Do Ask, Must Tell

Turkey's military doesn't just discriminate against gays -- it humiliates them.

Adam Altan/AFP
Adam Altan/AFP

ISTANBUL — As the United States considers repealing the ban on gays serving in the military, they might want to consider consulting their allies in NATO with whom they serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast majority of the organization’s 28-member states allow gays to serve openly. But Turkey offers an instructive, and extreme, contrast.

Where the U.S. “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been the subject of fierce political debate since it was launched by Bill Clinton’s administration two decades ago, Turkey’s ban has seen few public challenges. When Turkey’s minister for women’s and family affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, declared this March that homosexuality is a “disease that needs treatment,” she wasn’t just pandering to popular belief; she was repeating the official stance of the Turkish armed forces. Indeed, Turkey’s gay conscripts are routinely forced to endure humiliation and abuse at the hands of their country’s military authorities.

What makes that fate especially terrible is that it’s practically impossible for Turkish men to avoid exposure to military life, and the burden is on them to prove they are unfit for service. Every man between 20 and 41 years old is required to serve at least six months. Exemptions are granted only under two conditions: a mental or physical disability, and homosexuality. Turkey does not recognize the right to conscientious objection.

Fearing rejection by relatives and discrimination by potential employers, many gay men have chosen to lie to army doctors about their sexual orientation. “Because you’re asked at every job interview to say whether you’ve completed your military service, and to explain why not, the decision to get an exemption brands you for life,” says S., a gay draftee in his mid-20s, over coffee at a restaurant in Istanbul. “Some people decide to deny their homosexuality and enter the army instead.” (To protect the identities of certain people interviewed for this article, their names have been abbreviated with their first initial.)

Many gays also conceal their sexual orientation to avoid the humiliation of having to prove it. According to the official commentary to the army’s health regulation, for a homosexual to be exempted from service, “documentary evidence must prove that the defects in sexual behavior are obvious and would create problems when revealed in a military context.” In the military’s understanding, says L., a psychiatrist with experience on military health panels, “If a man is gay, it’s not a problem as long as he is not behaving that way.” According to S., “You have to prove that your homosexuality prevents you from being a soldier, from holding a gun, that it makes you effeminate, that it might affect your safety and make you vulnerable, and that it might endanger the unity of the military.” 

To seek exemption, therefore, many gay men have to endure pseudo-scientific tests designed to appraise both their homosexuality and the extent to which it might render them “unfit” for service. “Parts of the test I took included having to draw a picture of a tree, a house, and a person,” says S. “You’re given a lot of crayons, and then you have to answer why you drew things the way you did.” Other gay conscripts report having been asked whether they liked playing with dolls as children or enjoyed wearing women’s clothing. Military psychiatrists who know better have to pretend that there is a scientific value to such examinations, says L., “because it’s in the regulations.”

Astoundingly, some gays also report that they were asked to produce photographs showing them as participants in anal intercourse. Even then, Turkish authorities are said to apply special criteria. According to the military, and Turkish society at large, penetrating another man does not necessarily qualify as a homosexual act; only being penetrated is undisputedly homosexual. Hence the unwritten rule when it comes to such photos: “The man should be in the passive position, receiving from behind,” L. explains, “and looking at the camera. Preferably while smiling.”

K., a gay man in his mid 20s who works at an NGO, was called up to the military this year. “The first time I went for a medical examination,” he recalls, “I told the psychiatrist in charge I was gay, but he claimed that I was pretending.” K. was forced to spend a night in a military psychiatric hospital where, he says, another doctor asked him to provide pictures documenting his homosexuality. K. then asked a friend to take photos as he and his boyfriend had sex in their apartment. At his next meeting with military doctors, K. handed over the prints. The first doctor’s assessment was overturned: K. was declared gay and, as such, ineligible for service. “Mine is not an isolated case,” he says. “I know of many other gays who have been asked for photos.” 

The army flatly denies such claims. In a statement issued recently to Gazeteport, a Turkish news website, the Turkish General Staff’s information office asserted that the military “absolutely does not ask for photo or video footage from those who say they are gay. Even if a person brings photos or video footage, they are not considered during the process.”

