I left Turkey because I am gay ✈

Five years ago today, I left Istanbul. Turkish people don’t like it when I tell them why.


I left Turkey because I am gay.

I left, and since then I have been accused of being part of the brain drain. At the age of 23, I am an artist who has shown work in many countries around the world, and I am also the youngest artist to be included in the permanent collection of the Istanbul Modern Museum.

With a background in Middle Eastern politics and photography, I am currently getting my Master of Fine Arts degree in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

People are telling me to come back, that Turkey needs minds like mine.

And I smile, and I tell them:

I left Turkey because I am gay.

I remember my last night in Istanbul. I have been back many times, but I remember August 18, 2009.

There was a sharp moment of silence as my mother and I both sipped the bad red wine. It was not the tangy taste, the wine was merely an excuse to be silent. We both had things we did not have the heart to say. I had glanced at her from above my glass, and saw that her eyes seemed preoccupied. I couldn’t imagine what mine looked like. Unable to process fear, excitement, happiness, nostalgia and lack of sleep simultaneously, my nervous system seemed to have shut down earlier that day. I placed the glass back on the table, playing with the water ring its base had made, drawing abstract shapes on the dark, polished surface.

The ridiculously nice waitress bounced towards our table, and I offered her the digital camera I had been holding. My mother explained that it was my last night before college, and the waitress aawwed before taking a picture. “Çok tatlısınız!” she beamed, You two are so sweet! I laughed, while my mother smiled silently and took the camera. She looked at the picture in silence, and I felt a knot in my throat. My white chocolate chip brownie with extra vanilla ice cream stood unfinished on the small white plate. I couldn’t bring myself to eat.

My mother, reading me in an instant, said “Bitirmeyeceksin galiba?”

I suppose you won’t be finishing it? I exhaled from my nostrils, smiling before shaking my head in a wordless yes.

I stared at the blackboard they had up behind me, which had a handwritten list of the specials and cocktails, and asked the waitress if I could write something on it. She disappeared to the back for a second before returning with a cup full of chalk. Her enthusiasm was making me feel less apprehensive, and I gave her a full smile when I thanked her and stood up. What to write?

I thought about drawing something but that would be a cop out from acknowledging the emotional stuff.

Thank you for a wonderful meal, as always.

We… I scrubbed the We —the plural was conveniently impersonal, and I did not want to hide.

I love you.

I hastily added a dandelion drawing, my art signature. I wasn’t sure if I was using the restaurant as a proxy for the city. I stared at the chalk board for a minute, then, growing weary of my endless self-analysis, went back to the table. Mother and I left after receiving many good wishes from the staff, and I made a mental note to make it a tradition to eat there each time before I left for America.

Back home, packing took hours and hours. I was still sure I did not need to carry the 10 pound quilt with me, but my mother kept telling me Ohio nights would be cold. The debate went on until we weighed the bags and realized we were past the limit by 20 pounds on the bag with the quilt. I grinned as she took it out. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she sighed and said “Go to bed. I’ll finish this one and then we’ll check again in the morning.”

It was a strange August night, and I felt as though the world was ending. After having dreamt of leaving, of going to college for as long as I could remember, the proximity of my departure was… peculiar. Unsurprisingly, my insomnia was stronger than ever, as I stared at my ceiling, unblinking.

It was a good thing I had a large mental archive of appropriate songs and TV shows for this night. A montage of moments from my high school experiences blended with scenes from Dawson’s Creek, and naturally the theme song of the show was stuck in my head.

I don’t wanna wait, for my life to be over….

I must have slept, maybe for an hour or two. I woke up, confused. Had we left?

Still in the bedroom. OK. Breathe.

My heart pounding, I turned in my bed to face the wall filled with my friends’ photographs. I traced the glossy surfaces with my fingers, thinking about them. Some had already left for college. Others would stay in Istanbul.

It took me a very long time to come to terms with it, but after a very long staring match with the ceiling (not sure who won that one), I dared to say the words to myself:

I am going to be alone again.

And I had not been alone for a very long time. I loved solitude, but not loneliness, and it had taken me a long time to find people I could click with in Istanbul. Despite being cosmopolitan, the city that I loved the most was not teeming with people who could embrace (or rather, overlook) my homosexuality, or put up with my high maintenance enthusiasm. Over the course of high school, I had been lucky enough to discover a wonderful group of people I thought of as family, but as college loomed, between America, Europe and Turkey, we were spreading pretty thin.

