Bülent Erkoç was born in Malatya, Turkey, and named after a footballer. His grandparents played classical Turkish music and he first took private lessons and then studied at Istanbul Municipal Conservatory.
For the purposes of performance, Bülent changed his name from Erkoç (=brave ram) to Ersoy (= brave lineage).
His first single came out in 1971. After establishing himself as a classical singer, he also recorded the more remunerative but down market arabesk. Ersoy also appeared in several Turkish films as a young naïve, somewhat androgynous heterosexual man, and was visible in the press with fake fiancées. However he was openly gay in his private life. He, along with the gay popular singer Zeki Muren, was seen in contrast to the regular macho Turkish man. In the film Evlidir Ne Yapse Yeridir, 1978, some women articulate ‘feminist’ demands: male domestic help, new clothes and listening to Bülent Ersoy.
By the time of the military coup in 1980, Bülent had started transition, and was wearing female clothing on stage, and while singing at the Izmir International Fair, she showed her new breasts. For this she was arrested and spent 45 days in prison.
She had surgery by Peter Philip at Charing Cross Hospital in 1981. She kept the male name, Bülent, because her career was already established.
Back in Turkey she had to endure several physical examinations and a long legal case in an attempt to be recognized as a woman, in which she emphasized her patriotism. Meanwhile the military government arrested 650,000 people, one of whom was Demet Demir. The military government also closed the trans brothels and forbad all performances by trans entertainers. Bülent was also banned, but under a law that required women to obtain police permission to perform. She chose, as a result of this, to live in exile in Germany and Australia through the 80s, although her films and albums were still sold in Turkey.
Bülent enjoyed the support of Semra Özal, the Prime Minister’s wife. Bülent refused to acknowledge that she had been transsexual, and presented herself as a Muslim, nationalist, upper-class woman, and dressed more conservatively than before. She would no longer kiss her leading man. Some said that she was germ-phobic, but this was also the style of Turkan Soray, Turkey’s most popular actress. She also started using Ottoman words that had almost disappeared from the language. State television kept up a de facto ban on her performing, but with the new private channels she began to appear regularly, and had her own talk show on Kanal 6, owned by the Özal family.
In 1992 she recorded “Ablan Kurban Olsun Sana (Older Sister Would Sacrifice Herself For You)”, and she came to be referred to as Abla (older sister). She began to mention Allah in her songs, and in 1995 she recorded the adhan, the call to prayer. It was controversial for a woman to do so, but the controversy affirmed both her faith and her gender. In 1998 she married her then boyfriend, Cem Adler. This was controversial in that he is more than 20 years younger than she is. In 1993, she was badly injured in a car accident, and later that year she divorced Adler for infidelity.
In 2004 Bülent broke her practice and gave an interview to the newspaper Milliyet in which she apologized for diluting the classical tradition by singing arabesk for money. She followed this with a concert at the open-air Cemil Topuzlu where she sang only classical songs, some dating back to the 13th century.
However on television and in her other concerts she did continue to sing arabesk and modern pop. When an old friend mentioned that she had done (the male only) national service she furiously denied it. On the television show Canli Hayat, a re-enactment of her early life was performed by a female actor.
Bülent became a regular and a jury member on Popstar Alaturka. In 2007 she married one of the contestants on the show, but divorced him a few months later. Later in 2007 drag star Seyfi Dursumoglu was banned from public television, and soon afterwards Lamdainstanbul which had worked with transsexuals was ordered to be closed. Later still that year when the Armenian human rights activist Hrant Dink was assassinated and thousands marched in the streets chanting “We are all Armenians!”, Popstar Alaturka opened with an Armenian song in sympathy. However Bülent later in the show gave a monologue to the effect that as the Muslim daughter of Muslim parents she could never say that she was Armenian.
In February 2008 Popstar Alaturka was devoted to the Turkish soldiers who had died in Northern Iraq, and Bülent made the common but illegal comment that she would never send a son to the army. She was subsequently prosecuted for disparaging the military. The comment brought the support of many intellectuals, but to Ersoy’s chagrin, she was also endorsed by the (Kurdish) Democratic Society Party (DTP), and her sales took off in the Kurdish southeast. However nationalist Turks made comments that the DTP leader was not as brave as Ersoy to have his thing cut off, and similar remarks. Bülent called a press conference and asserted her patriotism and her support of the military, and that she was leaving part of her wealth to a military foundation for disabled war veterans and their families. At her trial she was found not guilty.
In 2012 Bülent claimed that she had once met the iconic left-wing activist Deniz Gezmis. His lawyer denounced her for saying it, "he was against such people of lower morals". The press was critical of such 'traditionalism' on the left. The lawyer then apologized by identifying with the Raoul character in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, who likewise was initially intolerant of the queer character.
- “Shot transsexual singer out of danger”. Sydney Morning Herald, Oct 16, 1989. Online
- Akbar S. Ahmed and Hastings Donnan. Islam, Globalization, and Postmodernity. London: Routledge, 1994: 29, 35.
- “Turkish singer defiant in court”. BBC News, 24 Sept 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7633338.stm
- Rustem Ertug Altinay. “Reconstructing the Transgendered Self as a Muslim, Nationalist, Upper-Class Woman: the Case of Bulent Ersoy”. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, 3&4, Fall/Winter 2008:210-229.
- “Bülent Ersoy”. Outcyclopedia. http://outcyclopedia.0catch.com/bulent_ersoy.html. No longer available.
- “Bülent Ersoy”. TurkceBilgi. www.turkcebilgi.com/b%C3%BClent_ersoy/ansiklopedi.
- Elif Shafak. "From homophobia to a moving apology in Turkey". The Guardian, 18 January 2012. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/18/homophobia-turkey-moving-apology.
- Jimmy Trash. "Bülent Ersoy: The Remarkable Untold Story of a Turkish Icon, Transgender Diva and Unintentional Revolutionary". Huffington Post, 12/19/2012. www.huffingtonpost.com/network-awesome/bulent-ersoy-remarkable-story_b_2330277.html.
EN.WIKIPEDIA TR.WIKIPEDIA IMDB TRANS.ILGA
It is a lot more difficult to be gay or trans in Turkey than in western Europe, and therefore we should not be as critical. However the statement in the en.wikipedia page on her: “Over the years, Ersoy has become a symbol for the increased tolerance for LGBT figures in Turkish media” does avoid the fact that post 1988 she has avoided and even badmouthed gays and trans. By being known as transsexual and being a major singer she is a role model, but I am unable to find any example of her speaking up for other transsexuals. Altinay quotes Esmeray, a Turkish activist as saying: “Bülent Ersoy is as transsexual as Michael Jackson is black”. Also she has announced that she is leaving a bequest to a military foundation, but has not said anything about a bequest to any gay/trans organization.
Does a good Moslema initiate divorce? Twice?
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