When Şafak Koç, a 21-year-old trans man, was thrown out of his university accommodation for being the wrong gender, he refused to remain silent.
The Istanbul student had recently undergone a partial sex reassignment procedure but, according to his ID, was still officially a female. The management of the state-owned Şafak Ataşehir Dormitory for Girls in Istanbul told him that he nonetheless had to leave immediately.
“I said I had nowhere to go, no job and no money, and asked them to let me stay for one more month at least, until I find another solution,” Koç said. “But they refused.”
His plight illustrates the often discriminatory legislation around trans people in Turkey, a situation further complicated by widespread prejudice.
According to Koç, the management said that, if he refused to leave, they would write in his record that he engaged in “immoral behaviour” and that they would inform his parents too.
“For them, I was immoral just because I was a transsexual person,” he said.
Koç, a student in the media and communication department of Uskudar University in Istanbul, is not the only trans person in this situation.
Trans students, initially accepted in either a male or female dorm before they start gender assignment, can find themselves in trouble once they begin this process.
According to the Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD), they receive numerous calls from trans students who have been thrown out of state-run dormitories, despite being awarded accommodation there. Many of these students come from poor families and cannot afford private accommodation, so losing a place in a dorm often means they have to leave university and return to their hometowns.
In turn, the university management has argued that they cannot decide whether the trans students should be placed in a female or male dorm.
As Koç underwent only a partial procedure, he still cannot apply for a new ID and legal reassignment. According to Turkish law, a person can only legally change their gender and ID – colour-coded according to biological sex – after a long legal and medical procedure.
Koç’s lawyer Umur Yıldırım claims that the dormitory management had no right to expel his client from the girl’s dormitory because he was still legally a female.
“This is nonsense. You can say that a man cannot stay in a girls’ dorm, but Şafak has a woman’s identity card. So there is no legal obstacle for Safak’s accommodation in the girls’ dorm,” he said.
Koç was born as a biological female to a conservative family in the city of Van, in eastern Turkey, but said that it was only at the age of five that he realised that he was in a girl’s body. It had a profound effect on him.
“Every night, I prayed to wake up as a girl in the morning, and even dreamt of that happening. I felt it was all my fault, I don’t know why,” Koç recalled.
When he reached puberty, matters became even worse. He visited several psychologists in Van and, finally, in 2016 one of them told him that he was trans.
Koç said he felt liberated for the first time, but confronting his family with his true sexual identity was not easy.
“After I realised that I was trans, I opened up to my family, but they didn’t take it well. I was exposed to psychological abuse and physical violence from them. I was beaten up and repeatedly told that I would never succeed in anything if I told anyone that I was a transgender individual. All this has left deep scars on me,” he said.
But although his father was initially violent, he gradually became more understanding and emphatic. However, he insisted that Koç kept his identity to himself.
Koç’s mother, a very traditional and religious woman, was even more worried about the social pressure her family would face if the truth came out.
“She told me, ‘I accept you being a transsexual, but don’t tell anyone,’” Koç recalled.
Although his family wanted him to study nearer home, Koç enrolled in Istanbul’s Uskudar University, 1,600 km away from his hometown. His mother was against his choice, but his father was surprisingly supportive.
His father said, “The relatives talk behind your back, but success is the best revenge. When you go [to Istanbul], study well and improve yourself.”
In Istanbul Koç came out as trans, first telling his friends and then his professors at the university, where he asked to be addressed as male. However, since he was still a biological female, his accommodation was in a girls’ dormitory.
Koç was determined to have gender reassignment and went through all the necessary physical and psychological exams. He wanted his mother to be with him during and after the operation, but she refused. Koç even contemplated suicide because he felt completely alone and did not have enough money for surgery.
Emin Sır, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Istanbul, learned about Koç’s despair through Twitter and offered to conduct the surgery for free.
“Turkey is a homophobic, transphobic country. Transsexuals in Turkey can have the sex-change operation only if they have money. If not, then they wear corsets or hunch their back to hide their breasts,” Sır explained.
Koç now lives in temporary accommodation with a trans friend but has continued to campaign on the issue via social media.
“My goal is to ensure that no other transgender person is dismissed from dormitories, and that they don’t get to experience the same discrimination as I did,” Koç said.
He also wants to raise awareness of the psychological problems transgender individuals have to deal with, especially in the eastern part of Turkey, where he is still in touch with many other trans people.
“One of them is a transgender male who was forced to get married and wear a hijab. He told me he considered suicide,” Koç said. “People like him feel completely alone and don’t know what to do. I want to be able to help them.”