EXCLUSIVE: Face-To-Face With Istanbul’s Gay Community

Elska magazine editor Liam Campbell visited the Turkish city just weeks before the crackdown on Istanbul Pride and the terror attack on Ataturk Airport.

Since its inception Elska has taken gay magazines into uncharted territory: Rather than presenting readers with a parade of flawless models cavorting in Saint Tropez or London, editor in chief Liam Campbell visits with real men, sometimes in places where being gay isn’t that accepted.

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Elska’s latest issue, out now, found him in Istanbul, just weeks before the police shut down Istanbul Pride and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.

It was also, of course, before the terrible attack on Istanbul Ataturk Airport , which left 28 dead and more than wounded.

Campbell shared images from the new issue with NewNowNext, and talked with us about the people he met and their impressions of Turkish LGBT life.

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Elska

“People in their late twenties and older had a strong sense that things used to be easier, that the government has bit by bit chipped away at freedoms,” he told us.

“They talk about how the number of bars and clubs has diminished, that it’s harder to get alcohol—one even remarked that people are served water instead of champagne at gallery openings—and, of course, that LGBT events such as the recent Pride march has been banned and even put down with violence.”

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Liam Campbell/Elska

But older gays still believe Istanbul is the best place to be queer in the country—and in the entire Muslim world, he says.They’re willing to stay, even if they have to be more discreet than than before.

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Younger LGBT people, though, are angry—and much less tolerant of the status quo.

“They don’t know that things used to be better, but they’ve grown up with Western films, TV and online media showing how gay life is in the West, and they expect the same for Turkey,” explains Campbell.

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One young man featured in Elska said he couldn’t wait to leave Turkey.

“[He was] feeling rather hopeless,” recounts Campbell. “He was hoping to study in Milan so that he could be himself. He was also so visibly upset after Orlando, asking me ’why do they hate us so much?'” It’s such a sad thing to hear and impossible to give a definitive answer to.”

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Ultimately, says Campbell, all the men he profiled insist most Turks are open-minded, but the current government is being run by ultra-conservatives.

“At least, they proudly declared, Turkey is a democracy so change is not impossible.”

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The attack on Ataturk, though, has the whole country worried. It was not the first terrorist incident in Istanbul this year, and Campbell was actually unable to get an assistant to join him as he normally does.

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“When I got to Istanbul, in late May, the mood was that things were better, and at least that the recent terrorist attacks were targeted at government facilities instead of everyday people. I certainly felt safe when I was there.”

He had been home for just a few weeks when the airport was hit. None of his models were harmed, though one quit his job because it was so close to where the terrorists had struck.

“Safety is most important, but this also is wreaking havoc on tourism,” which is a major industry in Istanbul, one that helps foster its more Western-friendly attitudes.

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“Even when I was there my amazing hotel was too quiet for being high season, and the streets had few Western tourists,” he tells us. “Even less will come now. I can only hope that things will improve, that tourists will return to this amazing city and that the locals will feel safe at home.”

Visit Elska magazine’s website for more images and ordering information.

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Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery