The Case of Bulent Ersoy Case Response

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5HFRQVWUXFWLQJWKH7UDQVJHQGHUHG6HOIDVD0XVOLP 1DWLRQDOLVW8SSHU&ODVV:RPDQ7KH&DVHRI%XOHQW (UVR\ 5XVWHP(UWXJ$OWLQD\ WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, Volume 36, Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2008, pp. 210-229 (Article) 3XEOLVKHGE\7KH)HPLQLVW3UHVV DOI: 10.1353/wsq.0.0090 For additional information about this article http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/wsq/summary/v036/36.3-4.altinay.html Access provided by Binghamton University (3 Feb 2016 21:50 GMT) Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as A Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman: The Case of Bulent Ersoy Rustem Ertug Altinay 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 [WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2008)] © 2008 by Rustem Ertug Altinay. All rights reserved. Ertug Altinay ■ 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 linked with the culture of the gecekondu, literally the “night settlements” which mushroomed around Turkey’s large industrial cities after the Menderes government program of rural regeneration in the 1950s produced a large rural labor surplus” (1989, 27). To the urban elite, arabesk was a new and lower-quality musical form. In this context, Ersoy decided to use this dissatisfaction with arabesk and constructed his public image as a 211 212 ■ Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as a Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman “classicist.” In other words, he appropriated Turkish classical music and made it his trademark so as to win a place in a highly competitive market. He catered to an audience that wanted to consume “authentic” or “elite” classical Turkish music as opposed to the “popular,” “commercial” variety. With a singing style extremely similar to that of Muzeyyen Senar—a popular singer of classical Turkish music who at the time was at the height of her career and, in some sense, Ersoy’s patron—he became the lead singer at Maksim, the most prestigious nightclub in the country. He was the second lead male singer at that time, after Zeki Muren (1931–96)—a flamboyant queer male singer, as was Ersoy. In fact, one could argue that Ersoy had appropriated an image with which the audience was already familiar, through Zeki Muren, who maintained it until the late 1960s, when he adopted a style that was an interesting combination of Elvis and Liberace. In other words, while Muren was adopting a new image, Ersoy was taking on Muren’s previous one. After Ersoy established his name in the Turkish music scene, he started singing arabesk, for financial reasons (Tulgar 2004). This increased his both popularity and income immensely. As was customary for such singers, Ersoy, like Muren, also made a number of movies with popular female stars of the Turkish cinema. In these mainstream love stories, Ersoy would act the young, naive, maybe somewhat androgynous, yet heterosexual, man. This accorded with his public image. Even though, later, Ersoy would claim that her friends had always seen her as a woman, at the time Ersoy would be visible in the press with his fake fiancées, constructing his image as heterosexual and male. Yet, as Pinar Selek argues, Ersoy and Muren challenged the codes of masculinity in Turkey with their public personas (2007, 111). They did not have the masculinity of other male singers such as Munir Nureddin Selcuk, Orhan Gencebay, or later, Ibrahim Tatlises. Ersoy’s most significant attributes were probably his rather naive politeness and somewhat androgynous style. Thus, through a bodily and linguistic performance as a man who was openly gay in his private life, yet with a heterosexual public image, Bulent Ersoy opened a liminal sphere that challenged the codes of masculinity. According to Selek, this was why he was loved by women. In the Turkish movie Evlidir Ne Yapsa Yeridir, from 1978, women embark on a kind of feminist revolution; among their demands are male domestic help, new clothes, and listening to Bulent Ersoy. Ertug Altinay ■ Early Post-operation Years When Ersoy was physiologically male, he would usually wear a white tuxedo or a dark suit and bow tie. Unlike Muren, at the time, he never appeared in garments or accessories that challenged established masculine dress codes, such as mini-shorts, ostrich feathers, or sequins or wore hairstyles or jewelery that were normally seen on women. It was only after his hormone treatment began that he started to appear on stage in female attire. Arguably because Ersoy wanted to claim the female body, his costumes were particularly revealing. In 1980, after the military coup, when she was singing in a nightclub at the Izmir International Fair, Ersoy did not deny the audience its desire to see her newly developing breasts. Proving her femininity in this way resulted in her arrest and she served forty-five days in prison. In 1981, she underwent a sex change operation in London. This would change her life in ways that she probably never expected. Being a transsexual was not easy during the notoriously oppressive military regime. She had to go through several physical examinations as well as an exhausting legal case to be recognized as a woman. Her court defense was very significant for the construction of her public image as a transgender individual. She underlined that she was not an anarchist, but a loyal citizen who did not aim to do anything against the social order. By emphasizing her patriotism, she intended to avoid the fate of other victims of the military regime, during which 650,000 people were taken into custody, 230,000 were tried, fifty were executed, and 229 “died of unnatural causes” while in custody (Gunersel 2007). Ersoy was not the only transgendered person who was at risk following the coup; and in fact, the trans community had been suffering from state violence since the 1960s. Back then, the community was quite small and most of its members lived in Istanbul (Cingoz 2007). As their chances for employment were extremely limited, they tried to survive by either doing odd jobs or taking up prostitution. As prostitutes working in the streets, they were always easy targets for the police. In 1973, the first brothels for transgendered prostitutes was opened in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. There, transgender people enjoyed relative security and regular health checks. In the late 1970s, the “social democratic” CHP government started a war against these brothels. It provided no alternative employment opportunity or any other support for the trans community, it just tore down the brothels—only for them to be reconstructed by the brothel workers. Transphobic policies intensified with the military coup 213 214 ■ Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as a Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman of 1980. For one thing, the brothels were closed down for good. It was extremely difficult for a member of the trans community to find an apartment; they therefore had to share hotel rooms. When the brothels were closed down, many of the workers were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Some were held in custody for weeks, and some were reportedly killed by police and their bodies were thrown into a river (Gunersel 2007). The approach of the military regime toward transgendered prostitutes was similar to that of the social democrats, but harsher: not only were the brothels closed down, but the doors of the only other sector that employed transgendered people, entertainment, was now closed to them. Performances by all transgendered entertainers were banned, and many had to take up prostitution as well. In this political atmosphere, Ersoy was the only person who had the power to have her voice heard. What was striking in her attitude was that she was not making a claim in the name of queer people or the trans community—she was only trying to save herself. For one thing, she had found an interesting way to explain her gender status as a woman: “My mother thought I was a girl when she was pregnant with me. Maybe that is the reason why my male hormones did not develop.” With such comments, she was clearly rejecting transgenderism as an opportunity to deny established gender codes. She desired only to be accepted as a woman. She did not have any intention to fight against heterosexism either. In an interview with the newspaper Gunaydin April 1981, Ersoy said: “The people whom I find most disgusting are homosexuals. I am so glad that I am not one” (Ersoy qtd in Isiguzel 2000). With these statements and her own pseudoscientific theories, Ersoy claimed a female identity, and a strikingly homophobic one. But as far as the court was concerned, her efforts were in vain: her performances were banned, and she was unable to work in Turkey. Her right to work—a human right—had been violated. During this period, she had to work in Germany and France. She performed for Turkish migrant workers, singing what she now calls “market music,” a position of lower status for a singer who had worked at the most exclusive nightclubs in Turkey. Among other things, she had to sell her jewelery, and at one point, she attempted suicide. While her public performances were banned, she still made albums and low-budget films for video. In Turkey, she would occasionally perform in nightclubs, where she would pretend to be part of the audience and sing from her table. She also worked as a model and continued giving interviews. Thus, Ertug Altinay ■ she not only remained a popular public figure, keeping her fans remembering and missing her, but also persisted in affirming her female identity, in the clichéd heterosexual romances in which she acted, now taking the woman’s part, and in the erotic photographs for which she posed. In 1988, Ersoy was permitted by the neoliberal government of Turgut Özal to obtain a female ID and work in Turkey. It is worth noting that she had become a showpiece for the government. Before her sex change, he was a very popular singer and the public had been longing for her comeback. By giving her a female ID and allowing her to perform in Turkey, the government achieved two goals. First, to increase their own legitimacy, they presented the case of Ersoy as expressing the epitome of personal freedom.3 Second, by granting Ersoy her work permit the Özal regime differentiated itself from the highly unpopular military regime that had preceded it. Thus, the neoliberal regime and its laissez-faire economic policies were legitimized in the eyes of Ersoy’s fans, especially Turkey’s new bourgeoisie, to whose tastes Ersoy catered, but also the general public. She had become the signifier of an era of freedom and tolerance. The discourse of tolerance is crucial to understanding this process. Ersoy was given a female passport and the right to work not because this was her “right,” but because she was “tolerated” by the regime. The discourse of tolerance is strongly related to the construction of spaces of abjection and their use for the definition and celebration of the “normal” or “legitimate” spheres as well as the nation or the state. Ersoy, as a transgendered individual, was the Other who was to remain in an abject space, yet enjoy the “tolerance” of the regime.4 Stokes notes that Ersoy made an album of classical Turkish music in 1987 “when the debate over the stage performance on [her] was at its height” and “this undoubtedly strengthened the case for the repeal of the ban” (1992, 227). After the ban was repealed, Ersoy again made a number of arabesk albums. It is feasible that Ersoy instrumentalized classical Turkish music to legitimize her singing in the eyes of people who did not enjoy arabesk. When she managed to return to the stage, Ersoy climbed back to the top in no time. She resumed her work in prestigious nightclubs and gave concerts all over the country. Many of her songs became instant hits, and her films enjoyed success at the box office. The Turkish people had gladly accepted her back, and she enjoyed the support of the Özal family, particularly Semra Özal, the prime minister’s wife, leading to Ersoy’s 215 216 ■ Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as a Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman appearing in a televised official celebration even though arabesk singers were rarely given the opportunity to appear on state-owned television at the time (Stokes 1989, 29). But this time, Bulent Ersoy was neither a young flamboyant boy nor the femme fatale of her early post-operation years. Although she was still loved dearly by her fans, her sex change operation was seen as a threat to the heterosexist patriarchal state hegemony during the military regime. She was cornered and had to face the tools of the homophobic and transphobic regime, from medicine to law. When she was back on the stage, she refused to use her transgendered status as a way to challenge gender codes, heterosexism, patriarchy, nationalism, capitalism, or conservatism. Rather, she refused to acknowledge her transgendered status and gradually started to advance an identity as a conservative, Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman. While she continued to sing at the most popular clubs and was dressed by some of the most prominent fashion designers, a significant change in her style became evident. Although glamorous, her costumes were not as revealing as they had been. She did not pose in lingerie or bathing suits anymore. She started to make films with important stars again.5 But unlike her actions in the low-budget films in which she acted in her early post-operation years, when she would appear in lingerie, she did not even kiss the male lead. It would be plausible to say that she was following in the footsteps of Turkan Soray. Arguably the most popular actress in the history of Turkish cinema, Soray had adopted what came to be known as “Soray’s rules”: Don’t undress, don’t kiss, don’t have sex in front of the camera (Buker 2002). Like Soray, Ersoy sought to present her sexuality as that of a woman, yet do it in a more discrete, almost “chaste” way to enjoy greater public acceptance in Turkey, where conservative Islam was on the rise, with the educational policies of the past three decades and the empowerment of the conservative Muslim small capital holders during the Özal regime. Her getting engaged with her boyfriend, Birol Gurkanli, in her early post-operation years also served to project the image that she adhered to the conservative heterosexual norms. Years later, in 1998, when she would marry the much younger Cem Adler, the public discussion would revolve around the age difference between the couple, rather than Ersoy’s transsexualism. In the late 1980s, Ersoy began to emphasize her Muslim identity, including references to Allah in her songs and during her performances, and she continues to wear a veil when she attends funerals. Her emphasis Ertug Altinay ■ on this aspect of her identity peaked in 1995, when she recited the adhan, the Islamic call for prayer, in her album Alaturka 95 and sparked a heated debate. Normally, the adhan is called out by a muezzin from a minaret of a mosque five times a day to summon Muslims for prayers. In 1932, the Atatürk government imposed a Turkish-language adhan to replace the traditional Arabic, to promote Turkish as a liturgical language. This highly unpopular policy, implemented as part of the Kemalist project of modernization, was repealed in 1950. Today, although there are defenders of the policy among the Kemalist modernists, it is virtually impossible to hear the Turkish adhan. By reciting the adhan in Arabic, Ersoy asserted her identity as a conservative Muslim. If she had recited the call to prayer in Turkish, she would have not only expressed her identity as a Kemalist/modernist but also led the media to focus on the language of the adhan. Instead, the media’s focus was Ersoy’s gender, and a huge debate started on whether a woman can recite the adhan or not. This gave Ersoy the opportunity to reaffirm her fait ...
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A Response Paper on the Case of Bulent Ersoy
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A Response Paper on the Case of Bulent Ersoy
According to Altinary (2008), people may happen to have a gender expression or identity
that is different from their actual gender known from birth. It may come into adoption due to an
individual public image, for instance, in the case of Bulent Ersoy. He decided on the ...


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