ISTANBUL — As the United States considers repealing the ban on gays serving in the military, they might want to consider consulting their allies in NATO with whom they serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast majority of the organization's 28-member states allow gays to serve openly. But Turkey offers an instructive, and extreme, contrast.
Where the U.S. "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been the subject of fierce political debate since it was launched by Bill Clinton's administration two decades ago, Turkey's ban has seen few public challenges. When Turkey's minister for women's and family affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, declared this March that homosexuality is a "disease that needs treatment," she wasn't just pandering to popular belief; she was repeating the official stance of the Turkish armed forces. Indeed, Turkey's gay conscripts are routinely forced to endure humiliation and abuse at the hands of their country's military authorities.
What makes that fate especially terrible is that it's practically impossible for Turkish men to avoid exposure to military life, and the burden is on them to prove they are unfit for service. Every man between 20 and 41 years old is required to serve at least six months. Exemptions are granted only under two conditions: a mental or physical disability, and homosexuality. Turkey does not recognize the right to conscientious objection.
Fearing rejection by relatives and discrimination by potential employers, many gay men have chosen to lie to army doctors about their sexual orientation. "Because you're asked at every job interview to say whether you've completed your military service, and to explain why not, the decision to get an exemption brands you for life," says S., a gay draftee in his mid-20s, over coffee at a restaurant in Istanbul. "Some people decide to deny their homosexuality and enter the army instead." (To protect the identities of certain people interviewed for this article, their names have been abbreviated with their first initial.)
Many gays also conceal their sexual orientation to avoid the humiliation of having to prove it. According to the official commentary to the army's health regulation, for a homosexual to be exempted from service, "documentary evidence must prove that the defects in sexual behavior are obvious and would create problems when revealed in a military context." In the military's understanding, says L., a psychiatrist with experience on military health panels, "If a man is gay, it's not a problem as long as he is not behaving that way." According to S., "You have to prove that your homosexuality prevents you from being a soldier, from holding a gun, that it makes you effeminate, that it might affect your safety and make you vulnerable, and that it might endanger the unity of the military."
To seek exemption, therefore, many gay men have to endure pseudo-scientific tests designed to appraise both their homosexuality and the extent to which it might render them "unfit" for service. "Parts of the test I took included having to draw a picture of a tree, a house, and a person," says S. "You're given a lot of crayons, and then you have to answer why you drew things the way you did." Other gay conscripts report having been asked whether they liked playing with dolls as children or enjoyed wearing women's clothing. Military psychiatrists who know better have to pretend that there is a scientific value to such examinations, says L., "because it's in the regulations."
Astoundingly, some gays also report that they were asked to produce photographs showing them as participants in anal intercourse. Even then, Turkish authorities are said to apply special criteria. According to the military, and Turkish society at large, penetrating another man does not necessarily qualify as a homosexual act; only being penetrated is undisputedly homosexual. Hence the unwritten rule when it comes to such photos: "The man should be in the passive position, receiving from behind," L. explains, "and looking at the camera. Preferably while smiling."