I caught up with Mustafa Korkmaz of Istanbul Pride Travel to talk about what life is like for LGBTQ people in Turkey.
What was your inspiration for establishing IstanbulGay.com?
I launched Instanbulgay.com in 2002. Before that I was managing some gay venues. For one of the venues, I made a free hosting website in English - just for fun. A lot of LGBTQ tourists started getting in contact, asking questions about gay life and gay venues. I was trying to help non-Turkish people by providing information. That became my inspiration for Istanbulgay.com.
What sort of response did you get when you launched IstanbulGay.com?
After only a few months, some of the small tourist hotels wanted to be listed on the website as gay-friendly. Within a year, I had over 10 hotels listed. Around that time, I met Derya - a lesbian who was working in a travel agency. We decided to collaborate, and that led to us adding travel services to the information we were providing on the website.
What’s the LGBTQ scene like in Istanbul?
Although the number of LGBTQ venues is less than similar-sized cities in Western countries, there’s still a vibrant community and a vibrant scene.
There are around 20 LGBTQ bars, clubs, and coffee shops in Istanbul, and around 6 gay-friendly bathhouses.
Istanbul Pride was banned this year, how does that make you feel?
Of course, I’m not happy about the ban, but it was no surprise. The reality is that the Pride march in Istanbul will most probably be banned for at least the next few years.
I’m a secular and liberal person. I’m also an open dissident of the reactionary and autocratic policies of the present Turkish government - not only related to gay issues. Having said that, I need to make some clarifications. Since the Gazi protest in 2013, the government doesn’t let anyone - including opposition parties, or labour unions - to organise any political gatherings around Taksim square. There have been LGBTQ Pride marches in other smaller cities, such as Izmir and Antalya, as well as in some universities.
The reason I feel the need to make such an explanation is because this ban and similar policies of the government have been turned into a black propaganda against all Turkish people, and it’s being used as an excuse to say xenophobic and racist things. I experience this myself personally, every time I promote an LGBTQ activity on the internet. It’s become seriously annoying for me that people write irrelevant political comments under my travel-related posts. I don’t want to sound defensive, but I think LGBTQ people should be worrying about rising racism and xenophobia in the West just as much as the policies of the Turkish government. As a liberal person, I think that this is an international issue, and LGBTQ people should fight against it, rather than being a part of it.
Is Turkey a good destination for LGBTQ travellers?
I can’t say that Turkey is the most liberal country for LGBTQ people, but I can say that Turkey is a country that LGBTQ people can visit comfortably.
Homosexuality has never been illegal in Turkey. Turkey is not perfect in terms of LGBTQ rights, but it’s much more liberal than most western LGBTQ people expect. We have dozens of LGBTQ rights organisations, LGBTQ venues, and hundreds of LGBTQ websites. There are lots of gay, queer, and trans celebrities appearing all over national television programs. One of the most popular singer in Turkey is Bulent Ersoy, who is trans - she hosts television programs and is well-respected. We now also have Mabel Matiz - a popular new singer who is openly gay and an LGBTQ activist. His latest song - Oyle Kolaysa - has been viewed almost 170 million times in only six months.
This is just one proof that millions of Turkish people obviously don’t care if he is gay or not. We have many other openly gay writers, actors, TV personalities, YouTubers, and social media stars. Besides Istanbul, we have a number of gay-friendly vacation destinations such as Bodrum, Antalya, and Marmaris.
Turkey is a beautiful country that everyone should visit at least once. The people are very friendly and hospitable, and it has so many different things to offer.
Do people use dating apps?
Grindr is still banned banned, unfortunately. The official explanation is that Grindr isn’t banned because of its gay content, but because of pornography.
Hornet is the most popular app used by locals, and GROWLr is popular among bears. Plus, there are hundreds of local websites, Facebook groups, and Turkish dating apps.
Most people on the hook-up apps will be able to speak English. If you’re not looking for a rent boy it’s best to clarify that early on, so you’re not wasting time chatting with someone who would need to be paid.
Normal safety rules apply, be cautious, meet them in your hotel or at a public venue, conceal your valuables.
Are things getting better for LGBTQ people living in Turkey?
Despite the reactionary policies of the last 15 years, LGBTQ life in Turkey has actually become more liberal. The internet has played a big role in that. We have a conservative government, but the two main opposition parties are supportive of the LGBTQ community. We are a very diverse country, don’t make the mistake of reducing us to stereotypes.
What advice would you give LGBT travellers planning to visit Turkey?
