- Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as a Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman: The Case of Bulent Ersoy
Winter of 2007. Another Sunday night, a new episode of Popstar Alaturka, a Turkish version of Pop Idol. Minority and human rights activist Hrant Dink has recently been assassinated by an ultranationalist youth and Turkey is experiencing one of the few notable instances of spontaneous collective action in the past two decades.1 It has been only days since tens of thousands of people marched in the streets, chanting, “We are all Armenians!” to express their sympathy for Dink and the Armenian community. Hence, the TV show opens with the popular Armenian folk song “Sari Gelin”—which, later in the evening, will lead to a rather long and interesting monologue by one of the jury members. This member is a glamorous lady in her fifties, wearing a haute couture dress revealing her long legs and shapely breasts. She expresses her discontent with the slogan “We are all Armenians!” Underlining the fact that she is “the Muslim daughter of Muslim parents,” she emphasizes that no one can ever make her say she is Armenian or Christian. Claiming that it would be more acceptable if the slogan had been “We are all Hrant,” she deems it intolerable for a Muslim person to say that s/he is Armenian—and therefore Christian.
But who is this glamorous woman who seems in desperate need to underline her Muslim, nationalist identity? For readers who take an even slight interest in Turkish popular culture, the answer would be quite obvious. The person is Bulent Ersoy: a self-proclaimed expert on classical Ottoman music—though a singer of the popular genre arabesk—one of the first Turkish men to undergo sex change and the very first one to ask for a female passport, and a hater of transgendered prostitutes. Ersoy has been an extremely popular public figure in Turkey since the early 1970s and is very likely to remain so.
Following Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” in this essay I seek to trace how Bulent Ersoy [End Page 210] has “become” a Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman. In doing so, I aim to understand the strategies that define spaces of abjection reserved for transgendered individuals in Turkey in the post-1980s and examine the tactics for survival that are available to them.2 I will try to explore Ersoy’s personal history in the context of events in Turkey since the 1970s and discuss the cultural atmosphere and dynamics of gender in the country in the light of Ersoy’s narrative.
A Young, Flamboyant Male Singer
The renowned singer of classical Turkish music Bulent Ersoy was born as Bulent Erkoc in 1952 in Istanbul. Named after a soccer player, Bulent was the only son of an urban middle-class family. He was introduced to classical Turkish music by his grandfather, who played the zither, and his grandmother, who played the lute. Shown to have talent, he took private lessons with acclaimed musicians at an early age and later attended the conservatory. While he was still a student, he began singing professionally under the stage name Bulent Ersoy—the name Erkoc, meaning “brave ram,” was probably too masculine for this rather androgynous young man, so it was replaced by Ersoy, “brave lineage.” Ersoy is also easier on the tongue.
Ersoy’s first record came out in 1971. At that time, nightlife in the big cities, especially Istanbul, mainly consisted of Greek tavernas and nightclubs called gazinos. Those nightclubs provided the middle- and upper-classes with hours-long programs bringing together several singers as well as comedians and belly dancers. There would often be one lead singer, called an assolist, who would take the stage last and sing classical Turkish music. The extremely competitive atmosphere made it difficult to become a lead singer. At the time, many established lead singers sang arabesk, a genre influenced by Turkish folk and Middle Eastern music, that had come out in Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Stokes, one of the leading experts on arabesk, claims that it is “a music inextricably...