Queerstanbul – Aspects of love, gender and sexuality inside daily life of LGBTIQ*

The research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and formed up to an exhibition project. Funded by the program “Kreativität im Studium”, the Integrationsrat Göttingen and the University of Göttingen the group visited Istanbul once again during the Pride Week 20014. The results of the research were shown in Göttingen during an exhibition in December 2014. 

Text by Susanne Klenke and Laura Stonies

Shortfilm by Margaux Jeanne Erdmann


Some districts of Istanbul like Beyoğlu are considered to be safe for lesbians, gays, bi- and transsexuals and shaped by the queer scene. In recent years, Istanbul has experienced a boom of gay bars and pubs, clubs and hostels. It is conceived as a metropolis with a flourishing and vibrant urban gay scene – also by tourists.

As part of the tourism business of the city, a gay travel agency is specializing in queer visitors. The employees of the agency as well as their tour guides are either homosexual or “gay friendly”. The offered touristic services vary from night tours of the local nightlife’s hot spots to day tours of the city and wider urban sphere as well as trips to different cities lasting several days. During the tours, the customers are acquainted with facts regarding the city of Istanbul and its history as well as an LGBTIQ* perspective on aspects of everyday life.

A closer inspection of on the digital offers provides information about the demands, needs and expectations of tourists regarding Istanbul as a destination. Hamam, Oriental Night, Bazar and Hagia Sofia – these locations within the urban space are the advertised as highlights the agency offers. These are also the offers experiencing highest customer demand. This illustrates that an Oriental image of the city is part of the tourists’ imaginations – they expect it and strive to fulfill it through their urban route. Touristic offers consist even of Orientalized places like a traditional Hamam, the Grand Bazar or the Blue Mosque.

Tourism Studies within the Cultural Sciences point out that the search for authenticity of, in this case, a city is what drives tourists. 1 Since the beginnings of commercial tourism, one of the traditional motivations to travel is the search for authenticity. Thus, the tourist becomes a symbol for the modern individual searching for the original. 2 No only spatial demands by tourists, but also on their questions about homosexual life in Turkey, which the gay tours are all about, can be seen in this context. Using gay tourist services serves as a practice of distinction as it constitutes a special and “authentic” arrangement of entertainment and knowledge – even though the “genuine” and authentic itself, as Ning Wang states, is a construction. 3 This travel motivation turns the tourist to a traveler. Within these mechanisms of distinction, the gay tourists distinguish themselves from conventional tourists and their travel routes within Istanbul.

During our field research, we had the opportunity to visit the only gay travel agency in Turkey. There, we met the lesbian agency owner for an interview allowing us to gain insight into the economic aspects of this sector of customer service. During the conversation, the owner reported that she only works with Western customers. In the initial phase of the company’s operation, cooperation with Turkish enterprises like hotels had been very difficult. When asked for collaborations, the CEO reported, people expressed their unwillingness to serve “that way of customers“ and declined inquiries with phrases such as “No, you are pervert and you bring more perverts to Turkey.”

With increasing numbers of customers and the resultant increase in economic potency, cooperation became easier. Tour operators, restaurants and hotels expressed more liberal positions towards the clientele connected to a million dollar business: “At the moment it’s good because they are more polite. They are okay, who cares? Gays or straight? Tourist, tourist – customer, customer!” This is how D. analyzed the current situation.

But within the Turkish service industry, the company plays a dual role. For example, the agency’s website is inaccessible for Turkish people. In locking the site, government agencies and public actors prevent people from within Turkey from gathering information on queer services, locations and contacting the agency. In seemingly diametrical opposition to the attitude demonstrated through censorship, the Culture and Tourism Ministry aspired to use the agency to create the image of a cosmopolitan, liberal city for Istanbul. A few years ago, the owner told us, the Minister of Culture and Tourism at the time asked her to present her company at a trade show in Barcelona to promote a gay agency in Western Europe. In this conversation, he pointed out that this type of advertising is important for the Turkish government as the existence of such an agency contributes to a liberal and open minded image of the county.

The Tourism-Minister called me and said ‘we have an exhibition in Barcelona and we want you to be there. This is very important for our government. As a Gay Travel-Agent, be there, please!’ They wanna show to Europe and the other world ‘we have a Gay Travel-Agent which is openly and freely, they can work in our country!’