Granted, the army’s health-requirement regulation makes no specific mention of photographic evidence. The problem, says L., arises because army psychiatrists are often excessively on guard against men who pretend to be gay. (Given the army’s refusal to recognize the right to conscientious objection, this is often the only recourse, aside from faking a physical disability, for straight men seeking to avoid conscription.) “These doctors are afraid that some people who desperately want to avoid military service will lie to them. If you give some guy a report saying that he has a psychosexual disorder and then he gets married, you will be in trouble,” says L. For what it’s worth, the process also embarrasses psychiatrists, who don’t want to be in the position of diagnosing unscientific sexual pathologies. “It should be the political leaders who decide whether homosexuals can serve in the military or not. With the army regulation, the decision is left to the psychiatrist,” says L. “And military psychiatrists, they just don’t know what to do.”

But even if authorities don’t demand photographs, the process can be harrowing. V., in his early 30s, had to spend weeks at four military psychiatric hospitals before he could gain an exemption — this, over the space of three years. “At the first hospital, despite the fact I told them I was gay, I was declared eligible for service,” he told me at an Istanbul bar. “At the second, I was declared ineligible. At the third, the psychiatrist in charge acknowledged I was gay, but ‘not effeminate enough’ to receive an ineligibility report. Still, to help me out, he gave me a report that said I was neurotic.”

The fourth hospital was the worst. “I stayed there for almost two weeks straight, without any possibility of leaving,” says V. One of the doctors, a surgeon, decided to subject V. to a rectal examination. “The guy put his finger in my ass to check for any deformations,” says V. “‘Ooh, it’s very tight,’ he joked. ‘You’ll be a very good soldier.’ His finger was still inside.” It was only after the military doctors requested testimony from a family member — V.’s sister confirmed that he had been a homosexual as long as she could remember — that V. was released and declared unfit for service.

So far, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling power since 2002, has not taken any steps to remove the ban. Although it has significantly curbed the army’s influence in politics (no small feat, given that the army has forcefully unseated four governments over the past 50 years), the AKP, born from the ashes of an Islamist party, appears unlikely to confront the generals over the issue of gay draftees. Since its first electoral victory eight years ago, the government has passed no new laws to protect sexual minorities. Likewise, it has turned a deaf ear to pleas from the country’s LGBT community that the Turkish Constitution be amended to provide for equality before the law regardless of sexual orientation. Although there are no laws banning homosexuality in Turkey, in 2008 the country refused to sign an EU-backed text calling for its decriminalization worldwide. Public attitudes are also a problem. In a country whose laws and politics have undergone a huge transformation over the past decade, taboos on homosexuality remain firmly in place. In a 2006 study, 23 percent of urban gays or bisexuals reported having been subjected to physical harassment. In a May 2009 poll, 87 percent of Turks said they would not want a homosexual as a neighbor.

But the allegation that gays lack the courage to serve is undermined by conscripts like Mehmet Tarhan. Tarhan, a Kurd and a gay man, chose not to don a military uniform, but he refused to allow his fate to be determined on the basis of his sexual orientation. “I am an anti-militarist,” he explains in a telephone interview. “It was an issue of conscience.” In making that declaration at a public news conference in October 2001, Tarhan, 23 at the time, was willfully courting punishment. In April 2005, he was arrested for refusing military orders. Released from jail after two months, he was called up to serve again, and again refused. Charged with insubordination, he was sentenced to four years in prison in August 2005. He was released in March 2006, having allegedly faced beatings and death threats by other inmates.

Although the army has allegedly encouraged him to do so, Tarhan has refused to apply for an exemption on the basis of his homosexuality. What other see as a vicious cycle of recrimination, Tarhan sees as a necessary battle for justice. It is a fight that he refuses to back down from. “There is nothing foreseen in the laws that this process will elapse as a result of time or age,” he acknowledges. Like all conscientious objectors in Turkey, Tarhan continues to face the risk of being sent to prison each time he refuses to report for service. The cycle, he says, “can go on till death.”

The army’s discrimination against gays, or what it regards as gays, extends not only to candidates for conscription, but to serving soldiers. Regardless of how much loyalty or bravery they show in uniform, gay soldiers have to live with the anxiety, says L., that they “will be diagnosed as having a psychosexual disorder and kicked out of the army.” And so instead of honoring courage in their ranks, the Turkish armed forces have made a policy of instilling fear.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola