Interview with Mehmet Tarhan
LGBT documentary, 2002


In January of 1995, I began working as a civil servant in Diyarbakır, Lice. I was around 16-17 years old and I didn’t know much about what was going on. I heard some stuff from news papers, daily talks and some agitation efforts but I didn’t have a clear idea. I had no idea about what was going on in the Southeast [of Turkey] or what war meant. My first trip to Diyarbakır was very interesting, I went in there after passing through three or four police stations similar to border patrol, it was like going into an internal country. The first day I got there, I couldn’t get back to Diyarbakır. And I realized, “my God, this place is something else!” I couldn’t go out that night, the city was burnt and destroyed, it still hadn’t closed its wounds.

I felt obliged to take a stance. I was there as a government employee, I had to work with civilian cops. You cannot choose one side over the other; both place different responsibilities over your shoulder. And on top of all this, you’re a Kurd. In the eyes of one side, you are the state, in the eyes of the other side, however, you’re civilian folk, you’re Kurdish, therefore probably with the PKK. But you cannot belong to neither two because inside you’re gay which is unacceptable for both sides as both are very male and very heterosexist. For me the people’s side was a heavier influence because the extremely ordered structure of the army and the fact that they were stronger led me towards civilians. And I tried to build a world with civilians.

I had to be involved with the military at all times; this was imperative. I had to go in and out of Diyarbakır with their convoys. If I got sick at home in the middle of the night, I could call them and ask for a vehicle. I was constantly involved with them. And from time to time, some personal relationships flourished. The cultivation of Indian hemp was wide spread in the region and the office I worked conducted expert surveys/inspections. Either I or the agricultural technician would go to court, at first arrests or when there was no personnel on duty available. There I was introduced to the world of drugs. I began seeing how drug trade was conducted, who got caught and who didn’t, who actually got indicted after getting arrested, and perhaps this may be too much for you--but I also saw how much of the drugs that entered the police station were destroyed and how much of it was used. And the image of the familiar military institution that we learned “protected the people” since we were toddlers, began becoming more and more tainted. On the one hand there are villages being evacuated, on the other hand you also face repression personally. And finally when drugs, which I find unacceptable, came into play, I felt a reaction. After this, I began severing my ties with the military.

In the meantime, the 1995 by-elections took place. There was serious pressure on us, especially on civil servants and Kurdish civil employees, because of the HADEP votes that came out of the ballot box we used. Later on, my transfer to Hatay came up.

Before that period, I and some of my teacher friends at schools began theatre workshops with some students. Officers’ kids also attended the rehearsal along with other kids. We first tried to teach the children Turkish, or rather, tried to rid their speech from their regional accents. We became aware of the politics of assimilation there in a very clear and painful way. The kids there could not utter the letter “k” in a guttural way on stage; if they did, it was both a threat to me and to them. Again, around the same period of time, a detonator charged/exploded in one of the students’ hand. A detonator in the garbage dump.. I began to question: “why was that detonator there? Why was it there?” I went on on and on, and this is where I ended up finally: the detonator would not be there, if the army wasn’t there, or rather if there was no such thing as war, detonators would not be manufactured, nobody would need to make a detonator to explode a bomb.


That kid was wounded for nothing. He was wounded badly and was left crippled. We heard about news like this, almost every month. I felt it very close to me. I connected it directly to the concept of the army and just like I was to claim later, I began seeing the military as the true cause of all wars. there and then I took a decisive stance: I shall not be a part of this institution no matter what. An after that I refused everything from doing expert work at court to accepting the military’s protection. I was using civilian vehicles with no protection and I was not riding official vehicles. If you take an official vehicle then you have to have a panzer tank [armored vehicle] with you. So I stopped going to Diyarbakır because of this, so as not to be in the convoy. You go into BTRs [t.n.:Bronyetransporter- Russian type armored vehicle] and you become a part of it all. Thus I decided to cut all my ties with the army.


Interestingly I ended up working on the military service health inspection committee for a period and I had not showed up for my own inspection yet. The Committee convened for three days and throughout that time only disabled people showed up, I don’t remember one person without a health problem. Disabled people took their transfer to the hospital and left. People looked for all kinds of reasons to evade service. But for instance flat-footedness had recently been taken off from the list of conditions that granted you exemption. A lot of people came in because they thought a flat foot was still reason for exemption. At the end of the first day of inspection, people came in cringing “please transfer me to the hospital.” There were countless reasons to be exempt from service. They were humiliated there already: they were asked to take all their clothes and taken in naked, had their feet wetted and made to stand on paper. This was rutine practice. A lot of people witnessed this stuff.


