I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Bülent Ersoy – The remarkable untold story of a Turkish Icon, Transgender Diva, and Unintentional Revolutionary.

by Jimmy Trash
April 21, 2014
The unfathomable life story of living Turkish legend Bülent Ersoy is barely utterable without placing this incredible individual in the chaotic epoch in which she blossomed.  While Turkey has a reputation for being more liberal in the 70s, attested by the amount of psychedelic music and film from the country in this decade, it was not an easier time to live there.  Turkey was a hotbed of war between fighting political factions as well as careless intervention by the US to keep Turkey in a state of conflict so that the Soviet Union could not impress upon Turkey and use it as a gateway to Western Europe.  By the end of the 70s it is predicted that there were 10 political assassinations per day, as well as numerous terrorists’ attacks by the formidable Grey Wolves (young SS styled fascists) and American agents planting bombs behind the veil of being communists to spark violence and mistrust.

During this period Bülent sang as both a respected singer of the Turkish classical canon, as well as the frowned upon popular style of arabesque.  As you will see in the first videos of this collection, he also acted in many films as a young, naive, androgynous heterosexual man, and would be seen in social spheres on dates with women. A Turkish friend told me that during this period he was accepted as a gay star and led a private life that was quite unmolested.  

In the tail end of the 70s a large proportion of Turkey was already under Martial Law, and Washington was pressuring the Turkish Military after the 1979
Iranian Revolution, fearing the loss of their main ally in the region would jeopardise their interest in the Persian Gulf.  These factors gave General 
Kenan Evren the support he needed to administer a Coup.   

On 12 September 1980, the National Security Council announced the Coup and martial law was declared.  Interestingly, they invoked the values of the Kemalist tradition of state secularism, which had already justified precedent coups, and presented themselves as opposed to communism, fascism, separatism and religious sectarianism. This was the same ideology that overturned the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the century.  However, the values of the new Military coup were irrefutably conservative and fascistic.  The regime offered imprisoned Grey Wolves freedom to fight with them against Kurdish Workers Parties, and solicited the use of torture.
Bülent's body metamorphosed simultaneously to the regime change; she started to wear women’s clothes onstage and had breast enlargement surgery.  She was imprisoned for 45 days for revealing her new (and spectacular!) chest at the Izmir International Fair (sadly I can’t find any photos!).
Her transition was later completed in Charring Cross Hospital in 1981, and returned to Turkey in the midst of Evrans oppressive rule.  After an imaginably painful series of physical examinations, and always stressing the motivation behind her sex change to be patriotic and not wanting to be an illegal sexuality, she was labelled a deviant by the courts of the new regime. The military government closed transgender brothels and forbade all performances by Trans entertainers. Bülent was also denied the right to perform in public, hypocritically under a law that required women to obtain police permission to perform, thus recognising her new gender. She fought in court until 1983, and when her petition was rejected a final time, she unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide.  Later that year she left Turkey to continue her career in Germany, where she continued to act in Turkish films, and also lived in Australia for a while. Her popularity flourished whilst in exile and in 1988 a series of events would allow her safe passage back to her beloved Turkey.

Bülent had just recorded a patriotic recording of Turkish classical music (which may have influenced the terms of her return) when in 1988 the ruling Motherland Party under Turgut Özal invited her back.  Those who had completed sex reassignment surgery could now reapply for status as a male or female; however only Bülent was given the right to perform in public, others were not.

Her majestic return as a true, sexy female was embraced much more prolifically than when she left.  However there are reports of audience violence in her first year of return, but nothing like in 1989 when an ex-Grey Wolf requested their war march and ersatz theme song, Rippling Black Sea.  After refusing, the soldier shot the Diva FIVE TIMES on the stage, later claiming he was in a bad move because the bar was smoky and he hadn’t eaten enough that day.  Bülent survived strongly but gunman Haci Tepe s family disowned him and profusely apologised to the beloved star.  Tepe was quoted saying, 'of course she didn’t die, she stands for so much, she’s Turkish'.

Into the 90's her career flourished, she hosted her own television show that envisaged the new, urbanised Turkish population.  She used crass euphuisms and was known affectionately as 'Older Sister' to the public.  However, something changed:

The Bülent who fled the oppressive regime of her own country, the woman who turned down an armed fascist, started to become comfortable with the very league of people who made her life un-liveable years ago.  On television she gave up her sexy outfits and started to dress conservatively, presenting herself as a Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman. She began to mention Allah in her songs, and in 1995 she recorded the adhan, the call to prayer, which is forbidden by females: however the controversy meant her acceptance as a female in Turkish culture.  When a short version of her life was filmed for TV, a female was used as the young Bülent, and she refused to admit on television to an old friend that she had completed the compulsory male-only military service.  Perhaps she was trying to erase the memory or her incorrect body, or otherwise trying to totally integrate into her culture.  And just as oppressed people do tend to misfire personal aggression by shooting bullets at other victims, her piety and hypocrisy reached a peak whilst hosting the Turkish version of Idol, Popstar Alaturka (in a time when she still is the only transgendered star allowed on television to sing) in 2007 after the assassination of Armenian human rights activist Hrant Dink.  Popstar Alaturka opened with an Armenian song in sympathy, while thousands of others outside marched and chanted, “We are all Armenians!” After the touching gesture, Bülent gave a speech and claimed as a Muslim daughter of a Muslim family, she could never say she was Armenian.

Despite the chagrin of this event, the very next year Bülent was back in the headlines, but for the exact opposite case –  during an episode of Popstar Alaturka she illegally commented that if she had children, she would not let them go to war.  This type of motherly, natural sentiment is still illegal in Turkey (to slander the military) and charges were pressed.  This brought her attention by intellectuals and also broadened her sales in Kurdish areas, all unintentional outcomes.  As a retour, she called a press conference to donate part of her wealth to a military foundation, and the courts labelled her not guilty.

To complete the achievements of Bülent Ersoy, a final blast of reality is needed.  As well as being an incredible artist, singer and host that most performers aspire to be, she has a position in life that is inexorably against the system: The World Values Survey revealed that last year in Turkey, when asked what kind of people they would not want to see living in their neighbourhood, a whopping majority of 84% answered "homosexuals". The list of unwanted neighbours continued with Aids patients, unmarried couples and atheists.  A major newspaper labelled gays "sexual perverts" and left-wing ex-revolutionary, Bozkurt Nuhoglu, claimed Bulent Ersoy had "lower morals" than another comrade from the 60s.

Societies tend to have pressure valves, where they let one token minority member get a foot up to forget about the injustice to the rest.  However the audacious mettle that Bülent has demonstrated in her life is bewildering and inspiring and could not be taken so lightly.

A true, honest artist is always a revolutionary

Singer/organist/writer Jimmy Trash is an Australian born musician, journalist, dj and herald of low-brow art and psychedelic culture through his own festival, Trashfest, and many other mediums. He is available for shamanistic healing, bacchanalian instruction and nerdy weird music exchanges.