You Should Know about Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren


I went out one night the first summer I spent in Turkey. It was late evening, and I was quickly walking the length of a wide boulevard in Izmir with an acquaintance. The quickness of my step was due both to the fact that it was nighttime and because the boulevard was lined with prostitutes. As we sped past, cars rolled to a stop all along the stretch and the prostitutes leaned into windows to negotiate. “They’re transsexuals,” my company said. “Transsexual prostitutes.”

I hadn’t noticed, but learned to identify them as I continued to roam the streets of Izmir at night. I would later learn that prostitution is legal in Turkey, but that only women are permitted to work in brothels. (The current government has enacted a number of measures to make it more difficult for brothels to operate, which means that female prostitutes are increasingly being forced out into the street as well; however, transgender street prostitutes seemed, at least in Izmir, to be the norm.) As transgender people in Turkey already tend to live in the margins of society, many are pushed even further into performing street prostitution because widespread prejudice against them makes it difficult to find work outside the sex trade.

Turkey is a land of contractions, however, and the story how LGBT people are treated here is less simple than one might think. Although Turkey’s patriarchal bent is undeniable, and although violence against LGBT people is alarmingly frequent (as illustrated by the bizarre ad I’ve attached below from Amnesty International, which implores us all to add #gayturtle to our tweets in order to spread awareness of Turkey’s homophobia problem), certain LGBT individuals have pushed their way to the top of Turkish society to become icons even among the most conservative and homophobic layers of society.

One of these is Bülent Ersoy, who I first learned about via a conversation I had about feminism and women’s rights with Adem. “Feminists in Turkey often think about feminism too narrowly,” he said. “In conversations about rights for women and LGBT people, few give economics the place they deserve in the discussion. Women, gays, and transgender people are treated really badly here, it’s true, but money can reverse that completely. Just look at Bülent Ersoy. She is rich enough that nobody in Turkey can touch her.”

“Who’s Bülent Ersoy?” I asked.

“Bülent Ersoy is a trans woman,” Adem said. “A very popular singer who became popular while she was still a man. Also, believe me when I say that she looked a lot better when she was a man. Anyway, she got surgery to change her gender and a few years later she was even able to have her gender legally changed. She’s still famous, and really very popular.”

I picked up my phone to google Ersoy. Adem was certainly right about her looking better as a man. Ersoy as a man could have passed as a woman with the help of a bit of eyebrow shaping. Ersoy as a woman – well, nobody would suspect she was born a man, I suppose.

bulent ersoy man

Source: YouTube

Source: Internet Haber

Source: Internet Haber

I started mentioning Bülent Ersoy to different Turkish people to gauge their reactions and get a real idea of her fame. Everybody knew who she was, and most reacted the same way. “Ah yes, Bülent Ersoy. Very famous. Great singer. Looked much prettier as a man.” Eventually, this reaction gave me pause. I began to think about how everybody who spoke about Ersoy’s looks, and particularly her beauty, was implying that one of the functions of a ‘woman’ is to look good. And although women who were born women fight back against this societal expectation sometimes and are generally considered entitled to do so, transgender women do not enjoy this same privilege because the concept of beauty is something we use to judge the ‘womanness’ of somebody who was born with a penis.

That being said, the real reason that Bülent Ersoy has managed to attain and maintain such fame is not the fact that she’s transgender and is not her physical appearance – it’s her music. I’ve included one of her tracks below; the video clocks in at nearly 10 million views, ensuring that nobody can claim Ersoy to be anything but mainstream.

Here is another track, this time with Tarkan, another one of Turkey’s best known singers.

Although by now I am used to being surprised by Turkey’s contractions, Bülent Ersoy’s popularity still shocked me. She even seemed a posterchild for Turkey’s contradictions; as I scrolled through internet photographs of her, I stumbled across a photograph of her wearing hijab. After showing the photograph to Adem, he said, “yes, she wears it when she sings religious songs. Oh, I forgot to tell you, when she got a sex change operation in 1981, the tabloids published a picture of her disembodied penis in a jar.” He googled the picture to show me.

It was a penis all right.

But here she is in a hijab, which she's accessorized beautifully with a feather wrap.

I decided not to post the photograph of the penis, but here is Ersoy herself in a hijab, which she’s accessorized beautifully with an opulent feather wrap, straight eyebrows, and lots and lots of lipliner.

My and Adem’s conversation continued. “There’s another person I have to tell you about,” he said. “Not Bülent Ersoy – before her.” His name was Zeki Müren, and he was like a gay icon in Turkey. He never officially came out as gay, but he dressed very effeminately and wore makeup, and he had a beautiful voice. It doesn’t matter who you are in Turkey – religious, not religious, liberal, conservative, man, woman – Zeki Müren is loved. Universally loved. I think he was one of the best vocalists the world has ever seen. He really sang very beautiful Turkish, and spoke it too for that matter. There are even videos where you can see his incredible diction because he’s just saying tongue-twisters to show it off.

Zeki Müren has been variously compared to David Bowie and Liberace by people who feel like Western readers need some kind of reference point in order to understand his impact. If a further reference point is needed, Müren bears similarities to Neil Patrick Harris for his dual music and film career; Müren appeared in 18 films, usually as a straight male love interest. However, as as Cara Giaimo writes, “comparing [Müren] to others obscures the very particular role he played, and still plays, in his own country.” Zeki Müren wasn’t the David Bowie or Liberace or Neil Patrick Harris of Turkey, but the Zeki Müren of Turkey. Indeed, when Lady Gaga released her album art for her album “Applause” the internet was quick to point out a similar image of Zeki Müren and accuse her of blatant plagiarism. The fact that the Zeki Müren image was clearly photoshopped and couldn’t possibly have been real didn’t matter. The message was clear: Müren was the real deal, while those creatives who succeeded him are comparative poseurs.

This is a hoax, but that's not the point.

This is a hoax, but that’s not the point.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in Atlas Obscura about the Zeki Müren hotline. An initiative of Turkish filmmaker Beyza Boyacioglu, the hotline is a repository for Zeki Müren stories, memories, and tributes and ran entirely on word of mouth. As of a month ago, the hotline had received over 700 individual message proving that, even 20 years after his death, Müren is still an icon. His pompadour, makeup, and effeminate clothing mark him as a man who played with gender and sexuality, but his voice and legacy are universalizing.

This video has 8 million views, even though Müren has been dead for 20 years. Not bad at all.

On the whole, the Turkish establishment is becoming more conservative than it ever has before. It’s not fair to characterize Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren as pockets of resistance per say, but their popularity does serve as a reminder that Turkish society is a whirlwind of contradiction. Turkey is a place where transgender people are forced into the sex trade and are the objects of violence but also attain the heights of Ersoy, where female virginity at marriage is prized even in the most liberal enclaves (and in Izmir, this is coupled with pressure to look really good and dress provocatively), where hospitality is prized but urban residents can be incredibly rude, and where hijabis roam wearing incredible makeup and dresses cut to show off the shape of their body and make out with their boyfriends in secluded corners. I’ve given up trying to understand, but I’ve committed to keep noticing.

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