatization of television and radio played an important role in consolidating Ersoy’s public image. The establishment of private channels and radio in the 1990s led to frequent media appearances, such as her own talk show on Kanal 6, a private television channel. In addition to disseminating her image and performances widely, mass media also helped reconstruct her past. For example, “In Canli Hayat, a television show presenting interviews with famous people and reenactments of important moments in their lives, Ersoy’s pre-operation years were played by a young girl . . . In this show, the past had been reconstructed and the biggest ‘mistake’ in Ersoy’s life had been corrected: she had never been a man” (Altinay 221). In this manner, mass media supplemented the medium of Ersoy’s body and performances, helping to reinforce her public image of heterosexual, religious, and political normativity, as well as gendered decency. Collectively, media discussed so far enabled Ersoy’s viability and commercial success in Turkey, despite her sex change and transgenderism.

My discussion of Muren and Ersoy’s pictures from the perspective of Mitchell’s definition of pictures as complex assemblages of an image, an object, and a medium demonstrated that the medium is central to understanding how these pictures operate in the Turkish context since, as a material social practice, the medium can overwhelm the reception of such potentially subversive images and push them in the direction of normativity regarding gender and sexuality. In addition to social practice, Mitchell identifies another key point in his discussion of medium: our relation to medium is one of mutual and reciprocal constitution. Considering the tactics and the media discussed above in the cases of Ersoy and Muren, what type of relationality do their public images constitute with their audience? Since the audience includes different groups of people, in this case, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, it is necessary to approach relationality from these two different perspectives.

From the perspective of their heterosexual audience, Muren and Ersoy were loved as artists first and foremost for their musical craft, as well as the content of their work about love, longing, separation, and the whole gamut of related emotions. However, as the discussion above illustrated, the maintenance of their status as household icons depended on what Altinay calls a “bargain with the heterosexist hegemony” (225); that is, they were popular and successful as long as they could project and reaffirm their audience’s expectations regarding heterosexual normativity and gendered decency. Moreover, while Ersoy and Muren’s pictures fit Mitchell’s subaltern model of the picture, since the pictures were unable, on their own, to convince the audience regarding the gender of their subjects, the subjects themselves, Ersoy and Muren, never admitted subaltern status and refused and combated it throughout their career through multiple tactics. Thus, this bargain with the heterosexist hegemony worked for both parties: Muren and Ersoy remained popular and enjoyed commercial success, while their heterosexual audience saw its values regarding gender and sexuality, religion, and nation, affirmed through their mass-mediated public image and performances. From the perspective of the homosexual audience, however, as I discuss in the next section in the context of Kaos GL‘s special issue on gay icons, Muren and Ersoy’s bargain with the heterosexist hegemony is seen as having negative consequences for this particular segment of the Turkish audience, since it meant distancing, denial, and erasure of LGBT existence, fueling heterosexism and homophobia in Turkish society.

Kaos GL and Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy as “Gay” Icons

As the leading LGBT publication since 1994, Kaos GL (named after Kaos GL, the LGBT rights organization that owns it) publishes articles bimonthly on LGBT rights activism and various elements of LGBT culture since its inception. Kaos GL is also the main publication in Turkey that advances and publicizes the perspective of LGBT rights as human rights. Viewed from this perspective, the special issue on gay icons not only records (and establishes) a new trend (i.e., the existence of gay icons, as well as the emergence of new ones), but also interrogates this trend and its meaning for LGBT existence and visibility in Turkey. As such, the special issue both celebrates and criticizes the concept of gay icons, and the “gay” iconicity of Muren and Ersoy is central to this discussion. In the rest of this section, I refer to some specific discussions within the special issue about the conflicted status of Ersoy and Muren as gay icons for the homosexual audience.

Kaos GL’s special issue was revolutionary in that it made known the existence of gay icons, and by implication, of a gay audience, in Turkey through its labeling of celebrities known by all Turks as “gay icons.” However, this labeling of the Turkish icons on the top ten list compiled by Kaos GL as “gay” refers to their influence on the Turkish gay audience, independent of whether or not they personally or publicly identify as being gay or homosexual, or even profess any solidarity with the LGBT community. In fact, only two (male authors and poets Murathan Mungan and Kucuk Iskender) out of the ten people listed are known in the gay community to identify as gay; the remaining eight cover a broader range of the gender and sexual spectrum: a heterosexual male, heterosexual females, a queer male (Zeki Muren), and a male-to-female transsexual (Bulent Ersoy), with Muren and Ersoy being historically the most visible gender transgressors and widely promoted icons in the Turkish mass media, as discussed in the previous section.

