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Mapping Epistemologies, Discourses, and Sexualities

Recent studies on homosexuality, being highly influenced by Foucault's groundbreaking History of Sexuality (1990), map different cultural attitudes towards homosexuality by focusing on dominant discourses. For instance, D'Emilio (1998) examines three discourses: the Judeo-Christian, the legal, and the medical in the US, while Pflugfelder (1999) also analyzes three specific sexual discourses: the popular, the legal, and the medical in Japanese history, which altogether determine attitudes towards same-sex sexuality in different cultures and give rise to historically specific and changing queer subjectivities within their respective geographical locations.

While the emphasis is more on discourses as metaphorical maps rather than on conventional maps (and space) in these studies, Pflugfelder (1999) bridges the apparent gap between the two in this manner: “human understanding involves a continual mapping and remapping, not just of physical but also of social reality. [Discourses as metaphorical maps] are not necessarily tangible, but they are no less instrumental than the conventional sort in orienting us to our environments” (p. 1). By changing the emphasis to space then in its various forms as physical, geographical, institutional, virtual, etc., one of the questions I pose in this article is, “How does space orient us towards various discourses, especially the marginalized ones that we rarely get to hear on the mass media?” If, as Pflugfelder (1999) says, mapping, whether conventional or otherwise, is an epistemological practice that assigns symbolic roles and categories to a material world of places populated by objects and beings, then what are the implications of such an epistemology for queer populations?

Such an epistemology is a high-stake one for queer individuals since, historically, it has been an imposed epistemology of heterosexism. This epistemology is especially pervasive in the twentieth-century societies due to mass media embodying and propagating the homophobia of their surrounding social contexts and further shaping the same contexts in the process. Like conventional maps, this epistemology is also a spatial regime where physical places are also imbued with symbolic meanings that historically came to accommodate only heterosexual ways of living, in the process creating “other spaces” (Foucault, 1986), such as bars, parks, etc., for those who deviate from the so-called norm, further affirming the marginality of—and through such exclusion, negating subject positions for—the so-called deviates and thus reinforcing and maintaining an unjust system. [1]

Following the perspective above, the next section surveys the discourses on homosexuality and spaces available to an LGBTQ looking for a community prior to the advent of the Internet, mapping the background for the emergence of Legato across the country through the Internet.

Queer Subjectivity, Discourses, Space, and Mass Media in Modern Turkey [2]
Discourses determine and reflect approaches to homosexuality in modern Turkey , too. Islam—with its injunctions against same sex desire—and Turkish collective family structure—with its emphasis on strong ties among family members and relatives—also discourage non-heterosexual orientations. As such, homosexuality is viewed in general as a sin and an aberration. In addition, it is common knowledge in the queer community that when parents find out that their children are lesbian or gay, psychotherapy is usually their first recourse, which shows how much medical view of homosexuality as a disorder is accepted in the family. As for civic and legal positioning of homosexuality, there is no statute that condemns or outlaws it. However, parallel to social denial and/or condemnation of homosexuality as a deviation and sin, there are no anti-discriminatory laws that protect the rights of LGBTs. [3] In addition, being an out LGBT individual is viewed as adequate grounds for dismissal from the Turkish army and other civic service, and the local law enforcement officials have also been known to be slow or completely inept in handling violations of LGBT rights and gay bashings. (Gay and Lesbian Individuals & Associations, 2002)

Even though the heterosexist system is quite strong thus and its control over meaning-making so prevalent thanks to its power of representation, it is not so pervasive as to eradicate queer existence altogether or preclude the formation of subversive discourses of sexuality. At the beginning of the 1990s, an LGBTQ looking for a community in Turkey could have direct access to other queer individuals and queer-related experience through the following venues [4]:

Mass Media. An average, typical Turkish family's first encounter with queerness is usually through Turkish mass media. Media coverage of queerness usually takes two forms: 1) sensational headline news about the fights between the police and a group of people indiscriminately called “transvestites” by the mass media maintaining the traditional gender dichotomy; and 2) entertainment shows that feature queer celebrities and entertainers in drag. To be specific, three very famous celebrities in Turkey are a transsexual (Bulent Ersoy), a transgendered person (late Zeki Muren), and a drag queen (Huysuz Virjin). In addition, there are numerous gay male entertainers working in chic nightclubs in bigger cities who also appear on TV programs targeted to the general population. In spite of such visibility in the mass media, the queerness of these performers elicits a variety of responses from the public. Some people either just do not see it, or, they ridicule the person, or, even if they recognize the queerness of a particular artist implicitly, they might still prefer not to talk about it at all for various reasons.

