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A transgender sex worker on the streets of Istanbul's Tarlabasi neighborhood. (Didem Tali)

'Not wanted'

An unflinching look inside the most dangerous place in Europe to be a transgender person

April 20, 2017

ISTANBUL — In the summer of 2015, Oksan Er, a 50-year-old transgender woman, suddenly found herself homeless, as she wasn’t able to pay her rent in Istanbul’s rapidly gentrifying Tarlabasi neighborhood.

“I slept in Gezi Park [a park in Taksim, central Istanbul] for 40 nights when I became homeless,” she told Women in the World in an interview. Er said she feels lucky that her time as a homeless person coincided with the warmer months of the year, but that did not prevent her from experiencing violence and assaults in the park, which she feels were exacerbated due to her gender.

“[When I was in the park], I was bullied, beaten and eventually even stabbed,” she said, showing some of her scars in her current bedroom.

“My friends helped me to get this place and I have been living here for a while now,” she explained, pointing at her surroundings, a small, moldy room in Tarlabasi with broken windows and no access to a kitchen or a bathroom.

Oksan Er, in her tiny bedroom, showing the scars on her belly from a stabbing attack. (Didem Tali)

“But even here my rent is 450 TL [$119] a month. I haven’t been able to pay the rent for a while. I am afraid the landlady might kick me out soon — and I don’t blame her. I asked for help from the local authorities and municipality, but they were reluctant to help me since I am a trans woman,” Er, a former sex worker who can no longer work due to a disability, added.

Er’s neighborhood has been going through rapid transformation over the last few years. From her window, she can see a mixture of old and rundown buildings, as well as ongoing constructions to replace them with new and upmarket residences.

“Look — they came so close. The next building to be demolished could as well be mine,” Er said, pointing at the new buildings at the end of her street. “I wake up every day with the noise of the constructions and wonder what would I do if I lose this place too.”

Since Er cannot work, “I only survive with the help of friends — who are also transgender sex workers,” she said, she has no source of income. “But nobody [in the transgender sex worker community] has money anymore, so they cannot help me much either,” she added

Oksan Er is one of the thousands of transgender women who severely feel the toll of the urban transformations in central Istanbul.

Turkey is the most dangerous place to be a transgender person in Europe. According to Trans Respect versus Transphobia, there were 43 lethal hate crimes against transgender individuals between January 2008 and April 2016.

Tarlabasi, an inner-city ghetto in Istanbul, has traditionally been associated by Istanbulites with crime, drugs, sex work and poverty — although it’s just a stone’s throw away from the iconic Taksim Square. That said, with its steep hills, crooked and narrow cobblestone streets, Tarlabasi had also always been a diverse and a relatively progressive neighborhood to embrace many of Istanbul’s marginalized people, such as Romani communities, rural Kurds — and most recently, Syrian refugees. Hence, over many years, Tarlabasi has also been the accepted home of Istanbul’s transgender community. Trans women were attracted by the low prices and felt safer from hate crimes living together as a community. Some even began to acquire properties there.

When the conservative Istanbul Municipality introduced the “Urban Transformation Project” to improve and rebuild Istanbul’s inner neighborhoods by demolishing the old houses and building new ones, the scheme forced many transgender people to move out of their properties. Those who already owned homes were compensated at a fraction of the real cost.

“The message is clear, we [transgender women] are not wanted in the city centers,” said Kivilcim Arat, a board member of the Istanbul LGBTT Solidarity Association. She believes the Urban Transformation Project also aims to reduce the visibility of transgender individuals by pricing them out.

Kivilcim Arat, a board member of the Istanbul LGBTT Association, who lost her home due to security threats from her neighborhood. (Didem Tali)

Arat, who also lives in the area, also had her fair share of housing issues. The double burden of the top-down gentrification and the recent rising social conservatism in Turkey are making the lives of transgender communities tougher than ever, she explained.

“Like in most countries in the world, transgender women in Turkey don’t have any other economic means other than sex work,” Arat said.

“If we are lucky enough to find and afford housing, we are usually required to pay double the usual rent. Even then, we become targets in the neighborhood very easily.”

Arat herself recently had to abandon her flat of five years, due to assaults and death threats.

“Since the failed military coup attempt [in July 2016], there’s a stricter police control everywhere. There are pro-government gangs in the neighborhoods who call themselves ‘Democracy Wardens’,” she explained. The ‘Democracy Wardens’ patrolled the neighborhoods at night and harassed transgender women like Arat, she said.

“They assaulted me, threatened to kill me, threw dozens of glass beer bottles on me and eventually forced me to abandon my flat overnight,” Arat recalled.

“I wasn’t doing any sex work recently. But when I became homeless, I went back to sex work to save money to get a new place. And sex work became more difficult to do than ever with the pressure from the police and the ‘Democracy Wardens’ since the coup — which is another factor that drives most of us transgender women into poverty.”

In the face of severe discrimination and gentrification as well as the accelerated economic difficulties, the transgender community in Istanbul might continue to get poorer, thus become more vulnerable to hate crimes. Especially the disabled members of this community such as Er, who rely on the help of their peers, are more fragile than ever.

The street in which Oksan Er lives has been going through a significant transformation, leading her to worry that she’ll lose her home soon. (Didem Tali)

That said, Er still feels luckier compared to one of her Tarlabasi neighbors, Serpil [who declined to give her surname], a 52-year-old transgender woman suffering from late-stage colon cancer.

Serpil, who is the upstairs neighbor of Er, says she gave up on her cancer treatment a while ago due to poverty and the discrimination she experienced in the health system as a trans person.

She hasn’t left her dimly lit, tiny room in months. She spends her days on the bed, watching television.

Turkey, classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, has universal health care. Yet, many marginalized citizens like Serpil cannot tap into it. When asked why she doesn’t pursue her treatment further, she says it’s too complicated and not worth it.

“I gave up,” she said, lying in her bed and looking at the television with the corner of her eye. “I am just waiting to die here,” Serpil added, with a shrug.

Serpil has been suffering from late-stage colon cancer but she says she ‘gave up’ on her treatment. (Didem Tali)

Despite her poor health condition and the pain she has been in as a late-stage colon cancer sufferer, she’s been only on non-prescription painkillers to deal with this. Similar to Er, she has also been surviving with the help of the community and is worried what might happen to her if she loses her tiny room.

“A lot of the old apartments in this area [like the one we are living in] have been demolished. It’ll probably be our turn soon,” said Serpil. She has no idea where she would go and what she would do when that happens.

“I just hope I die before that happens,” Serpil added.