The idea of solitude kept other thoughts of departure at bay, but as dawn grew closer, I knew it was only a while before the knot in my throat would reclaim its throne.

I contemplated about meeting boys there, in Oberlin. I hated how clueless I was about dating. I had, after all, only been on two, maybe three dates with a guy who had later disappeared. We had only kissed once, and that had been so unbelievably terrifying that I had gone home and vomited, then refused to leave my room — this room — for days, plagued by guilt. I shook my head, trying to forget about the whole experience.

I listened to the sounds of the house as my mother packed things and prepared, a zipper’s whoop here, a metallic clank there. I had a habit of doing this if I woke up earlier than I was supposed to. She picked things up in the bathroom, then put them back. I imagined her plucking her eyebrows, a visual from my mental stock of images of her doing things, but I knew she had done that the night before. She must have been combing her hair.

I looked at my clock, and the heartless gray screen told me that it was 5:59. The two dots blinked a little too fast for my liking. Then again, the concept of leaving seemed to have accelerated time from the moment it hit me at the beginning of August.

The sun was not up yet, I could tell because every summer the sun would shine through my wooden blinds and warm me awake. I stared at the blinds absent-mindedly, realizing that I would not be woken by the Turkish sun for a very long time. Did that matter?

I inhaled deeply, wanting to keep a part of my room, my bed and my home locked in my chest. My alarm rang, and right on cue, my mother walked in to the room to make sure I was up. I exhaled, then left my room to take a shower.

The rest of the following forty-something minutes was a blur. I can remember a large portion of it, but this is difficult enough to write without me performing an emotional autopsy of every single moment of that heavy, heavy morning. I try not to remember anything about it other than feeling numb and slightly nauseated.

When we made it to the airport, accompanied by my best friend Ekin and his mother, my eyes scanned the immediate area, past the people queuing in front of the X-ray machines and metal detectors, wondering where Emir, Genco, Meltem and Ceylan were. My mother told me that we should check-in before calling my “farewell committee.” I smiled for the first time that morning, happy to have someone with me who knew me so well. She teased me, muttering something about it being unbelievable that I made them get up to see me off. I hadn’t made them, they were more than happy to! Passing through the metal detector, I smiled inwardly as I knew I would not beep, possibly for the first time ever, as a result of careful planning and packing every single thing I would normally keep in my pockets in my carry-on.

I flashed a smile to the security lady. I noticed that the numbness had not spread everywhere; There were parts of me that still had some traces of emotion left, as if my brain had desperately blocked off the numbness from taking over, the way the flooded sections of the Titanic were blocked off in the movie. Not that I was about to sink, but it worked as good as any visual in my tired state.

We got in line for the check-in, and then it was Ekin’s turn to leave. Ekin, who was like a brother, who had been my best friend since I was three.

He had taught me how to swim, and how to get past the first level in Super Mario Bros. I hated the idea of letting him go, because he had a year until going to college. He would be going through everything that I had went through in my senior year of high school, and I would not be there for him. He would turn 18 in 2 weeks, and I would be in Oberlin.

My nostrils flared in frustration as we hugged tightly, and I managed to smile at him as he handed his goodbye letter to me. I took the envelope and put in in my bag next to the other letters I had made friends write. Smiling, he said “Good luck bro,” pounded his fist on his heart twice and then did the peace sign, our private joke that I mirrored. It made me laugh, if only for a second, and then he turned around and walked away. My mother smiled at me as we walked further in the check in line, and finally reached a man who asked for my passport and my I-20. Smiling, I gave him my passport. He looked at it, then looked at me again, expectant. When he saw me staring back with a smile, he asked for my I-20 again. I told him that I was fairly certain that all of my papers were in the passport. He frowned, then left to talk with another official. My mother asked me what I-20 was, and I shrugged.

The echoing announcements of the various flights and gate numbers made me feel good. I had been to this airport countless times, and I was now realizing that I did not feel homesick whatsoever. Some part of my brain still considered this home. I looked around the space, observing the familiar metallic architecture and the navy blue uniforms of the airline workers. The man who had my passport started walking back towards us when I realized something very, very important: I knew exactly what the I-20 was, and I also knew where it was. My mother was going to freak out. Oh God. I bit my tongue. Maybe, just maybe, this would work out.

