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Turkey’s Pride Week ‘more about resistance than celebration’

Istanbul — For Iris Mozalar, a young transgender woman living in Istanbul, Pride Week is “more about resistance than celebration” under Turkey’s conservative government, which is openly hostile towards the LGBTQ community.

“Ours is a struggle to survive,” the 24-year-old told AFP at her home in Istanbul where she studies urban planning and works as a DJ and model — on the eve of the annual Pride celebration, which Turkey’s government routinely bans.

During his re-election campaign last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies turned the LGBTQ community into his favorite target, railing against them as “perverse” and a threat to traditional family values, with activists saying it triggered an upsurge in hostility towards them.

“We are waging a struggle against the police, against the state security apparatus,” said Mozalar, a willowy figure with long tawny hair, a serious air and an engaging smile.

“That’s why I can never look at (the Pride march) as a celebration, because frankly we don’t have much to celebrate.”

Growing up in the southeastern coastal city of Mersin, she was bullied by peers and teachers who knew instinctively there was something different about her.

She couldn’t really explain it until one day when she was 17, she looked in the mirror and really saw herself for the first time.

“I can never forget the moment when I stood naked in front of the mirror and admitted to myself: ‘Yes, I am a woman’.”

Moving to Istanbul soon after, Mozalar started the process of transitioning — an “incredibly difficult” process in Turkey, involving months of sessions with psychiatrists and endocrinologists as well as examinations and detailed reports by experts in genetics, gynecology, urology and plastic surgery.

Only a court can approve gender affirming surgery, and after finally winning that, she began a year-long campaign to raise 90,000 Turkish lira for the operation — at the time around 30 times her rent.

The same operation today would cost up to 700,000 lira, she explained — an “impossible” sum for most transgender people, who are often earning the minimum wage.  

Despite the surgery, Mozalar still feels uncomfortable with parts of herself — “my feet, the length of my hands” — but has learned to see the beauty in her own body.   

“It was something of an inner revolution to say: yes, I am beautiful.”

‘An incredible challenge’

Although she has finally found peace with her identity, society remains largely hostile.

“It is an incredible challenge to exist as a trans-woman in Turkey,” she said.  

“Istanbul is not an LGBTI+ friendly city — there is no such city in Turkey,” Mozalar said. Although there are some friendly neighborhoods, she rarely feels safe in the streets.

“Some days I don’t go to the grocery shop because I know I’ll be harassed the moment I walk out the door. And I don’t feel up to it. Most trans people are detached from normal social life,” she told AFP, adding she only ever travels by taxi after nightfall.

But night is also when she really comes alive, as a DJ.

“I love DJing but it can be hard to deal with the men, so the places where I perform have to be LGBTQ and women friendly.” And it’s the same when she goes out at night, only going to places deemed friendly or “run by feminists” or socialists.

Despite the difficulties, she isn’t interested in leaving Turkey to seek asylum elsewhere.

“I was born and raised in Turkey and I believe I have a job to do here,” she says.

“I hope that we will see the day when Pride in Turkey is no longer a rebellion but a celebration.”

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