“They Can Spot us a Mile Away.” The Dangers of Being Different in Kayseri

Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation with a police officer who works with refugees in Kayseri. I asked her about the relationship between the local police and members of the LGBT refugee community. She said that the police have only one problem with the refugees: “Some of them dress very provocatively. Their hairstyles, their heavy make-up and their revealing clothes make the locals uncomfortable.” Then she paused for a few seconds and said, “Even I, as a female police officer, will be harassed if I wear flashy lipstick. People around here are very hospitable, but traditional.”

I shared the police officer’s concerns with a group of Iranian refugees that I met last night. They disagreed: “I can’t even wear sunglasses. They think sunglasses are too erotic,” one gay man commented. Another said: “I tried. I swear I tried to look like the locals. But they can spot us a mile away. As soon as they notice we don’t walk like macho straight men, they start chasing us and laughing at us.”

A transgender woman told me that:

    Every time I walk down the street, schoolboys throw trash at me. And once, when I was walking downtown, the police wanted to arrest me because they said I looked like a Russian prostitute. Police officers made fun of me and called me names. As they were forcing me into their car, I screamed and hit them with my handbag. I said: “You have no right to treat me like dirt because I am trans.” Finally, other officers intervened. They said it was a case of mistaken identity and I could go. I complained about how I was treated by their colleagues. They told me: "Quit making a big deal out of it. Nothing happened. They didn’t rape you, did they? Now go home!”

A social worker from a local NGO that supports refugees tells me how difficult it is to get assistance for LGBT Iranians:

    We have a couple of well-organized faith-based Islamic charities. They mainly support the local needy population but occasionally also reach out to refugees…. The party line is that they don’t discriminate but when I send gay people their way, they say: “We will review you case and call you back.” Then after giving them a good run around, they say: “Sorry, we have no resources”…. I had one case of an Iranian gay man who really needed help. I told him go to those charities, but act straight so they might feel sorry for him and give him some help. It worked.

The local NGO does what it can to coordinate the minimal local support that is available and distribute it among the refugees. But with only one full-time staff member, the organization is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of close to 1,000 refugees in Kayseri.

As I get ready to leave this beautiful city and its forgotten refugee population, I can’t help wonder who, in Turkey, will look out for my fellow LGBT Iranians. To many locals, they are a bunch of moral degenerates en route to the sinful West. To many Turkish officials, they are a financial burden only adding to the problems of this country’s fragile economy. To many local and international relief and refugee agencies, they are yet another part of the endless flow of migrating people needing assistance. But to me, they are decent, inspired, and extremely courageous human beings. Despite on-going challenges, they have consistently fought for dignity and human rights. And they are willing to keep fighting as long as needed. I should know; I am a gay Iranian refugee myself.

Hossein Alizadeh