Figure 3: “Turkey’s ‘gay icon’: Hande Yener” [6]

The special issue includes several types and sizes of photos of the top ten gay icons, including press photos, album covers, and pictures from performances. While the (sometimes multiple) pictures of the top four icons, Hande Yener (female pop singer, seen in Figure 3 on the cover of the issue), Ajda Pekkan (female pop singer), Murathan Mungan (gay male author and poet), and Aysel Gurel (female pop songwriter), are prominently featured as part of one-to-three-page articles about them, there are only two small (one inch by one inch) photos of Zeki Muren and Bulent Ersoy (these photos are the same images I discussed in the previous section). The magazine’s editors published these photos next to the readers’ comments about why they view certain celebrities, as opposed to others, as gay icons; the images and the comments are printed in a separate one-inch pink strip that runs across the bottom of the pages that include the issue’s icon-related articles. The comparatively small size and the placement of the pictures of Muren and Ersoy downplays their importance visually, despite their being historically the most influential and visible icons thanks to the mass media; some of the articles discuss and criticize their ambivalence and ambiguity as “gay” icons in detail.

According to Guner, a Kaos GL columnist, the Turkish queer community never identified with Ersoy completely since she “seemed to have forgotten her transsexuality” (41). As for Zeki Muren, Guner, the same Kaos GL columnist, calls him “our homophobic icon” (41) and links Muren and Ersoy’s legacy of distancing themselves from the LGBT community to Tarkan, a younger pop music singer who was also included on the list of the top-ten gay icons. Most recently, Tarkan, a self-proclaimed heterosexual—in the face of questions about his sexual orientation, not to mention his naked pictures with another male on the beach—adopted the same strategy of conforming to the Turkish public’s gender expectations through stating, for instance, that homosexuality could be cured through psychoanalysis. Such distancing from the gay community has caused Guner to describe him as “a closeted celebrity who continues the societal lie about homosexuals and homosexuality that began with Ersoy and Muren” (41).

In a similar vein, Yuksel, the editor of Kaos GL’s special issue on gay icons, responded to the overall survey results by concluding:

Turkish homosexuals don’t need gay icons; they need people who will help them not feel ashamed of their sexual orientation. As a person who grew up watching Bulent Ersoy and Zeki Muren, I can say that seeing more openly gay or non-homophobic celebrities will be a lifesaver for many homosexuals who grow up with self-hatred in this country. (5)

This statement was based on the most important, and surprising, aspect of the survey results: those surveyed voted Hande Yener (Figure 3) as the top gay icon of Turkey. She is a relatively new heterosexual female pop music artist who, in one of her interviews, said that she liked gays and praised their taste in music. Considering the issue’s introduction of the concept of gay icons and its celebration of the top ten icons (with the notable exception of Muren and Ersoy), Yuksel’s comments should not be viewed as the community’s rejection of the concept in itself, or even of Muren and Ersoy for that matter, since the readers who took the survey did vote for them. What Yuksel’s comments convey is that within the context of Turkey, where homosexuality as a public identification in the Western sense is a new phenomenon, the application of the concept of gay icons as a purely affirmative concept is not yet possible, especially when the most visible and influential gay icons never identified as homosexual or transgender, respectively, and deliberately distanced themselves from the community. At the same time, however, Hande Yener’s public self-alignment with the gay community could be taken as a sign that things are changing, but it is important to remember that Hande Yener is heterosexual, while for other celebrities, like Tarkan, it is still risky to own their sexuality publicly.

Finally, Kaos GL‘s special issue on gay icons represents a deliberate attempt to interfere with and modify the established visual codes of gender and sexuality, as disseminated by the mass media, through its introduction and adaptation of the Western concept of gay icons. To a certain extent, Kaos GL is successful in its attempt to challenge these strict codes, especially since it regularly features and disseminates other LGBT images in its other issues and is being distributed more widely than before (e.g., it is sold in many urban bookstores), and Kaos GL archives the issues of Kaos GL in PDF format on its website after each issue is published. However, as a community publication, and compared with mass media’s multi-modal reach (i.e., television, radio, print, and, most recently, the Internet) and historically wider influence as in the case of Muren and Ersoy’s public images, Kaos GL‘s reach is relatively restricted, limiting the extent of its challenge to the established visual codes of gender and sexuality. In the next section, I discuss a third set of representations, with an even smaller reach, drawing further attention to the medium’s effect on the extent of the relative influence of this particular, collegiate representation, as well as its more direct and visible influence over its visual content and style.