I was touched by the uneasiness on the people’s faces, even some of those who claimed they would willingly and lovingly do military service, experienced that fear there. The writing of the letter K in red ink next to somebody’s name meant, they were of good size and composure etc., and therefore fit to be a commando. So I became familiar with the psychology of going to do military service and I decided not to go.

I had a chance, I could easily get a report under the rubric of psychosexual disorder—what kind of “right” is that!:) I believed that getting that report would be to uphold and accept that male and heterosexist stance. Also taking any official procedure would be tantamount to recognizing the legimitacy of that committee. This was my point of departure, from here on my stance began to solidify.


Life is very deceiving; it gives you too many opportunities to “become a man,” in order to become a man you need to have a steady job etc., and for this you need to get a document which says you have no relationship with military service [meaning- you have done your military service- or are legally exempt from it]. If I were to take that report, I would have put into question everything I solved through struggling with myself and normalized. And I would have to go there and state with my own mouth that being gay is a sickness. This felt incredibly humiliating to me. On the other hand, you are not only humiliating yourself but you will have also provided a pretext for many people after you to humiliate themselves and you will be carrying that responsibility. When you tell people what you have done, others will choose this as an option and end up exalting the military, exalting social masculinity, heterosexism and humiliating themselves. They will carry this with them until the end of their lives. Thinking of all these made me decide not to go.

At the end of year 2000 I resigned. In 2001, conscientious objection was on my mind all the time even before the war began. I met Erdem and we were thinking of declaring in February or May. But then the attacks of September 11 took place and we heard that they were going to do an operation in Afghanistan right away. So we decided to declare earlier. This was exactly the time to declare conscientious objection. We came to the conclusion that if we did not show our reaction right then, we would not have peace of mind. We declared our conscientious objection one week after Afghanistan operation began. I made a reference to being gay in my declaration. Now what I said there seems childish to me. I guess still say it with a smile and lovingly. The very reason it’s there is its childishness. “I see the rotten report offered to me as a ‘right’ by the militaristic system as the rottenness of the system itself.”


This kind of attitude is something that we need to develop more. This is what life taught me: ok, I am Kurdish, I am gay, thus I am many things that should not exist in this country. I am very far from being the “white Turk” that speaks of a life of comfort and I am far removed from the structure of masculinity. I know I could easily become a prime minister. How would I do that? I would not speak my mother tongue (Actually I still can’t. I understand it a little.) I would just have to yell “How happy is the one who is a Turk!” [t.n.: famous saying by Atatürk the founder of the modern day Turkish Republic] I could become a gay prime minister too. And maybe there have been gay prime ministers that I don’t know of.


All I would have to do would be to hide my sexual orientation, relegate it to the bedroom, be ashamed of it, or even try to rehabilitate it, or just imitate heterosexual individuals that are offered to me as being what is “proper” and emulate them, which is tantamount to continiously torturing myself. What was right for me was to develop that childish attitude and I did develop it. I don’t care, I don’t want to be a prime minister anyway, no I don’t want to be a government employee either, thank you. Getting a regular monthly wage will not bring me all that much. I do not want any of the things offered to me by this militaristic, sexist and patriarchal structure that brings me all this repression. For I really believe that people die hard, and for me the purpose of life is living, one of the major purposes in life is survival. And there are many ways to do that. Now I have a stand on the street, on the days I am just walking around without a stand, I ask for money from passers-by [called “signaling” in Turkish slang], I have had days like that too.

The system prepares many traps to pull you inside, and I jumped into one very early on. Right after I finished high school I began working as a civil servant. You begin developing that kind of life inside you, you begin developing the order, the system, and you become a part of it. That money you receive every month, spenditures you do with the logic of knowing you will earn the same amount of money next month. So you have to stay away from the type of behavior, demeanor, and thoughts that would prevent you from receiving that money next month. So turn towards that necessity. To me this seems like a wasting away, this is the exhaustion of the human, and in six years I lost a lot.