At present, the agency’s homepage is still blocked.

Another example of economically driven open mindedness in the treatment and perception of homosexual clients is the sector of cruise tourism. Since the Arab Spring changed the political situation in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, several gay cruises redirected their routes and call at Istanbul as part of their tours. While many were initially hostile towards this development, the situation changed and passengers were increasingly seen as welcome guests after the huge profits to be made with the accommodation of cruise ships had become apparent. Presently, a hundred Gaycruise cruise ships berth in Istanbul every year. “And then they think ‘a million dollars, hm, who cares if they are gay? A million dollars are more important’”, D. summarized the changes in opinion.

The agency owner also placed the social acceptance of Turkish homosexuals in the context of economic and neoliberal factors: “I have no problem because of being gay. I’m in a very good situation. This is luxury.”

In conclusion, the people in tourist-oriented industries and locations tend to be more open towards LGBTIQ* due to their knowledge that a more open attitude is necessary to profit from this clientele: „Because people are working in the tourism business and they know that they have to be open minded.“ Here, the economic coaction of tourists and players of the service sector evokes a cultural dynamic. The adaption of an expected open minded attitude towards queer customers is connected to an assumed change of society. In this manner, the touristic encounter becomes a performance framework for new patterns of activity.

“They are liberal but only because of the tourism business. Not because the people are open minded. Because the people are working in the tourism business and they know that they have to be open minded.” (CEO D.)

Yet, financial capital is generally a significant factor regarding the opportunity of living a free life for Turkish LGBTIQ*. Status and social acceptance are connected to the economic position of homosexuals. “Money is the most important thing. With money you can have your freedom.”


  1. 1 MacCannell p. 214
  2. 2 MacCannell
  3. 3 Ning Wang

The idea of a research on the Erasmus programme and its manifestations in Istanbul was to ask why students from all over Europe chose Istanbul as their destination and how they are living in the global city. The project of Anna Schäfer and Laura Lamping highlights different perspectives of doing Erasmus in Istanbul: from the bureaucratic burdens of universities, to student’s romanticism of living in “the exotic East” and their ways of living between Erasmus Parties and protest movements.

Every incoming student surely has their own motivation for spending their Erasmus year in Istanbul. The reasons may merely be bureaucratic ones: As M., a student from Berlin, told us, not Istanbul, but rather Barcelona had been her first choice – but finally she was very happy that the Erasmus system ‘made’ her go to Istanbul:

“Turkey, that was rather coincidence. Actually, I wanted to go to Spain, but all in all that didn’t work out. And then I went to Istanbul, […] what I found even cooler. Well, yes, Spain had lost its attraction for me somehow.” 1

Nevertheless, there might be specific reasons for choosing this global city. Speaking to a Turkish student who organizes parties and other activities was enlightening as he stated the main reason for coming to Istanbul to be the Bosporus 2. It is not only about the Bosporus – rather, it is the image of the city which seems to be so attractive. N., a German Erasmus student staying in Istanbul, confirmed this assumption:

“The image of the city Istanbul as a very beautiful city is being told all the time […] but also for me the reason to come here was that there might be not as much Erasmus students like in other cities.” 3

Thus, Istanbul seems to be somewhat exotic, a city worth seeing. If you go to Istanbul, you are not comparable to other Erasmus students. You have visited a place no one else has seen so far: If you have been here as an exchange student, you experienced something special, you gained so-called “cultural capital” (in terms of Bourdieu). 4 In this case, travelling as a form of gaining cultural capital means that you make investments in order to get to know a country, to learn a language, to experience something special you will be able to talk about once you are back home. The wish to be part of this special, exotic experience might be one reason for incoming (European) students to go to Istanbul – which is possible since Turkey became part of the Erasmus programme in 2004. Ten years have passed – enough time for Istanbul to become popular among Erasmus students.

