- Transing Religious Studies:Beyond the Secular/Religious Binary
activism, Bülent Ersoy, Turkey, trans
I write this contribution to the Transing Religion roundtable as an admittedly non-religious studies scholar. Trained in sociology and gender and queer [End Page 63] studies, my interest in religion stems from my simultaneous understanding of it as a practiced reality of everyday life, as well as a category of thought/analysis.1 My current project focuses on the intersections of religion and political economy. In particular, I analyze the emergence of new morality regimes under the current neoliberal and Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi government (Justice and Development Party or AKP) in Turkey through an analysis of LGBTI politics.
In this response to Max Strassfeld's invitation for us to "to consider the effects of this constructed incongruity between religion and transgender," and rethink "contours of religion" (39) through transing religious studies, I want to focus on discussions that emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 İstanbul Trans Onur Yürüyüşü (İstanbul Trans Pride March) that the İstanbul Governor's Office banned and that fascist groups such as Alperenler Derneği (which had openly stated prior to the march that they would not allow such an event to happen during the holy month of Ramadan) targeted as immoral. This was not the first time opponents to gay pride marches had raised the specter of Ramadan to call such shows of solidarity inappropriate: the previous year, Alperenler had made similar statements, resulting in LGBTI activists preparing banners for the pride march that read "Recep'le Şaban'ın aŞkına Ramazan engel olamaz." Referring to Islam's three holy months Recep, Şaban, and Ramazan—all male names—this sign translates as "Ramazan cannot prevent the love of Recep and Şaban." Using the Islamic calendar to suggest that Ramazan (Ramadan) can never come between Recep and Şaban according to Islamic order, this playful response reframed the intervention also as a futile attempt to stop (male) homosexual love. Indeed, the following year, Alperenler Derneği mentioned in a press release not only their intention to prevent the march that year but also that the previous year's banner was unacceptable because it made light of religion.2
The day of the Trans Pride March 2016, the promises of both Alperenler and the Istanbul Governor's Office were fulfilled, as news circulated on the social media about a fascist raid of Istanbul LGBTI offices (a queer organization founded by two transwomen and featuring trans leadership) before the start of the march. Furthermore, Taksim Square was swarming with plain-clothes police, and uniformed police were blocking entrances to side streets from Istiklal Street, including the one to Mis Sokak, the street on which sat the İstanbul LGBTI offices. When I finally managed to find a way onto Mis Sokak [End Page 64] with one of my best friends, we found İstanbul LGBTI representatives as well as human-rights lawyers negotiating with the police for permission to at least read the press release the organizers had prepared for the day before disbanding, but to no avail. Ultimately, police used tear gas and plastic bullets on the crowd of perhaps a couple of hundred, a few activists were detained, and the demonstrators disbanded.
Within twenty-four hours of the trans pride march meeting with police violence, photos of President Erdoğan breaking fast at an iftar dinner with Turkey's famous transwoman singer Bülent Ersoy circulated online. Bülent Ersoy was the first, and for a long time only, case of a public figure publicly transitioning in Turkey. Despite the initial controversy surrounding her transition and being banned for several years after the 1980 military coup from performing onstage, Ersoy has enjoyed since then an enormous success not only with her undisputed singing talent but also as a celebrity judge for national singing contest shows.3 And despite the fact that she was a well-known actor and singer prior to transition, and despite the fact that in her current celebrity life her extremely extravagant outfits give her an air of performing drag, Ersoy does not align herself with trans or larger LGBTI social...