Turkish people are very hospitable and nice people. In general, you’ll feel welcome and as safe.
But, Turkey is a socially conservative country - we don’t hold hands, or kiss in the street.
Most Turkish people speak less English than in other European countries, but people who are working in the tourism and hospitality industry will generally speak English and other European languages, so language isn’t really a barrier for visitors.
The crime rate in Istanbul is quite low, but you still need to be cautious, as you would in any city. The most common issue is robbery - it’s unlikely that you would be targeted in central locations, or gay bars and clubs, but you might be at risk if you went somewhere with someone you didn’t know, or if you were carrying cash when cruising in a park. It’s best not to go cruising in parks, this can be quite dangerous.
Don’t agree to go to a local guy’s place. If you want to hook-up with a local guy, use your hotel, or a public venue such as a hamam or a sauna.
Avoid the tourist-hustlers who usually hang around Taksim and sometimes around Sultanahmet districts. They’ll try to take you to some scam clubs to rip you off. Your bill can be up to several thousand Euros, depending how far you follow your basic instincts instead of your logic. If you’re in these neighbourhoods, steer clear of anyone who is instantly too friendly, no matter what their stories are.
There are some unscrupulous taxi drives who may try to over-charge tourists. Ask your hotel to call a reliable taxi company, or ask up-front how much the trip will cost. Try and use smaller banknotes to pay the fare to avoid any issues with getting the correct change.
The location of your hotel in Istanbul is really important. Avoid staying in hotels that aren’t in the city centre. Public transport isn’t easy to use, and there’s always a lot of traffic. You can waste a lot of time and money trying to get across town. The districts in Istanbul that I’d recommend are:
- Harbiye, Taksim, Beyoglu, or Galata. These are good neighbourhoods if you want to be close to night-life, shopping, and busy restaurants, cafes, and bars. It’s this precinct where you’ll find almost all of the gay bars and clubs.
- Sultanahmet-Sirkeci-Beyazit. This precinct is best if you want to be close to the historical sights. Most hotels around here are boutique hotels. It’s not far from Taksim.
- Laleli, and Aksaray. These are central neighbourhoods and the hotels can be cheaper, but they’re generally of lower quality and the area isn’t as nice.
Where do you like to go out in Istanbul?
Before midnight, I’d go to Rocinante, Haspa, or Chianty - they’re all fairly similar. Durak Bar attracts the bears.
On a Saturday night, I’d go to Superfabridc, or Love Club - they’re European-style gay clubs with good music and air-conditioning, but higher prices. Tekyon is a popular club with more of a local feel.
If you’re at a gay bar or club, you’ll probably be approached by local rent boys - you obviously need to be a bit cautious in that situation.
For women, there’s only one lesbian club, Gia Club.
Which is your favourite cafe in Istanbul?
I go to Arjin Cafe, or Espresso Lab. They’re both gay-friendly.
Which is your favourite restaurant in Istanbul?
For a special occasion I’d go to Besinci Kat. Otherwise, I eat in a number of simple, local restaurants.
Which is your favourite hamam in Istanbul?
Firuzaga, and Davutpasa would be the ones I’d recommend if you wanted to experience a hamam. These aren’t gay-owned, and they’re not identified as gay venues, but the overwhelming majority of their clients are gay. If you go in and ask them if it’s a gay hamam, they’ll probably say no. They’re not particularly luxurious. The entrance fee is about USD$15, and massage services are extra.
If you’re looking for an escort or a rent boy, then the best option is Aquarius Sauna. The owners are very friendly. The services of the rent boys are described as massage. It’s best to agree on the price of the massage in advance.
What are some of the places or sights in Turkey that you would recommend to LGBTQ travellers?
Istanbul is the capital of LGBTQ life in Turkey.
I think Bodrum could be considered as the Mykonos of Turkey. There aren’t as many as gay venues and nude beaches there, but it’s a very gay-friendly and liberal town in general. It’s a popular summer vacation destination for Turkish LGBTQ people.
I also like less commercialised places, such as Butterfly Valley in Fethiye, and Olimpos in Antalya.
Other popular summer towns and cities such as Marmaris, Alanya, and Kusadasi are also places where LGBTQ travellers can feel very comfortable.
If you’re into history, then Cappadocia would be top of the list, then Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Nemrut Mountain.
Turkey has a lot to offer - plenty of sunshine, beautiful beaches, history, and very hospitable people. It has both Eastern and Western influences - it’s a unique part of the world.