On a fall evening in Istanbul, Elif Kaya and fellow amateur LGBTQ soccer players hit the field for their weekly practice. The air is crisp as participants run up and down the field, some wearing rainbow adorned uniforms representing their LGBTQ-friendly teams.
“We want to open a space for women and LGBTQ people who don’t have a place to play soccer,” Kaya, 30, told Al-Monitor. “Istanbul should be a safe place for us.”
LGBTQ visibility has reached an all-time low in Turkey, but Kaya and her teammates from Atletik Dildoa, an Istanbul-based soccer team that identifies itself as queer, want to increase it through the game. On Oct. 20-21, they hosted Let’s Fairy Play, a tournament and panel discussion encouraging dialogue on misogyny and LGBTQ discrimination in soccer. They also organize the annual Istanbul Queer Olympix where queer teams from all over Turkey come to Istanbul to play soccer, beach volleyball and track events.
According to a recent Amnesty International report, LGBTQ organizations reported "a sharp increase in campaigns of intimidation and harassment targeting individuals or planned events"; they feel as if they are being pushed underground once again. Since 2015, the Turkish authorities have canceled the Istanbul Pride parade, which was one of the largest pride parades in the Middle East. Roughly 100,000 people took part in the last parade in 2014.
In addition, all LGBTQ events have been banned in the capital city of Ankara since November 2017, because they “incite hatred and enmity,” according to the governor’s office in Ankara.
“I think queer-friendly soccer events can help the community,” Kaya said. “So I hope young people who have never had a chance to go to an Istanbul Pride parade join and see they are not alone.”
Like many of her Atletik Dildoa teammates, Kaya played soccer as a child with the boys in her neighborhood. Her father was a professional soccer player, which encouraged her to play also. But once puberty hit and her body began to change Kaya’s parents banned her from playing.
“Boobs,” she joked. “You have your period and then it’s done. [My friends and I] realized we have the same history, the same story. So we started playing soccer together — weekly. It had been 10 years since I started playing.”
By creating a queer soccer team they hope to change the hypermasculine norms they faced growing up and challenge society's views on the LGBTQ community. Atletik Dildoa became a symbol of what Kaya and her friends wished they had as children: A team that respects women and LGBTQ people.
In 2016, Atletik Dildoa participated in a tournament in Berlin overseen by Discover Football, an international organization that empowers women and promotes international understanding through soccer across Europe. There, Kaya and her teammates met and exchanged stories with fellow LGBTQ people and heterosexual women from all over the world. They heard similar experiences of struggle and left Germany with a new perspective. Subsequently, Atletik Dildoa decided to organize a queer tournament of their own in Istanbul.
“Everyone was so excited by the idea,” Secil Epik, 32, a fellow Atletik Dildoa teammate, told Al-Monitor. “When we started the Queer Olympix last year, people really came together from other cities, and we realized this really worked.”
Since then, Atletik Dildoa continues to come up with event and tournament ideas to increase LGBTQ visibility in Istanbul.
At the last Queer Olympix in August, spectators chanted Turkish LGBTQ slogans and waved rainbow flags; a group danced the “halay,” a traditional Anatolian folk dance, and people marched up and down the stadium holding each other's pinkies.
For many, the Istanbul Queer Olympix marks the first time sports has found a way back into their lives. LGBTQ people in Turkey are either not welcomed in sports or discouraged by homophobic and sexist rhetoric.
Gizem Derin, 30, plays with Muamma, an LGBTQ soccer team from Mersin, in southern Turkey. He is a transgender man who was barred from playing soccer by both his parents and his community. He played for an all-male team at university, but could never officially register because his ID card stated his gender was female.
“I could only practice with them. I couldn't play official games,” Derin told Al-Monitor. “So I started playing for a women’s team instead.”
But after facing transphobic comments from both teams, he decided to quit altogether. He didn’t play for over a decade, until he started playing with Muamma. “I could have never imagined in a neighborhood like this that this could happen. Everyone is accepted for who they are.” Derin said.
It is this need for LGBTQ visibility that drives Kaya to organize and promote queer soccer.
“When I came to Istanbul I wasn't out and I couldn't find the courage to join LGBTQ organizations or events. I remember I forced myself to go to the Istanbul Pride parade,” Kaya said. “I thought, ‘Wow, we are a lot of people.’ … But now, many young people don’t see the pride parade and only see police violence.”
She grew up in a homophobic and transphobic environment that led her to fear the truth — that she is a lesbian. But it was LGBTQ visibility that taught her she wasn’t alone.
“I don't think people realize how many we are,” she concluded. “I suffered a lot because I didn’t know anybody. I want to help kids like me find the courage they need.”
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