De facto queer neighborhoods. These are what can be called “enclaves” that usually exist in big cities.

Parks, public baths, and other public places. These are de facto meeting places, again mostly in big cities.

Lesbian and gay bars. In metropolitan areas, such as Istanbul , Ankara , and Izmir—the three largest cities in the nation—there have been gay and lesbian bars, and their numbers are on the rise recently.

Local LGBT organizations. At the beginning of the 1990s, two local LGBT organizations were founded: Lambda Istanbul in Istanbul in 1993 and Kaos GL in the capital, Ankara in 1994. From the beginning, these organizations worked to effect changes not only in their immediate social environments by organizing activities, publishing manifestos and LGBT related information, but also in society at large through their interactions with lawmakers and experts from various fields.

Even though these access points have existed for those looking for connections with others like themselves, the dominant epistemology still prevented LGBTQs from across the nation from connecting with the existing LGBT communities and organizations. First of all, Turkish mass media mostly functioned as the mouthpiece of the heterosexist system reflecting dominant homophobic discourses. In addition, the mass media also capitalized on the plight of transvestites and transsexuals (who still have to prostitute themselves since they are not deemed fit for regular jobs) in pandering to the masses' penchant for sensation, further reinforcing already prevalent homophobia in the society. As a result, the few developing subcultural institutions and meeting places had to keep a low profile and thus remained isolated from LGBTQs in the rest of the nation (since they were in big cities, they were also geographically isolated). Even in big cities most LGBTQs did not accept their feelings, and those who did just stayed shy of local organizations and de facto meeting places and neighborhoods, due to not only the negative influence of the mass media but also to the exclusively sexual nature of some such places and the prevalent social stigma attached to the rest of them as being just sexual. As a result, by the mid 1990s, most of the queer individuals across the nation continued to be exposed to the dominant heterosexist epistemology that inculcated homophobia through major discourses and mass media as its main conduit. The dominant epistemology also continued attributing deviate status to meeting places of LGBTQs and thus negating subject positions of those gathering there, depriving them of their agency to even openly question—let alone, change—the status quo.

[1] Especially before the advent of any gay rights movement, such meeting places as bars can also serve as points of entry for many gays and lesbians into a queer community, queer discourses, and a new epistemology that privileges personal experience over received notions on homosexuality, leading to coming out and eventually gay pride (D'Emilio, 1998; Higgins, 1999). However, for such a development of a significant collective scale to occur, many social conditions have to change over a long period of time as it happened in the US. Meanwhile, homophobia and discrimination continue in the society, undercutting the collective agency of queer groups by keeping them apart longer.

[2] Turkey, located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia , is a democratic, secular, and predominantly Muslim nation—to be exact, 99% of the population is Muslim. Even though the religion of the majority is Islam, unlike, for instance, Saudi Arabia and Iran , Turkey is not governed by sharia , the code of law based on the Koran. Also, here, modern Turkey refers to the Turkish Republic founded in 1923. Before then, Turkey was the Ottoman Empire (from its beginnings in the 1300s until the abolition of the Ottoman dynasty by the newly established Turkish parliament in the 1920s). Sexual practices before the foundation of the Republic are beyond the scope of this article. Let it suffice for now that the Ottoman literature and history suggest that male-to-male sexuality was accepted to a certain extent.

[3] For recent developments concerning the legal situation, see “Turkish Parliament Decided to Rule Out Considering Prison Term for 'Sexual Orientation' Discrimination,” posted on 06 July 2004 18:05 on Kaos GL bulletin board.

[4] Here I only refer to venues before the advent of the Internet in Turkey at the beginning of the 1990s.