For now, Turkey’s college bathrooms remain gender-specific
It was a couple of years ago when one of my students suggested there should be no gender category on any official forms. My courageous student said, “Some days I feel like a man; some days a woman. Your categories aren’t sufficient for me.”
“Trans” is an umbrella term that covers several different identities beyond the common binary definitions. People can define themselves as neither male nor female, or as a combination of both at times.
The transgender rights movement is shaking our common truths and norms.
Are you happy to use the bathrooms that match your “biological gender” assigned at the time of birth? All around the world, demands for gender-neutral bathrooms are leading to change. For example, pioneer cities in California have passed laws requiring single bathrooms to be declared gender neutral. Colleges, as centers of freedom of expression for young people, followed suit in different cities throughout the Western world.
In Turkey as well, LGBTQ groups have been struggling since 2014 to make room for gender-neutral bathrooms on campuses. In February 2016 they achieved their goal in a limited way at Istanbul’s revered Bogazici University. At the time, this did not cause a commotion in Turkey. But on June 20, Twitter users began posting that Middle East Technical University (METU) had abolished gender segregation. One user showed a sign apparently posted at the university that read, “At the request of 400+ students, all restrooms in this building have become gender-neutral.”
The very next day, the METU administration announced that despite the reports, no such request for gender-free bathrooms had been approved. But it was too late. Before the university responded, the news became a trending topic on social media. The majority of comments were quite offensive and coarse, including not only overtly explicit but also rather gross visuals and words. Some of the milder examples include the following:
“The Prostitution Department has been opened at our university now.”
“Foreign colleges are making [scientific] discoveries, while METU is [concerned with] toilets …”
“METU should be destroyed and a toilet must be built in its place.”
On live TV, pro-AKP presenter Erkan Tan told his viewers, “Let’s shut down METU and establish a real university in its place.”
On other social media platforms as well, such as Eksisozluk, a popular public information-sharing network, most commentators were against the idea for different reasons, though almost none of them had to do with the LGBTQ issue. The men were convinced they couldn’t use a bathroom with a woman in the vicinity, and the women were disgusted by the idea of using the same stalls as men of questionable hygiene. After reading 40 pages of commentary, I could not help but ask myself, “Have these people never used a toilet after the opposite gender in their homes or other spaces?”
Murat Korkmaz, an LGBTQ activist and undergraduate student in the Department of Psychology at METU, told Al-Monitor, “Even though METU may seem like a progressive college, indeed transphobia is quite persistent on its campus. To raise consciousness about the presence of trans and queer students on campus, we started a signature campaign to have one bathroom at the humanities building as gender-neutral. We finally prepared a request with 420 signatures and initiated negotiations with the administrators. They kept delaying the decision for over two months, so we said, ‘Unless you give us answer we will declare all bathrooms gender-neutral in the building.’ Our protest was presented in the press in a wrong way, so we told everyone it would be [just] one bathroom. After that, unfortunately, the chancellor’s office presented rather transphobic statements saying it disapproves of gender-neutral bathrooms. LGBTQ students and our suffering, along with the support we received from our friends, was ignored altogether.”
Korkmaz was clear about how difficult it is for gender-nonconforming students to be acknowledged or just to figure out which bathroom would be a safer place for them. The concerns and fears of LGBTQ students are quite universal: If they use the women’s bathroom they could face verbal and even physical harassment, while in the men’s bathroom it could be physical and sexual abuse. Korkmaz and several others at METU believe they are not safe, even though the campus is known as a secular and progressive domain. Why could the college administrators not assign a couple of bathrooms in each building as gender-neutral, knowing there is widespread support among the student body?
Not one academic from the humanities or social sciences came out to speak in defense of the students’ demands or the urgency of providing gender-neutral and sufficiently private bathrooms for students with disabilities or those who identify as LGBTQ. It was a sad coincidence that the Pride March scheduled for June 25 was again banned by the Istanbul Municipality. Despite the ban, hundreds marched and were brutally attacked in Istanbul.
Al-Monitor spoke with a handful of Islamists who were willing to engage in discussion. The conversation developed along these lines: “So if a few students demand halal food and a mosque in which to pray in a non-Muslim-majority country, do you think they should be accommodated?” They all answered, “Yes, of course.” So then why couldn’t there be a gender-neutral bathroom, which these Islamists would not be obliged to use — one that is optional, just like ordering halal food on an American carrier? Most of the Islamists, young and older alike, were not pleased about this part of the conversation, and finally the answer came down to the fact that religious freedom needs to be respected, but being trans is a disease. Trans people need to be in a hospital, not on a college campus, they said. Sadly, there was no tolerance, let alone acceptance, among these Islamists.
In the meantime, the Official Gazette published the news that all new schools will be required to have gender-segregated prayer and ablution rooms. When added to the skyrocketing number of religious schools, the ban on teaching evolution and the scary rise in random violence against women and children, the silence of METU academics and the suffering of LGBTQ students can be understood better.
In Turkey, authoritarianism and arbitrary bans have permeated every level of society, and the most progressive corners — college campuses, which should stand as symbols of freedom of expression — suffer the most. Turkey has become an example of how the most narrow-minded minorities have tacitly managed to have their cake and eat it too while starving others.