The man came back and told me that he required another piece of paper, that proved that I was going to Oberlin, called the I-20, which was definitely not in my passport. My mother looked at me with wide eyes, then proceeded to talk rapidly with the official when she realized that I did not have the paper with me. She was quick like that.

I could not hear them, however, and suddenly the ceiling was spinning and I could have sworn that my sweat was ice cold and I felt sick to my stomach as a single thought passed my mind: I will not be to be able to go.

I sat down on the stone floor of the airport, ignoring the people staring at me, drawing in ragged breaths. The words panic attack came to mind, but they did not make much sense. I didn’t have panic attacks. Psh.

Air seemed to have left my lungs though.

From my peripheral vision, I saw my mother, who looked at me and asked two questions:

“Nerede” followed by “Bu kağıdın varlığından neden şu ana kadar haberim yoktu?”

Where is it? and Why did I not know about this paper until now?

“Evde, mavi kutuda.”

It’s at home, in the blue box. I said, drawing in shallow breaths. The blue box where all of my important documents were, the one in the hallway, in the middle bookshelf.

Eyes ablaze with fury, she told me to call Ekin to go get it, and with trembling hands I dialled his number. No answer. A familiar “Helloooo!” came from behind me and I turned around from where I was sitting to see Meltem and Ceylan walking towards me, eyes puffy from having woken up ridiculously early for a summer day. They seemed confused, and it took me a moment to realize that it was quite odd for me to be sitting on the floor and, judging by the grumblings from behind me, blocking the line. Reading my frustrated expression, Meltem’s smile turned into a frown and she asked me what was wrong.

The rest is a blur again, and I found myself on a cab going back home to get the I-20. The only problem was that I lived in Istanbul and Istanbul morning traffic is a force to be reckoned with. A little less than two hours away from my flight, for which there were no alternatives because all flights were booked until September, I was feeling increasingly pessimistic.

Meltem and Ceylan tried their best to cheer me up in the cab, remarking on how, at least, it wasn’t a sad morning. While I appreciated that, I am, still to this day, not sure if I preferred the adrenaline over teary goodbyes. We had barely made it on to the E-5 when my mother called and told me to come back to the airport and that it was senseless for me to be going back home, then proceeded to explain to me that because I had a French passport, I could enter America as a French tourist without a visa but I would have to go to Canada with my I-20 and re-enter the US as a student.

Overwhelmed, my mind took a minute to process this, and I was about to criticize the whole visa system when I remembered that it was best to comply and be silent. Another blur, and I was at the airport gates explaining Meltem and Ceylan how to bypass the alarm system at our house, and where they could find the blue box. The same security guard lady at the gates allowed me to pass through without going in line. I felt grateful for the kindness of strangers. I ran to the check-in desk where my mother, eyes still burning, gazed at me for a very long moment, then resumed her debate with the desk official.

It struck me then that I would be sitting next to that angry woman for around 12 hours. I groaned. Checking in my bag, I practically ran away from my mother and went to find Emir and Genco, who had told me that they would be at the airport. I found them at Gloria Jean’s Cafe, sitting with puffy eyes and for the second time that day I thanked whatever universal force provided me with friends who found the power in themselves to get up that morning to see me off.

“Whatsup bro?” Emir asked, and I smiled. Where to begin?

Genco asked me what happened. I started to fill them in and they both started laughing halfway through the story. I laughed too, more at ease this time because it made more sense than crying over it. Looking at each other for a moment, as if they had communicated telepathically, they both started to crack jokes, trying to cheer me up. I felt grateful for the millionth time that morning, for my friends.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a text from Meltem:

We have the document. I repeat, file retrieved!! On our way.

My mother sat down with us and proceeded to explain to me how things were going to work out at customs. I showed her the text, and watched her shoulders relax ever so slightly. Her death glare was cut short when Genco cracked another joke, and I used the comic relief to escape to the bathroom. Inside the low ceilinged, grey tiled space, the smell of ammonia and chlorine burned my nostrils. Very appropriate for a Turkish public restroom. I let cold water run over my hands, looking at my reflection the mirror. My eyes looked awful,my face was bloated and pasty as if I hadn’t seen the sun in days. I hoped no one attractive would be flying with us, as I could not bear the thought of being the creepy guy who stared.