Cool Istanbul – The Promotion of Istanbul as the Erasmus Place 

The idea of Istanbul as a unique place to spend the Erasmus term is supported and spread by Erasmus coordinators of German and Turkish universities participating in the programme. To M., the manager of the Erasmus office at a university in Istanbul,

“Istanbul is unique in the world, it’s like a huge melting pot and it’s one of the cities that never sleeps. […] It’s always activity, it’s always life, there is always something happening. […] You have the beach, you have the mountain if you go a little bit further than Istanbul […]. You have a lot of traffic as well, but when you are young you really don’t feel it. Dynamic city.” 5

S., a student working in a German Erasmus office, advises German students apply for spending their Erasmus year in Istanbul, firstly for practical reasons such as the chance to actually get placed in the programme, and secondly for the internationality of the city, its status as a multicultural metropolis offering numerous  possibilities regarding student life. According to him, Istanbul

“is an international city on the same level as Warsaw, Paris, Rome […] where life is very pulsating. On the other hand, I also believe that actually Istanbul has always been such a center of attraction because of its cultural diversity.” 6.

Furthermore, he refers to the history of the city as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire as attributing to its attractiveness. Thus, again, Istanbul’s geographical location is assigned a cultural meaning and value as a city between East and West, with Asian and European influences.

At this point, it seems appropriate to refer to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. As indicated above, stereotypical imaginations of Turkey and especially of Istanbul persist and might influence the students’ decision on where to study abroad.

“Given its alleged position between two counterpoints of cultural history – using phantasms like ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ – the Bosporus city appears to be the ideal projection surface for all kinds of stereotyped comments, where one in three sentences contains the word ‘bridge’.” 7

Talking about the “Orient” – from an Erasmus student’s Western perspective – can be quite difficult. On the one hand, you try to overcome the imperialistic point of view connecting the “Orient” to a specific mentality, a holistic character and a very old identity 8. On the other hand, there are still narrow-minded perspectives struggling to accept that a concept of “the Orient” is as disputable as the notion of “the West”. 9 There is a dichotomy in this context: The students we have talked to tried not to give a stereotypical impression of their stay in Istanbul. Nevertheless, we were confronted with typical “exoticist, orientalist” statements.

In this context, however, as outlined above, we have to take into account that the Erasmus field is composed not only of Erasmus students. Rather, it is a complex net of different actors, including the Erasmus coordinators at the universities, tutors and student organizations – they all contribute (presumably rather unconsciously) to the reproduction of specific symbolic attributions and thus partake in the “Orientalist” discourse that is the discursive presentation of the city as “Cool Istanbul”. As M. told us back in Berlin,

“the city is plain folly. […] I haven’t seen such a city before. […] It is absolutely beautiful, well, also because of all the water, but, […] when you once walk from one city district into the next one, you already feel as if your head is about to burst […] because there are so many people everywhere. […] But, it is simply beautiful, and the people are so open and nice.” 10 This Istanbul discourse – on the part of Erasmus students but most importantly on part of the external actors in the Erasmus institutions – might contribute to the growing number of Erasmus students choosing to come to Istanbul.


  1. 1 Interview with M. on May 15, 2014. M. spent one year (2010-2011) as an Erasmus student in Istanbul. In 2012, she went back for several months to do an internship there. The quote is translated from German into English.
  2. 2 Cf. Interview with U. working for The Best Party Life-organization on May 27, 2014.
  3. 3 Interview with N., a German Erasmus student who had already lived in Istanbul for a few months at the time we conducted the interview on May 28, 2014 The quote was freely translated from German into English.
  4. 4 Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre: “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital“, in: Soziale Welt, Sonderband 2 (1983), p. 185.
  5. 5 Interview with M., an Erasmus coordinator of an Istanbul university on May 30, 2014.
  6. 6 Interview with S., who works in the Erasmus office of a German university institute on March 16, 2014. The quote was translated from German into English.
  7. 7 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul. Material production and production of the discourse” in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2005, p. 1.
  8. 8 Cf. Kramer, Fritz W.: “Der Kulturbegriff Edward Saids“, in: Schnepel, Burkhard/Brands, Gunnar/Schönig, Hanne (eds.): Orient – Orientalistik – Orientalismus. Geschichte und Aktualität einer Debatte, Bielefeld: transcript 2011, p. 31.
  9. 9 Cf. Pflitsch, Andreas: Mythos Orient. Eine Entdeckungsreise, Freiburg: Herder Verlag 2003, p. 168.
  10. 10 Interview with M. on May 15, 2014. The quote was freely translated from German into English.