Legato and the Collegiate Lesbian and Gay Visual Rhetoric in Turkey

Legato first emerged in Ankara in the mid-1990s and spread to the rest of the country at the beginning of the 2000s as a collegiate student association. From the beginning, Legato’s declared mission of establishing lesbian and gay student clubs through activism on university campuses has necessitated that student activists who grew up watching Muren and Ersoy generate their own visual rhetoric for publicity on university campuses. This collegiate visual rhetoric would disseminate alternatives to the gender inversion model of homosexuality Muren and Ersoy came to represent. Before discussing Legato’s visual rhetoric further, I will first examine the effects of individual Legato members’ exposure to the mass media representations of Muren and Ersoy. As I discuss these effects briefly below, I incorporate data from the interviews I conducted with individual Legato members for my larger research project about the group. [7]

The discrepancy between the perceived queerness of Muren and Ersoy and their denial of the same queerness and cultivation of a certain distance from the LGBT audience prevents Turkish lesbians and gay men from completely identifying with Muren and Ersoy as icons and role models. The upshot of this discrepancy is what is called “Zeki Muren syndrome” in the Turkish gay community, which is the overwhelming perception of and anxiety about the inevitability of a life of secrecy punctuated by the predictable, seemingly irreversible pattern of “effeminate” behavior that Zeki Muren came to exemplify for all males who suffered from the “disease” of homosexuality. This is how Zeynep, a lesbian-identified interviewee, further defines Zeki Muren syndrome:

Zeki Muren syndrome tells you this: “homosexuality exists, and what you feel has a corresponding feeling in the society but is also something that is damning and looked down upon.” It gives you such thoughts; it does not tell you, “something like you cannot exist in this world. Yes, you can exist, but this is how you need to behave [i.e., like the other gender]. You will behave like this to exist, but you won’t have any social status.” This message is conveyed everywhere in society: on the street and TV, in the books you read, and at school, to the male homosexual. However, homosexual women are told, “what you feel cannot even exist; this cannot happen. You don’t exist, or you are just making it up. Otherwise, you can only exist in heterosexual males’ fantasies.” (Zeynep)

In this manner, the Turkish society propagates a stereotype of homosexuality, and the celebrities Muren and Ersoy have been made the centerpiece of this process. As Tarik, a gay male interviewee, remarked concerning the media attention given to Muren and Ersoy, “the mass media stereotypes homosexuality and causes everyone to think that only men are homosexuals and that all male homosexuals want to have a sex-change operation and become a woman.” While male homosexuality, therefore, is commonly perceived as feminized masculinity in Turkey, and as such, as an instance of gender inversion, the full expression of which is seen as complete transition and “degeneration” into womanhood, the lesbian existence is altogether denied. Consequently, the possibility of being a homosexual and not acting like the other gender, and thus not fitting the gender norms, is undercut.

Figure 4: “Legato, an intercollegiate gay and lesbian association”

Legato’s visual rhetoric responded to these surrounding cultural influences regarding gender and sexuality, and the early stages of this process—from 2000, when Legato first started using the Internet to publicize its mission and recruit members; to 2002, when the Legato website was first launched; to the summer of 2003, when the Legato “fanzine” (fan magazine) was published and disseminated in print—produced a new, “straight-looking” set of lesbian and gay images that were employed to defy the public’s heterosexist gender expectations and the associated view of homosexuality as gender inversion and a strictly male phenomenon. These visual representations by the Legato population, a college-educated, middle-to-upper class, and computer-literate student group, have taken many forms and exhibited diverse styles, including stick figures, photographic images, and abstract drawings. The visual texts I discuss below illustrate an increasingly sophisticated collegiate visual rhetoric that takes issue with the dominant cultural values rhetorically, stylistically, and aesthetically.

