Gay couple visiting Istanbul?
April 11, 2007 9:03 PM   Subscribe

My friends are an openly lesbian couple. They want to know if it is advisable/safe to visit Istanbul, and what they should expect if they do?
posted by soulbarn to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been to Istanbul a few times, and, speaking for the general traveller, it's a pretty safe city. Obviously, all normal travel precautions apply, because tourists can be targeted anywhere for pickpocketing, drink spiking & so on, but there's nothing much about Istanbul, or Turkey in general, that should make anybody feel unsafe.

As for the lesbian thing...just how openly lesbian? I mean, are we talking about a pair of very in-your-face bulldykes here? Because as long as their appearance doesn't give them away too much, I'd guess that the average Turk would just see them as a pair of friends. Societies that tend to frown on homosexuality often have very poor gaydars, such that they mightn't see what would be obvious to us (especially considering that it's a different cultural context, and they wouldn't really be expected to know what signs to look out for).

Obviously, your friends should probably try to be discreet - no displays of intimacy in public. Remember, as modern & westernised as Turkey is, it's still an Islamic country, with generally Islamic attitudes (although alcohol is widely used).

Anyway, I would recommend they go. Istanbul really is magical. Very cheap & very rewarding.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:33 PM on April 11, 2007

given the preponderance of gay and lesbian travel agencies/resources that target turkey (evident from the first page of a google search for "lesbian travel istanbul"), i don't think it will be a problem. especially in istanbul, which, by all accounts i've heard, really not so different from any cosmopolitan city in western europe.

for further confirmation, here is a lamda legal interview with a greek LGBT publication about precisely the issue of gays and lesbians in turkey, and, though i just skimmed it, the upshot seemed to be that, really, only transgendered people seem to experience systematic harassment. and, really, that's not so different from anywhere else, it pains me to say.

a pertinent, if somewhat unsettling quote from the article: "Turkey is a patriarchal society in which manhood ist he most important value. What a lesbian does is "being like a man" and this is something to be appreciated. Being a lesbian is easier because they area kind of more easily accepted and even respected. "

and, though i know it was said with good intentions, the whole "well, as long as their discreet about it" advice is... let's just say a bit rankling, even when its basis is in practicality.
posted by wreckingball at 9:56 PM on April 11, 2007

oh, and some of those google hits lead to information on useful information for them, such "gay-friendly hotels" in istanbul. which of course is useful information to have when traveling anywhere, as many hotels just love to deny rooms to same-sex pairs.
posted by wreckingball at 9:58 PM on April 11, 2007

To affirm UbuRoivas' comment on gaydar: a curious observation I remember from my visit to Turkey (Istanbul, Ayvalik, Ephesus, Bursa, Izmir and environs) almost a decade ago was the open physical affection between (presumably heterosexual) men. The only explanation I could come up with was that a society with so little open acknowledgement or tolerance of homosexuality this type of non-sexual intimate contact didn't carry with it the suggestion- and therefore stigma- of gayness. But as UR also suggests, this is not a sign that you will be embraced as an out couple, only that you won't be vulnerable to identification and consequent harassment.

But please, please go. A truly indelible place, for all kinds of reasons.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 10:05 PM on April 11, 2007

wreckingball: and, though i know it was said with good intentions, the whole "well, as long as their discreet about it" advice is... let's just say a bit rankling, even when its basis is in practicality.

Sorry, but I have to disagree with you there. I have gone travelling overseas every year for as long as I can remember, and there is simply no alternative to respecting the cultural sensibilities of the places you visit. Trying to assert your holy western right to do things that breach the local mores is a battle you are just not going to win, ever.

The very worst of the worst travellers are those who think that it is not only OK, but actually somehow a moral imperative, to use their trip as a personal crusade in favour of womens' rights, or whatever other axe they have to grind.

You can spot these idiots a mile away: they're the kinds who obstinately wear hotpants & singlet tops without bras in Marrakesh, for example, as some kind of dickheaded protest against how Islamic women are expected to dress modestly. Naturally, the local women & men alike show them the highest levels of disrespect, as they deserve.