So what kind of traps does the system devise? They are actually very simple traps, entertaining traps; it offers you nice wines, nice clothes, nice foods and it is not only limited to these. Some of them hit me from my weak spot, as it also offers beautiful books, books with beautiful binding, in high quality print etc. The system gives you options ranging from the institution of family to the person you love, from having a child to leaving something behind, but in order to attain what the system offers, the system is telling you: you will uphold my values, even if you do not genuinely believe in them, you will live pretending you believe and you’ll think to the opposite as little as possible, and if you resist, you will get the hell outa here. Or you will accept that you are sick, this is how it works in psychiatry as well, if you do not uphold my values, you are sick. You shall accept your disease and try to be cured and you will humiliate yourself as such. This is what the system is saying.

You will be tuned towards the system’s means of production, and you will form the family institution. If you are gay, you can’t do that. Then you will turn into a circus monkey and become an instrument of entertainment. This way the system will earn from your back. There is no other option, there is nothing more that the system offers us. We will have to find options on our own.

Like I said, I came to this point by making such realizations. This is the state of affairs as I see it: heterosexism, sexism, militarism; this is not hierarchy this is the way things go, so I should place my reaction at the farthest point. The farthest I could go at that point was conscientious objection. I do not know if there is anything further. I will not do compulsory military service, I will do no legal processing whatsoever regarding military service, I will not take a taxation number or MERNIS [t.n.: Centralized Population Management System- transfers all identificatory information to electronical environment] number. These little numbers that we ignore that help us become part of tools of domination and the system, they have been issued for us. Me knowing these numbers or having them might not make very much of a difference to them but for me it makes a world of difference; knowing that number entails accepting that number.

There has not yet been any pressure on me about military service. I don’t know why. I guess they figure it’s better if they just ignore me. I think this attitude of non-reaction is a type of reaction itself. In a military brochure that came out two months after we declared our conscientious objection, it stated that the right to conscientious objection would never be recognized and listed the conditions thereof. Now there is only one more thing about their explanation and that is DSM II [Turkish army still uses DSM II]. I don’t have an opinion as to whether it should change. Because if DSM II goes, then there is DSM-IV. In the laws, the service that should be given the state does not have to be in the form of military service. This is not a legal obligation. You can find other methods, they could imprison you 15 months and let you go. But this will not bear any results. I believe there needs to be a direct resistance.


If they stop using DSM2, and grant gays the “right” to do military service, I won’t be going around saying “hey let gay people go do their military service.” They shouldn’t go. Heterosexuals shouldn’t go either. And I find DSM2 pretty funny actually. What is this DSM2? If defines homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, as a pathology and proceeds from there. The rest of the world, however, uses DSM4 and even the psychiatric institutions in Turkey use DSM4. Only the military doesn’t. As the military has its separate everything, it also has separate laws, and it uses DSM2 accordingly. It still treats homosexuality as a disease. If you want to get an “unfit for military service” report, if you would like to benefit from the antiquated DSM2, then some very  nice adventures await you. 


These practices are absolutely arbitrary; they sometimes include asking you to submit photographs showing sexual intercourse. Well let me tell you, since I worked as a government employee before, let me use their lingo: you statement is the basis. But there you need to prove your sexual orientation, they can ask for anal examinations and such. But none of these have any medical basis. Not every gay man has to be passive the whole time, forget that. Also just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you have sex with dozens of people every day. And anal examination can only detect something that is 15 days old anyways, and even that cannot be unequivocally detected. This is far from being scientific, it is merely used as a tool of humiliation. They do this so that people don’t come in with these statements. Even the expressions on people’s faces when they are asked of this kind of stuff is a trauma in itself. That is why I didn’t go. But I had friends who went to get that report, and I had friends who ended up getting that report. There were times we tried to find people to take the demanded photographs. This is just you humiliating yourself. You let them humiliate you. You are expected to face all this arbitrary treatment and plus expected to say “I am sick,” just to be able to get that report. Also the report has a flipside, it doesn’t let you go off the hook entirely. For instance, you cannot have an academic career if you have that report, because if you are so “rotten” and sick so as not to be able to do your military service, then you cannot get yourself a place within the system. That is why this shouldn’t be done. You can’t just go there and get yourself labeled, keep the system working, spend the rest of your life feeling guilty. This is what they want you to do.