Olya was checking Facebook on her way to work when she learned that her friend Buse, a fellow trans sex worker, had been brutally murdered at home by a client. Buse had lived on the outskirts of Istanbul. This wasn’t the first time Olya had lost a colleague and friend to a hate crime – and she suspects it won’t be the last.
“My friend was killed and the murderer is still out there. He could be my next client. But I still have to work,” she tells VICE. “In this community, nobody ever dies of natural causes. Every day, I come back home from work, shut the door behind myself, and take a deep breath and say, ‘Thank God I’m alive for one more day.'”
With 39 recorded murders between 2008 and 2015, Turkey is the most dangerous place in Europe to be a transgender person, followed pretty closely by Italy. Most of these crimes were reportedly committed against sex workers, who have no legal recognition or protection.
“People who demand to have sex with transgender women tend to be those behind the murders. Sometimes, after having sex, they feel embarrassed about having slept with a transgender woman,” Olya says. “It doesn’t suit their manliness. They get aggressive and kill the sex worker.”
When Olya received death threats in her coastal hometown, 41-year-old Oyku Ay – another transgender woman and a prominent activist in Istanbul – invited her to move into a safe shelter. Run by charity the Istanbul LGBTT Solidarity Association, it’s tucked away in an apartment – secretly, for security reasons – and hosts up to 20 homeless trans people who would otherwise be on the streets.
Neighbours, frequenters of the nearby mosque or anyone outside the LGBT+ community have no idea about the handful of transgender women living in the top floors of the old, mouldy flat. Shelter residents keep most curtains closed and some of the women hardly leave in order to keep a low profile.
Inside, Oyku walks me through her room. She’s a devout Muslim, with a dressing room in her flat and a cupboard full of dozens of hijabs – which she shows off proudly. “Please write that I am very attached to my religion and Turkish traditions,” she says. “When people hear ‘trans sex worker’ they shouldn’t immediately think of a deviant drug addict.”
Oyku (left) and Olya, in the shelter. (All photos: Didem Tali)
Oyku’s got a colourful collection of wigs that she’s keen to show me. And beside them, a Ya Sin Muslim prayer text sits stacked with other religious books. “I don’t pray with the wigs of course, they are just for the clients,” she says with a laugh. “My work and my religion… They can coexist. They are different things.”
Turkey’s transgender community isn’t necessarily synonymous with sex work, but the overwhelming majority of transgender people in the shelter feel they haven’t got other means to sustain themselves, thanks to transphobic working environments. “All my life, I dreamed of having a normal day job, but it wasn’t my kismet,” Oyku says. “When I realised I wouldn’t get a day job, I opened a café with my brother. But we lost the business when people eventually learned about me. They said they didn’t want to be fed by a faggot.”
When people discovered that shelter tenant and former sex worker Ozlem was a trans woman, she says she lost her home and her business as a beautician. “I was standing near a bridge, ready to commit suicide. But because my foot was broken at the time, I couldn’t jump.
“The next day, I found out about the shelter and came here. If I hadn’t found this place, I would have found another way to kill myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be here. But we’re worried about our futures,” she adds.
Ozlem’s comments echo a tension mentioned by most of the women I spoke to. Once they’ve decided to “come out” as trans, they’ve got to grapple with the limitations of working in an industry that doesn’t offer them legal protection, when they struggle to find work elsewhere. Until sex workers are offered protection granted to other people in high-risk jobs, Oyku also has the feeling that life won’t get safer for trans women in Turkey any time soon.
“In the same way that a miner can go hundreds of metres underground despite the risks to feed his family, we do sex work,” she says. “It’s dangerous. We know it. But as long as the stigma lingers, we continue to get excluded and bullied in all walks of life, sex work will remain the only way of making money.” That said, Oyku is still grateful for what she has achieved in life. In her 40s, she’s more comfortable than she has ever been. Although she still does sex work, she also makes money from a farming business she set up in her hometown in eastern Turkey.
Seda, who arrived at the shelter around the same time as Ozlem, is hopeful, too: “I am 44 but I still look like a model. You’ll now publish my photos somewhere. The world will know about us. Who knows what the future holds?” she says, laughing.
Seda, on the roof of the shelter
Obviously, it’s not all giggles and wig stands. But in the face of a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood where rent prices and changing demographics may push the LGBT+ community out altogether, the women at the shelter say they’re doing their best.
“There was a time I slept with five winebibbers in a row for a piece of bread. If you’d asked me in my 20s, I wouldn’t have known if I was going to be alive by the time I was 40,” Oyku says. “I thought about moving to Germany to make my life easier, but I won’t. I couldn’t live anywhere outside Turkey. At times I’m heartbroken, but I still love my country. It’s our duty to do our best to change things and benefit our community. If we don’t, who will?”
Originally appeared on VICE UK.