Figure 5: “Legato, an intercollegiate gay and lesbian association”

When Legato was founded in Ankara, its members organized activities, such as film screenings and reading and discussion groups, and participated in student festivals on campus. When Legato spread to other cities, such as Istanbul, Legato members followed suit and organized on their campuses in similar ways. Initiating such groups entailed recruiting members from among the existing student body and inviting them to attend events. For this purpose, Legato members prepared fliers for public display (Figures 4 and 5) that depicted minimalist drawings of same-sex pairs. Considering their audience, which included questioning and closeted students who grew up watching Ersoy and Muren and internalizing the notion that only men are homosexuals and that they always look and act like the other gender, this choice of imagery was strategic. The cartoonish stick figures portrayed homosexuals as straight-looking male and female individuals, without identifying any specific characteristics other than gender, conveyed through hairstyle and dress, and sexual orientation, conveyed through same-sex pairing in the fliers.

When the Legato website was launched, it featured cartoonish images similar to those in Figures 4 and 5. The most recent version of the website, however, employs photographic images of same-sex pairs. For example, the webpage titled “May my son become gay when he grows up!” (Figure 6) features two males, possibly a couple, hugging; and similarly, the webpage titled “Am I a lesbian?” (Figure 7) features two women embracing. On both pages, however, the people in the images are likely not Turkish; the image of the two men, for instance, was also—and probably originally—featured in the cover of the book Between Men: Best New Gay Fiction, edited by Richard Canning and published in the United States in 2007.

Figure 6: Legato webpage: “May my son become gay when he grows up!”

While the photographic images are of Western gay males and lesbians, the website still fulfills the intended goal of projecting a new image of homosexuals as straight-looking gay and lesbian couples. Since the website is more accessible than fliers or other communal materials in print, its intended audience is also much broader and includes the heterosexual majority; this further underlines the importance of these photographic images for both Legato members and the larger Turkish population who search for information on homosexuality or happen to come across the Legato website while on the Internet.

In the summer of 2003, Legato released a print fanzine (fan magazine) in Istanbul. The fanzine was a community production; several Legato members contributed short written pieces and drawings, and copies were distributed to members at various meetings. The first image from the fanzine I present here is the cover (Figure 8), a drawing that portrays two males hugging; the copy reads, “LEGATO, escinsel bir fanzin” (a homosexual fanzine). The second image (Figure 9) is an overtly erotic drawing that portrays two naked women kissing; the subtitle reads, in lowercase letters, “iki kadin bir olursa” (when two women get together). Compared with the stylistically simpler images previously discussed, these abstract drawings are stylized. The lack of any background imagery conveys feelings of isolation and alienation, and in the case of the fanzine cover (Figure 8), the drawn image resembles a frame out of a comic strip, with a noir look and feel as the two males stare at the reader. Figure 9 directly conveys homosexual, in this case lesbian, erotic desire and sexual intimacy. These images are iconoclastic—not only because they defy expected gender norms by portraying same-sex desire, but also since they represent homosexuals—and thus make them visible—as straight-looking gay males and lesbians, once again subverting the heterosexist gender expectations of Turkish society.

Figure 7: Legato webpage: “Am I a lesbian?”

The oppositional message of Figures 8 and 9 is further advanced stylistically and aesthetically by the very manner in which they are placed in the Legato fanzine. Figure 8 features the work of Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) titled “Double Self-Portrait” (1915). Similar to the cover image of the book Between Men: Best New Gay Fiction, which is featured on the Legato website without any acknowledgement, this image is also copied without any acknowledgment of its source. In his discussion of AIDS zines in the 1980s and early 1990s, Long points out, “Cut-and-paste assemblage is typical of ‘zines of whatever readership, punk or AIDS or queer,” and that collage, as “plagiarism and theft of existing images,” makes camp statements that defy the established notions of intellectual property and high versus low culture (405). The inclusion of Figure 9, which is reminiscent of Picasso’s line drawings, together with Figure 8 by Schiele, is indeed an instance of mixing high art and the “low” art that is the Legato fanzine itself. The placement of both figures in the Legato fanzine invites a comparison between the distinct styles and aesthetics of modernist masters of the Western art (i.e., Schiele’s abstract expressionism in portraying tortured sexual subjects as in Figure 8 and the Picasso-like style of minimalist Cubist line drawing in Figure 9) and the cheap, photocopied community production that is the Legato fanzine. Much like in the inexpensively produced punk fanzines, the resulting visual alliance between an inexpensive student production and artistic, albeit plagiarized or imitated, representations, constitutes an attempt to claim “an alternative critical [rhetorical] space” (Hebdige 111) for the Legato group to advance its earnest critique of the status quo regarding homosexuality in Turkey.

Figure 8: “LEGATO, a homosexual fanzine” originally,“Double Self-Portrait” (1915) by the Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

In summary, these visual representations are addressed to multiple audiences (lesbian and gay college students, the larger LGBT community, and heterosexuals), and they fulfill multiple goals, including publicizing the group to varying degrees and providing alternative (i.e., lesbian and gay) representations of homosexuality; they also reach out to questioning and closeted fellow students to persuade them, through these visual representations, to join Legato. These goals are executed in a rhetorically, stylistically, and aesthetically diverse manner through the use of multiple media (print and online); in this manner, the medium plays an important role in the generation of a diverse subcultural style for an emerging collegiate community that is searching for its voice and identity and attempting to make itself heard through available means.

Conclusion: Global Queering and Visual Rhetoric by International Lesbian and Gay Young Adults

The different types of media and the accompanying forums (mass media, Kaos GL, and Legato) discussed in this article illustrate the production and circulation of the representations of homosexuality in Turkey from the beginning of the 1980s to the 2000s. While Kaos GL was involved in the inception of Legato, and thus, Legato’s visual rhetoric is similar to Kaos GL‘s LGBT rights and gay culture-based visual rhetoric, the three examples (i.e., mass media; Kaos GL; and Legato fliers, website, and fanzine) illustrate a changing trend in the representation of homosexuality in Turkey. While mass media and its national forum represent homosexuality as gender inversion, as in the case of Muren and Ersoy, to cater to the expectations of the heterosexual audience, the forums of Kaos GL and Legato, due to their smaller and specifically LGBT and LGBT-friendly audience, are able to advance lesbian and gay representations. Nevertheless, due to their restricted scopes of dissemination, Kaos GL and Legato are not as influential as the mass media, despite their alternative representations that affirm lesbian and gay existence. In addition, in the case of Legato, limited resources have led to less commercial, mostly non-photographic, and more overtly stylized and sometimes plagiarized representations that mix multiple styles and aesthetics. In this section, I discuss the implications of this research in terms of global queering and the related practices of visual rhetoric by international lesbian and gay young adults.

Figure 9: “when two women get together” (the Legato fanzine)

In his discussion of globalization and international lesbian and gay movements, Dennis Altman discusses both commonalities, as well as differentiation, between Western and non-Western views of gender and sexuality and related communities. For example, he points out that the gender inversion model of homosexuality that seems to be prevalent in some parts of the non-Western world existed in Western countries one hundred years or so prior to the emergence of the contemporary gay movement (418). Altman warns that despite such commonalities, the institutions and forms of international queer communities will be different based on economic and political space (419)—so much so that a political movement and “identity politics as a means of enhancing self-esteem” may not be applicable in other societies (422). Similarly, Peter Jackson emphasizes the role of economic forces (i.e., market capitalism) in relation to international commonalities and cultural differences among global queer cultures. Putting the market at the center of contemporary queer cultural differentiation, Jackson emphasizes the role of local agency in global queering:

The emergence of market-based cultures has indeed been important in global queering, but the processes behind this are more complicated than initially proposed. Transnational capitalism leads not only to Westernizing homogenization but also produces hybridizations in which local agency is as important as subordination to foreign influences. (386-387)

Through this approach, Jackson criticizes the assumption that all modern queer identities originated in the West, and he advocates researching cultural and economic processes that created conditions for local agency and thus have influenced both Western and non-Western sexual cultures.

Altman and Jackson’s scholarship about the commonalities and differences that inform global queer cultures offers ways of further theorizing the multiple media and practices of visual rhetoric discussed in this article. For example, Muren and Ersoy exemplify in the Turkish context the gender inversion model Altman mentions, which seems to be a shared commonality between Turkey and the pre-gay rights West in terms of attitudes toward gender and sexuality. In addition, despite many existing personal, familial, and physical challenges to being out and visible in Turkey (Human Rights Watch), the LGBT advocacy organizations Kaos GL, Lambda Istanbul, and Legato emerged during the last two decades and created a political movement that demands LGBT rights in Turkey, thus so far following what Altman calls “identity politics as a means of enhancing self-esteem.” As I showed in this article, the emergence and continuation of this movement have involved multiple forms of media and practices of visual rhetoric.

