It was a teary farewell to Seyfi Dursunoğlu, better known as the Grumpy Virgin, Turkey’s most famous drag queen. Dursunoğlu, who died on July 17 after three days in intensive care in a hospital in Istanbul, was buried in a small ceremony attended by friends and family.
“First Grumpy Virgin died, then Seyfi Dursunoğlu,” mourned many commentators, in print and on Turkey’s lively Twittersphere, referring to a ban by Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, RTÜK, that forced the early retirement of the popular artist. In 2008, RTÜK called on TV channels to ban cross-dressing, and though it later consented that the Grumpy Virgin could appear “after prime time,” Dursunoğlu remained retired, perhaps guessing that the Virgin’s brand of saucy, outspoken humor was no longer safe – or even possible – in Turkey.
For three decades, the Grumpy Virgin walked on stage in glittery costumes and a platinum-blond wig, combining gaudy glamour with sharp, lucid witticism that spared no one. When Rauf Denktaş, the late president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, paid a visit to his show, she said, “Turgut Özal [the president of Turkey between 1989-1993] came two nights ago. Why are all presidents so short and stocky? Can’t we find a tall and handsome one?”
Ironically, a tall politician brought about the end of his show. Asked in 2012 by journalist Enver Aysever whether he thought then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a direct role in the ban, Dursunoğlu, soberly dressed and without the wig, ducked the question, simply saying that he thought Erdoğan was a man with a sense of humor. “If he can watch the Grumpy Virgin at a time when he is not in a temper, I am sure he would love her,” he said diplomatically.
The restraint was typical of the duality of the Virgin, who appeared outspoken and outrageous on stage but respectful, soft-toned and distant once the blonde wig came off. In interviews, he would switch back and forth between the two characters, as he told his story that represented Turkey’s contradictions, inconsistencies and things unspoken.
Born in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, Dursunoğlu came from a conservative, working class family. “My father was a hafiz [a title for a person who knows the Quran by heart] and a despot,” he said. “My mother was a kind Anatolian who would share her last crumb with anyone. I had six brothers – plus several other siblings who did not survive.” Musical from the start, he took piano lessons, but kept it a secret. When the family moved to Istanbul, his father enrolled him in a military school. After studying English Literature at university, he dropped out and took one of the most boring jobs imaginable – a clerkship at the Turkish Social Security Authority (SSK).
It was in the tedium of bureaucracy that he discovered his talent for making people laugh. So many of his colleagues made their way to his office every day to hear his jokes that the branch director issued a circular forbidding disruptions to work. Dursunoğlu eventually quit his job and took his quirky sense of humor to the stage. In less than a decade, he was sharing the stage with some of Turkey’s top performers. He became a regular fixture on television and eventually got his own show. The 1980 military coup, which kept Turkey’s most famous transgender singer Bülent Ersoy off-screen, did not touch Grumpy Virgin, who loved innuendos, double meanings and below-the-belt humor.
In private, he remained the respectful, soft-spoken civil servant. “Once the wig comes out, I am Seyfi Dursunoğlu 100 percent. I have little tolerance for impertinence or disrespect. What I have on stage is an act. People get that – when they meet me on the street, they treat me with respect, with distance,” he said in an interview.
Just like he never joked about religion and politics on stage, he hardly ever spoke of sex off stage. He avoided persistent questions on his sexuality. “Our sexuality is private,” he would tell interviewers time and again. If pushed further, he would say that Turkish people would not like prying too much into the sexuality of the artists they admired. Only once, he admitted that he was very lonely.
The only question that made him angry was when he was asked whether his cross-dressing and saucy jokes would “set a bad example for young people and children” – one of the favorite arguments of the conservative Justice and Development Party and its cronies.
“I can hardly agree that I set a bad example. I have given so much to ensure that the future generations are educated properly,” he said, in a veiled reference to his generous donations to Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey (TEGV) and the Association for Supporting Contemporary Life (ÇYDD), which commemorated him with a message that said they will always remember the artist and the value he placed on the education of young people.
Dursunoğlu’s death comes amid increasing homophobia, intolerance and censorship towards the LGBTQI community in Turkey, particularly in the creative sectors. Earlier this month, RTÜK said that it had successfully asked and gotten Netflix to change a key character in a youth series called “Love 101.” One of the lead characters, Osman, was initially fictionalized as gay, but later the plot was changed. Last week, the Ministry of Culture and Netflix were at odds once more over a new series, called “Şimdiki Aklım Olsaydı” (roughly translated as “If Only I Had Known Before”) due to the presence of two gay characters. Time and again, officials from Erdoğan down have referred to the gay community as “deviants” – making LGBTI people easy prey on the streets.
Not surprisingly, no member of the government – including the Ministry of Culture – expressed condolences about Seyfi Dursunoğlu’s passing. Perhaps his sauciness, his witty rebukes to authority and his outspokenness belonged to an era they would rather forget.