While I was going through Sunday papers — well let’s be honest, Sunday internet sites — my eyes almost popped out of my head when I came across a statement from Selin Ciğerci, a Turkish transgender singer. She boasted about paying large sums in taxes for her social media advertisements which she claimed bring her around 600 thousand Turkish liras (close to 90 thousand USD) each month. This money would be considered substantial even in stable economies, let alone in crisis-stricken Turkey.
Selin Ciğerci has been a very popular public figure lately. Before her transition, she was known as a male singer under the stage name “Baby Okan.” After her transition, Ciğerci continued building her public image. Last year, she married famous Turkish football player Gökhan Çıra, and their wedding was under the spotlight, as expected. From the beginning of their marriage, it was clear they are not a shy couple; they like posing for the press and sharing their lives through Instagram accounts. Obviously, this lifestyle has also proven lucrative for Ciğerci, as some of the weekend’s headlines indicated.
Besides being a story of a pop couple, Ciğerci’s success is a deeper indicator of Turkey as a land of contradictions. Just a couple of weeks ago, the head of the Religious Affairs Council, Ali Erbaş, said the COVID-19 pandemic was a curse over humanity caused by the sins, wickedness, and the evil of the LGBTI community. Strong criticism of Ali Erbaş’s homophobic outburst came mainly from LGBTI and liberal circles. However, not a single political party was brave enough to condemn Erbaş’s hatemongering. Even the traditionally outspoken and critical opposition has been extra careful not to attack these retrograde and damaging positions so as to not ostracize conservative voters.
Sometimes, however, Turkish society is ahead of its political elite. Selin Ciğerci and her public life with her husband is not a new phenomenon. Probably the most famous Turkish transgender woman, a singer Bülent Ersoy, married her much younger husband, Cem Adlar, decades ago in a glam wedding ceremony that was covered by many TV shows and news programs. Zeki Müren was another widely revered and loved, sort-of openly gay Turkish singer who was referred to as “The Sun of Turkey’s Art.” Many other examples could serve as the proof of the progressiveness that has been nurtured in at least some forms in Turkey’s societal mainstream.
Selin Ciğerci is the new generation of Turkish LGBTI: very outspoken, she doesn’t hold back or shy away from the public eye. She seems comfortable out in the open, demonstrating details of her life and who she really is. Proponents of the market economy could argue this is one of the positive provisions of capitalism: the public is interested in Selin Ciğerci and her life, they follow her and make up her audience — which makes her a lucrative investment, regardless of what state bureaucrats or politicians say.
It should be noted here, though, that Turkey is obviously not a safe haven for the LGBTI community. For example, LGBTI people are still victims of the disturbing, so-called “honor killings,” which refers to when certain conservative families choose to kill their own children rather than accept them for who they are.
One of the main stereotypes about Turkey has been that it is a “country of polarization and dichotomies.” The paradox, on the one hand, of Turkish society embracing LGBTI people as artists, singers, and reality show stars, and on the other hand, political elites seeing LGBTI people as a nightmare for the conservative votes, has certainly enforced this stereotype. However, the fact that an openly transgender woman married to a football player is able to cash in on her popularity serves as confirmation that the only natural and healthy view of this relationship is to accept that the LGBTI community has always been at the very core of the Turkish society and, equally with other communities, has made Turkey into what it really is.