The multiple forms of media, ranging from mass media to community media, and finally to the collegiate media of Legato illustrate the increasing differentiation within the media landscape of Turkey, creating opportunities for the LGBT population to self-represent and begin to challenge heterosexism and homophobia. This differentiation is in part an outcome of economic changes in Turkey, especially during the 1980s and the 1990s. The 1980s was a period of rapid economic change, from state-directed policies to neo-liberalism and privatization in Turkey; as part of this shift, a nationwide telecommunications infrastructure (phone lines) was built. This was followed by private television channels and the Internet in the 1990s; Turkey’s (continuing) efforts to enter the European Union led to further economic changes in the form of global economic policies and foreign investment. Turkey’s increasing integration into the global market economy transformed its media landscape, creating multiple venues that continue to enable and enhance queer media production, such as Kaos GL and Legato fanzine, which augmented local queer agency in creating alternatives to dominant, mass media representations of homosexuality. While further research is needed to trace this development, Jackson’s points about local queer agency and the influence of the market economy in the Asian context apply in the Turkish case as well.

Finally, the stylistically and aesthetically diverse images of Legato Fanzine draw attention to the practices of visual rhetoric at the collegiate level in another cultural context. Some scholars have already investigated queer rhetorical practices at the collegiate level in the United States. For example, in their examination of the practices of queer youth on e-zines (electronic magazines) on the Internet, Comstock and Addison illustrate how groups of queer youth “[have] used World Wide Web and the Internet technologies to construct political and social identities and communities, forming what we believe is an emerging les-bi-gay youth ‘cyberculture’” (247). Comstock and Addison also point out that this emerging queer cyberculture takes issue with homophobia and ageism (both in the culture at large and within queer adult communities) through its manipulation of Internet technology “to reproduce, appropriate, and subvert (or queer) ‘straight’ graphics, images, and texts from popular culture” (250). In addition, other scholars (Kolko; Wakeford; and Woodland) have pointed out that such technology practices need to be examined in the social context in which individuals and groups utilize technology for their specific purposes. In this article, I showed that, viewed in context, Legato’s practices of visual rhetoric are intended to counter existing dominant representations by using Western concepts and media. Considering the ongoing global queering and the importance, as well as the limits, of such practices by young adults as part of this process, more research is needed to investigate how international queer young adults’ uses of multiple media in response to local and global cultural influences, challenge entrenched practices of visual rhetorical traditions that inform dominant models of same-sex desire and practices in a given culture.

Piece originally published at Enculturation Creative Commons License



[1] Kaos GL’s top ten Turkish gay icons (most identify as heterosexual, unless otherwise stated): 1) Hande Yener (female pop singer); 2) Ajda Pekkan (female pop singer); 3) Murathan Mungan (gay male author and poet); 4) Aysel Gurel (female pop songwriter); 5) Kucuk Iskender (gay male author and poet); 6) Sezen Aksu (female pop singer); 7) Bulent Ersoy (classical and arabesk singer who is a male-to-female transsexual). Tarkan (male pop singer); 9) the late Zeki Muren (male classical and arabesk singer); and 10) Sebnem Ferah (female pop and rock music singer) (Kaos GL 26). Among these celebrities, Bulent Ersoy, a male-to-female transsexual, and Zeki Muren, a gender-bending male, have been the most visible gender transgressors; therefore, I focus on them in my discussion of the Turkish gay icons in this article.

[2] In Turkey, many terms of identification, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual have been directly transliterated from English into Turkish (as lezbiyen, gay or gey, biseksuel, and transseksuel), and individuals who self-identify as such frequently use such words. As for my use of the word “queer,” it is more recent and has yet to be transliterated into Turkish widely. For this reason, I use “queer” selectively in this article. Since Muren never identified as “gay” publicly, despite being locally known to have a long-term male partner (Stokes 312), I use the word “queer” here in its sense of not fitting any established categories of sexual orientation. In addition, my word choice follows Altinay, a Turkish scholar, who also refers to Muren as a queer male (Altinay 212). As for my other uses of the word throughout this article, I use it when the authors cited use it in relation to the Western contexts under discussion.

