Between March and June 2020, Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellow Pınar Öğünç made 35 interviews with people from Turkey, mainly workers, to write about structural problems, inequalities of their sector which became more visible in these harsh times. Five of them were translated to make them available to an international non-Turkish speaking readership.
A 52-year-old trans sex worker speaks up about how not working during this crisis is not an option, the financial despair of trans sex workers who are above a certain age and sex workers who had just begun to work. On top of all this, she was attacked right after The President of Religious Affairs delivered a sermon in April in which homosexuals were pointed to as the culprits for the spread of illnesses. »There is no such thing as normal or abnormal in the life of workers,« she says. As someone who was both ignored and blocked by a wall of immorality, she redefines what morality means.
»If I was above a certain financial standard, I would not do this work. I did quit for a while, yes. I transitioned from appearing to be a woman to a man, I said I was willing to do anything to make a living.«
Let’s put it in very simple terms – I have an apartment that I bought with a ten-year mortgage and I might lose it because of Corona. I have to make monthly payments of 1300TL, I can’t. I received a dunning letter. I couldn’t pay for two months, they might take over the apartment if I can’t pay for three months. So I have to work. I would have continued to work, but I was attacked. It was after the statements by the Head of Religious Affairs. I could have died, but thankfully, someone who was passing by in a car saved me. But the person who attacked me didn’t stop himself from saying what he did. You are having intercourse with men, the world will be destroyed blah blah … A couple of days after the sermon. You see how that kind of language directly impacts our lives.
Before Corona, I was able to sustain myself in one way or another. Now, I don’t know what to do. I have cats; a few of them got sick and I couldn’t get them treated. One of them died a little while ago. The monthly building fees have piled up; I owe money to a friend of mine and she is pushing me to pay back, rightfully so. I smoked, but I had to quit. I ran out of gas and I was using a smaller, picnic-size gas stove and now that one is depleted too – I have no gas. I haven’t been able to pay my electricity bills, they will cut that off soon too. I haven’t been able to pay for the Internet for over three months. This is the thing: You get the disease and you die. But the fear of the disease and the anxiety around losing your home, being homeless are now together. One is worse than the other. Relying on other people at this point in my life is worse than the disease. I had established a life for myself, who would want to be in this situation after the age of 50? I applied for social security benefits, but nobody got back to me. I didn’t want to openly write that I was a sex worker. We have a religion-driven government – everybody, including the president, is against us. When I fill out forms, I say, unskilled worker, cleaner. It is a contradiction, of course, but if I wrote down what I did, they would immediately reject my application.
Most sex workers are living in similar circumstances. Some worked a lot in the past and saved up enough to own something and they can sustain themselves even without working – there are those cases. There are those like me who are trying to sustain themselves at this age and the new trans sex workers are experiencing true victimhood. For example, I have a 65-year-old friend, she still has to work as a sex worker. Think about it! I’m 52, I have more of an appeal than her, but I don’t have savings. I have been a sex worker for a long time. It must have been 29–30 years. I wanted to quit at different points in my life, but it didn’t work out. I went back to sex work.
As precautions during this time, I have a mask, I have gloves, I always carry my rubbing alcohol with me. I never had intercourse without condoms before the pandemic also. People are a bit more careful during intercourse now. There is no kissing or close contact. I try not to have clients above a certain age. Other than cleaning the house and keeping a hygiene standard, there is not much I can do. As official brothels are closed, more women are working on the street or more brothels are making those women work on the street. Those who come, come anyway and they are careful. Seventy percent wear masks. Some don’t take it off even during intercourse. Or they keep it on their chin at least.
Of course, people don’t see what we do as labor. There is the dimension of sexuality and perversion involved – nobody is interested in the economics of the work. People think that everybody is enjoying this work and that we are all doing this for fun. Nobody speaks about how we suffer and become victims. No sex worker is pleased to be paid hourly for having intercourse. If I was above a certain financial standard, I would not do this work. I did quit for a while, yes. I transitioned from appearing to be a woman to a man, I said I was willing to do anything to make a living. I settled in a village in the middle of nowhere for a while. I was living in ruins. I looked after livestock, I was a shepherd. I did everything. I was going to the mosque, I was mixing with other people. But later people found out and when people find out, they don’t want you there. Even if you’re willing to work for very little, they don’t want you among them. At the end of the day, we are not begging for money, but they don’t hire you.
Workers kept working during the pandemic. Nobody cares about the lives of normal workers – there is no such thing as normal or abnormal among workers, but I’m speaking in general terms here, so how could they care about sex workers? There is not even a perspective that exists when it’s about us. We do not count, trans people don’t even exist.
»Of course, people don’t see what we do as labor. There is the dimension of sexuality and perversion involved – nobody is interested in the economics of the work. People think that everybody is enjoying this work and that we are all doing this for fun. Nobody speaks about how we suffer and become victims.«
I’m a sociable person. I’m not only made up of my gender, I have a private life. I did not receive higher education, but I’m not ignorant. I’m open to what life has to offer. There are those on social media, on TV who say things about killing people, showing bullets, asking how people are going to protect their wives, their children from them … Nothing happens to them. Look, I studied at an islamic divinity high-school, I’m knowledgeable about religion. These are not things to speak up about perhaps, but I do read the Qur’an on special occasions, I watch religious TV programs, I know about my religion, I come from a devout family. If religion is what the current government presents it to be, I’m not religious. Nevertheless, their misinterpretation of religion is not a reason for me to put aside the religion that I know. Perhaps what I do is a sin in God’s eyes. But I live in a secular country – I will settle my debt with God after I die.
Now, what’s important is public health. They don’t let anyone speak up – The Chamber of Pharmacists, the Chamber of Doctors. They have all been disregarded and the government does what they want to do. We do not have any assets, institutions, factories, we do not have the republic any more. We have nothing left, no agriculture, no production. We rely on other countries for everything. And now there is Corona. Soon, everybody will keep their food to themselves; then what? What are we going to eat? This country will experience famine in 2020, famine! The peak of immorality becomes morality. This is what I believe to be immoral. As a sex worker, I protect my morality, thankfully, in relation to my surroundings, my friends, my neighbors. I would never take away what rightfully belongs to someone else, I would never bother someone. If this is immoral, then I’m content with my immorality.
If good opposition can be formed and the order of things can change so that this country can have freedom and democracy, then something could change. But this is not something that can happen so easily. I’m pessimistic. Everything will continue as is, this is what the circumstances are revealing at the moment.
What empowers me? You know what? My cats. If I continue to survive as long as I have an apartment, I can take good care of them. I also take care of stray animals. If I can stand on my own two feet, I can take care of them too, which is a thought that heals me.
The day we spoke, the number of Covid-19 cases was 146,457 and the number of deaths was 4,055.
*The unforeseeable state of emergency launched by a virus with a global reach has made visible the already-existing inequalities of capitalism, deepening the gaps; many say that nothing can remain the same after this. Is that true? Why would everything not remain the same? While this order of things, which owes its existence to colonialism, sexist divisions of labor and precisely that deep inequity, has our souls and bodies enveloped, just like this ominous virus – is it possible to recover from it? Women, men, workers, clerks, the unemployed, the white-collar workers, the blue-collar workers, those claim that the era of “collars” is over, freelancers, those working from home, those still working, those being forced to work, those in quarantine, those who cannot see their future, and those who are fatigued by what they see in their future. Why did we begin this long series of articles? Because we need to hear each other’s voices, to hear about each other’s troubles, and to look for our remedies through and within the remedies of others.
Translation by Merve Unsal