Having said that, I was only assuming earlier that the Turks might be somewhat anti-lesbian. If that's not the case, then discretion mightn't be necessary.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:20 PM on April 11, 2007

An afterthought: Lonely Planet guidebooks normally have a section for gay & lesbian travellers, in the introductory Facts For the Visitor sections, explaining what to expect, how to behave, whether there are any lively scenes, etc. Worth flicking through at your local bookstore.

Another afterthought: the island of Lesbos is just off the Turkish coast, not terribly far south of Istanbul. From memory, it's near Bergama & the ruins of Troy. The Lesbians would all be technically Greek, so Turks, hating Greeks as they do, mightn't react kindly if they heard your friends were Lesbians.

(The history here is that Ataturk pushed the Greeks off the mainland after WWI, but apparently didn't have the resources or desire or whatever to liberate or capture all these islands that you can often see from the Turkish mainland, Lesbos being one of them)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:34 PM on April 11, 2007

I'd be very careful about offering advice - especially second hand advice based on googling - that somehow Turkey was "really not so different from any cosmopolitan city in western europe."

Although Turkey is a secular society, Islam figures large. I've spent time in Istanbul and its a deeply conservative nation. Sure, there are pockets where you'd swear you were in some other European capital. But the city at large as some kind of oasis of Western values? Not really.

Keep in mind that insulting the president or "insulting Turkishness" are crimes in Turkey.

Every now and then we'll read here in London about some Brit that visits, gets into a row with a local and is anonymously reported to have insulted the president. Yes, major problems and yes, people, even westerners, have done jail time for this crime.

UbuRolvas has it right; the wise traveler keeps her eyes open, her mouth shut and her own values private when visiting foreign countries.

I'm American, live in London and its annoying as hell when yanks show up and, for example, demand that someone in the restaurant stop smoking just 'cause its not allowed in New York. Its times like that when I switch to German and deny being American. I've actually once saw an well intentioned idiot try to intercede in a rather physical husband / wife row in Cairo and the entire crowd turned on them. The traveler isn't there to change things and guess what? The locals won't like it.

That being said, Istanbul is a magical city. Its just that you've got to respect the local culture; after all, that's why you're going.
posted by Mutant at 10:54 PM on April 11, 2007

Yes, Istanbul is not exactly your standard Western city. While you will see young women in low-cut tops & short skirts (hell, Casablanca was strangely full of them!), Turkish dress is overall very staid & conservative. I recall walking around Istanbul & thinking "Dear God! These people have no colours in their wardrobes other than navy, grey & black!" - that's men & women, alike. It seems that dressing in any kind of attention-seeking, colourful or flashy way is frowned upon by the general population, although your upper classes & bright young things would be as out-there & fashionable as anywhere.

Women are seemingly free to adopt hejab or not, with headscarves being the main choice for those who choose to cover their hair. I think I heard recently that the Turks banned headscarves for women in government jobs - according to the Constitution it's a secular state, and they therefore have a bit of an ambivalent attitude towards religion & the hejab as a result. Interestingly, I saw more women in the full burqa in Turkey than in Iran. A Turk explained to me that this is actually a reaction to the stated policy of Turkey being secular, and you find that kind of dichotomous relationship towards all things Islam throughout many aspects of Turkish culture.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:33 PM on April 11, 2007

I don't imagine that they will have a problem in Istanbul. Like others have said, most Turks will probably take them for good friends.
posted by donajo at 7:00 AM on April 12, 2007

what they should expect

Catcalling. I went to Istanbul with a female friend, and every third guy we passed in Sultanahmet felt free to shout at us, try to pick us up, leer, etc. Women traveling with a man (owner) did not get nearly this level of abuse. So if they come across as a pair of single American het women, I would say to prepare for street harassment like they have never experienced before.
posted by amber_dale at 7:16 AM on April 12, 2007

It all depends on what circles you fly in. I lived in Turkey as a child, and have lots of family there so I spend a lot of time there. The social circles of my cousins (twenty-somethings educated in the elite Turkish schools and American or European Universities) would not mind. For the most part they are indistinguishable from the ultra-cosmopolitan euro-jet-set from any other European country.