Two hours later, I stared at my I-20, my sweat still ice cold, my shoulders tense on the plane seat. My mom looked at me, saying something vaguely along the lines of my actions being unbelievable. I nodded, then took out my iPod Nano. I pressed play on the playlist titled On The Go 3, my departure playlist that I hadn’t had the courage to name.

Glasnost’s No Survivor filled my insides with nostalgic synths, and I leaned on my mother, closing my eyes. She put her head on mine.

I was still infinitely terrified as the plane lifted.

Our connection was at Chicago, and O’ Hare airport was a maze. Finally reaching our gate, I stared outside at the sticky, grey, bad summer weather. I had barely slept on the plane, it was raining, and my God, I felt so scared, so awful.

I felt so small.

My mother asked me what the announcer was saying, as the muffled digital voice was indecipherable to someone who did not speak English very fluently. I listened. They were definitely announcing in Spanish. Definitely. I listened hard as the announcements came, one after another. Five minutes in, still Spanish.

I very gradually realized that they were, in fact, in English. And I had no idea what they were saying. I turned to my mother with wide eyes. “I don’t understand them either.” She began to laugh.

I had spent the past decade priding myself on my mastery of the language, so my ego remained bruised for a couple of minutes before I laughed too. I glanced around uneasily. There was a Turkish Airlines logo visible on the tail of a plane waiting on the apron outside. It was Probably flying back to Turkey. I wasn’t ready for this.

I turned to my mother and, mustering up all of my courage, said “Eve gitmek istiyorum.”

I want to go home.

She eyed me carefully before smiling. “Ohoo! Bu daha başlangıç yavrum. ‘Tamam, gidelim!’ desem dönecek misin?”

Hoho! This is only the beginning sweetheart. If I said ‘Alright, let’s go!’ would you go back?

Swallowing thickly, I nodded. She laughed. “O kadar kolay değil, hem daha varmadık bile! Seni muhteşem şeyler bekliyor Sarpiko.”

It’s not that easy, and we aren’t even there yet! Wonderful things await you Sarpiko.

She put her hand on my back. I trembled.

It has been 5 years since then. I miss Istanbul, I am hungry for it. I see photographs of the city and something in me shakes with yearning. I have a home in Chicago now, where I certainly feel at home, but every now and then, I wake up in the middle of the night and I miss the city I grew up in.

I left Turkey because I am gay. And no matter how liberal, advanced, evolved or socially progressive you may believe yourself to be, being a gay teenager in the Middle East brings with it a powerful, crushing sense of loneliness that nothing in the world can fix.

I still remember discovering Queer As Folk on Youtube, and watching the first couple of episodes with my heart pounding and the audio as low as possible. I remember breathing a little more easily when friends who did not know about my sexual orientation laughed as we watched Will & Grace. I remember how scared I was, and how frustrating it was to not have anyone who truly understood this… this thing. No one to guide me — no peers, no mentors. No gays around. I was the only out gay guy in my high school, and I had been lucky enough to be surrounded by brilliant and highly liberal kids who, for the most part, were past homophobia and bullying. But I remained an enigma, a conversation topic, something exotic that they had had close encounters with.

Did I have friends? Absolutely. I was surrounded by people who loved and respected me. But the fear I refer to, and the solitude — those do not simply vanish. The notion that if you choose to live your love life as visibly as your friends (bear in mind, we’re talking about Istanbul, so really it’s just kisses on the cheek or resting your head on his shoulder kind of visibility) you can get stabbed to death on your way back from a bar, hangs with you every single weekend. And for those of you who are under the illusion that perhaps we have moved on, that things are better, let me tell you:

Despite whatever illusion of development Turkey may present, its increasingly conservative and hostile climate continues to grow. I am still met with strong disapproval when I voice my sexual orientation as an element in my decision making, or my artistic practice — even people close to me tell me that I should get over it, keep it to myself. That I should stop talking about it.

Because being gay is so passé.

Because we’ve all dealt with your homosexuality. Let’s move on.

I will stop talking about being gay when being gay is no longer relevant. When it does not mean little boys in rural Turkey get sexually molested or beaten to death. When young men are not driven to commit suicide by their own families for the sake of honor. And when I can bring my boyfriend home, to Istanbul, and hold his hand on the subway ride to Taksim.

Until that day, let this be a reminder to my beloved homeland.

I left Turkey because I am gay.

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