[3] To provide a brief background, the first two LGBT advocacy organizations were established in the largest cities in Turkey: Lambda Istanbul in Istanbul in 1993 and Kaos GL in 1994 in Ankara. By the middle of the 1990s, Kaos GL had helped college students organize on two university campuses in Ankara. By the end of the decade, the Turkish LGBT movement struggled to broaden its scope to include larger populations, since these organizations could not connect to students across the nation due to the lack of channels to convey the knowledge and political position they had accumulated. In the late 1990s, with the increasing availability of computer technologies in Turkey, a few local gay student groups began using computers to spread the word about forming similar groups in other Turkish universities and organized under the name Legato. Widening the scope of the Turkish LGBT cause, this development ultimately led to the formation of a gay student culture at universities across the nation, all linked through mailing lists, connecting them with pre-existing LGBT subcultures and with Lambda Istanbul and Kaos GL (for more information on Legato, please refer to Gorkemli).

[4] According to Ozkaracalar, Baytekin (alternately spelled as Bay Tekin, meaning Mr. Tekin, or Avci Baytekin, meaning Hunter Baytekin) was a comic book hero that was a 1930s Turkish amalgamation of the American comic characters Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and Secret Agent X9, all three of whom were created by Alexander Gillespie Raymond in the United States in the 1930s: “It should be noted that the Turkish publishers presented all three characters by Alex Raymond as if they were the same character, venturing into the jungles, into the space and working as a secret police from time to time! … It was claimed that some of these albums, for instance the Baytekin/X-9 ones, reached a circulation of 50,000” (Ozkaracalar). It seems that in addition to mentioning historical figures from Western classical history, Muren defended his choice of flamboyant clothing by referencing what he must have viewed as the widely known and undeniable masculinity of a fictional character adapted from Western popular culture.

[5] This is especially interesting since there are strong objections to transvestism in Islam, as in this hadith: “Cursed are those men who wear women’s clothing and those women who wear men’s clothing” (Zuhur 32). Despite such objections, there has been a continuous tradition of transvestism (men crossdressing as women) on stage dating back to the Ottoman era, during which female performers were prohibited from appearing on stage (Zuhur). While Ersoy is a post-operative male-to-female transsexual, and thus not considered a transvestite in Turkey, her gender identity and stage performances should be viewed as part of this ambivalent religious and Ottoman heritage in Turkey. In addition, contemporary Turkey is a secular republic where shari’ah (the code of law based on the Koran) and the associated strict religious restrictions are no longer applied. For more on the complex dynamics of gender and sexuality in the Middle East, please refer to Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East, edited by Ilkkaracan.

[6] Image captions use my own translation of the text in the images.

[7] I interviewed eleven Legato members about their experiences with media and practices of literacy related to their activities within Legato and the broader LGBT activist efforts in Turkey. The interviews took place in a location of their choosing (such as their office, their home, or a cafe) in Istanbul during the summer of 2003. The names provided are pseudonyms. I conducted the interviews in Turkish, and all of the quotes from the interview data are my translation, unless otherwise stated. The participants expressed their sexual orientation as lezbiyen, gey, or biseksuel (the Turkish transliterations of lesbian, gay, or bisexual), or they used the word “escinsel” (Turkish for homosexual).

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Guner, Umut. “Oynama Sikidim Sikidim.” Kaos GL 35 (2007): 41. Print.

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Long, Thomas L. “Plague of Pariahs: AIDS ‘Zines and the Rhetoric of Transgression.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 24.4 (2000): 401-411. Print.

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Tarik. Personal interview. 10 Jun. 2003.

The ‘Bombay Dost’ Team. “Indian Gay icons: Queers Like Us, a Tribute to Indian Gay Icons.” The Humsafar Trust, January 2004. Web. 14 July 2010.

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Yuksel, Ugur. “Kaos GL’den: Ikon Degildi Istedigimiz.” Kaos GL 35 (2007): 5. Print.

Zeynep. Personal interview. 16 Jul. 2003.

Zuhur, Sherifa. “Criminal Law, Women, and Sexuality in the Middle East.” Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East. Ed. Pinar Ilkkaracan. Hampshire, UK and Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008. 17-41. Print.