They will be out in mini skirts and designer jeans clubbing in Layla on the Bosphoros or bar-hopping in Taksim all night, but they will also cover their revealing top with a jacket when I drag them to the old part of town and cover their hair with a missoni scarf when we go into the old mosques. If you are willing to pay US prices for drinks, go to these places: you will fit right into this scene, and might be able to make a few new Turkish friends.

In Re the the catcalling, I think this is getting overstated. Turkish men are very easy to shame. Spend some time in close company with any Turkish family, and you will find that women dominate the private realm, and in general don't take shit from anybody. I think foreign women are targeted for this type of behavior because most Turkish women would turn around and scream obscenities and make the poor guy sheepishly apologise. So stick up for yourselves, they only get away with it and think that all foreign women are easy sluts who just take insults. Or completely ignore them, whichever is easier.

So your friends don't have much to worry about. Quite frankly, if you're going to the touristy spots, there is nothing these two can do that a million trashier, clumsier, more tactless British and German tourists havn't done before, so don't worry too much, just play it cool.

Moreover, if they are going before the summer, they can probably get very cheap accomidations and flights in and to Bodrum, which is lots of fun and really anything goes.

Enjoy. Also, if they want silver jewelry, there is great stuff in Kapali Carsi, but you have to find your way around the back where the good dealers are. You're not really bargaining until they pull out the calculator and the scale to price the pieces you're looking at.
posted by OldReliable at 8:15 AM on April 12, 2007

Why not go to Constantinople instead?
posted by TheNewWazoo at 4:51 PM on April 12, 2007

No, that's nobody's business but the Turks'.

I forgot to mention: make sure your friends make it to a hamam (traditional steam bath). The older, the better. Men & women have separate bathing times - I think it varies from one hamam to another. I mention this not for some kind of pervy "heh heh heh lesbians in nuddy steam bath" reason but because hamams just rock.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:23 PM on April 12, 2007

I was in there by myself for over a week and never felt at all unsafe. But I'll warn you of one thing... in Istanbul, especially in Sultanahmet, there are these Turkish guys walking around in suits. They look like they're loitering aimlessly but they aren't, they're actually working, whether you know it or not. They will talk to you whether you are alone or with your friend. They will say things like "Helllloooooo. What is your name? Where are you from? Can I be your frieeeeennnndddd?" Unsolicited, they will try to show you how to enter the mosque even though there are large signs saying "Mosque Entrance." They will do whatever they can to try to get you to talk to them. At times these men become overwhelming... I counted ten of them approaching me within one three minute walk across Sultanahmet towards Aya Sofia.

Don't worry, you are totally safe. They are annoying & difficult to get rid of and avoid, but you are not in any danger from them. These men just either a) want you to hire them as tourguides or b) have a family shop. If they have a family shop, they want to take you to it so that you will buy a rug or something. They will waste all sorts of time pretending they want to ask you all sorts of questions because they are genuinely interested in your answers, but be assured they are not. They want to do business with you. Best to just pretend you don't see them and walk on. They can be hard to ignore but it's best. Once you start talking to them, they won't leave you alone.

Unless you need a rug, in which case you're in the right place!

Otherwise I found Istanbul to be an interesting city and far more modern than I had expected (I had just come from Cairo so it's VERY western compared to that). I stayed in a really great hotel, the Empress Zoe. I actually named my dog after it. I also found the public transport really easy. You can buy a little plastic key that gets you onto everything & makes life a lot simpler. Istanbul was far less exotic and crazy than I was expecting. Actually, I was a little let down by that. But it's a really interesting city & I'd definitely go back. It photographs AMAZINGLY well. I mean, just look at these mosques!

If I go back to Istanbul, the number one thing I would do again is to have the works at Cagaloglu Hamam, a 300 year old Turkish bath. I swear, my skin was soft for weeks. Also, I would've bought more stuff at the Grand Bazaar. If you're interested, here was my journal entry from a day of turkish salesmen and my turkish bath experience.

As for gay travel there, I found this site that might have good advice for you. But I agree that it's very common for two people of the same sex to be walking around arm in arm so people will probably think you are close friends.

Have an amazing time!
posted by miss lynnster at 12:46 AM on April 13, 2007

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