Heteronormativity in Turkey—The Classroom as a Locus of Transformation: Teaching Can Candan’s My Child

By Bihter Somersan

The documentary My Child by Can Candan stands out as a profound tool of transformative pedagogy in my courses “The Sociology of Gender and Family,” “Readings in Sociology of Gender,” and “Social Movements.” The documentary reveals the stories of parents of LGBTI individuals in Turkey, portraying how they “found out” about the (trans)gender identity and/or sexual orientation of their children; their ways of “coping with it” in a genuinely homophobic, transphobic, traditional, and conservative society; and finally their transformation into enthusiastic activists and advocates for LGBTI rights as members of LISTAG (Lezbiyen, Gey, Biseksüel, Trans, İnterseks Bireylerin Aileleri ve Yakınları Grubu; Families of LGBTI in Istanbul). The film is framed by the narratives of the parents, giving an in-depth account of the social, political, and cultural context in Turkey, where parenting a gender variant child takes more than courage. Although the parents come from different social classes and backgrounds, their interactions and experiences with school administrations, teachers, doctors, and their own extended family members concerning their children, are equally shaped by prejudice, intolerance, discrimination, and isolation. Despite these barriers the parents confront, their unconditional, unwavering love and support for their children proves a catalyst to turn them from “concerned” parents into heated LGBTI rights activists.

The film consists of five major parts, the first of which presents the parents’ personal stories of “having a feeling about,” “freely talking about,” and “coming to terms with” the sexual orientation and gender identity of their children. These accounts reveal intense and heartfelt moments between parents and children and provide context for the fierce fight for public recognition and acknowledgement of young people’s gender identities and/or sexual orientations. In the second part LISTAG takes prominence, the civil societal organization the parents have co-founded with Mehmet Tarhan and Metehan Özkan, two prominent LGBTI activists. We can observe their politicization, their transnational networks with other LGBTI communities, their fields of activism and action repertoire, and the way they bring attention to LGBTI rights and reach out to other parents for solidarity and support. The third part focuses on the concept of gender identity and sexual orientation within a seminar led by two experts from CETAD (Cinsel Eğitim, Tedavi ve Araştırma Derneği; Society for Sexual Education, Treatment, and Research) that explores how gender identity is not necessarily a choice, but for some people feels inherent, something that a child could just “know” at a very young age. This sequence uncovers in moving ways how this seminar impacts and supports newcomer parents of LGBTI individuals. We then join a get-together of these parents with their children, where they freely chat about their political activism, personal encounters, and daily lives. The last part of the documentary shows the parents preparing to participate in the twentieth Istanbul LGBTI Pride Week March 2012, which since 2003 has taken place in the heart of Istanbul: Istiklal Avenue. The parents also appear on national television channels as guests of the major opposition party in parliament, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), where they jointly give a press conference about their central demand that the constitution make discrimination against LGBTI individuals illegal. We finally see them march amongst thousands of LGBTI people and their supporters, carrying banners and flags saying: “I am a mother of a Trans,” “I am your father, I stand with you,” “Don’t touch the future of my child,” “My child is homosexual,” and “LGBTI rights are my children’s rights.” A father reflects in his concluding remarks that “you don’t have a girl or a boy; people have children. He was my daughter, and now he became my son; he is my child.”

My Child as a Tool of Transformative Pedagogy

I screen this moving documentary during my course “Sociology of Gender and Family,” which is conceptualized as an introduction to sociological approaches to understanding gender and family. The first weeks assess classical theories of family, which I follow with feminist and poststructural critiques and redefinitions that focus on the denaturalization of family by looking at families of choice and how people “do” family life. This challenges the idea that family is solely a companionate and egalitarian institution, while emphasizing gendered divisions of labor, domestic violence, and heteronormativity in families. These assessments further provide a basic introduction to gender and queer theory.

I structure the first weeks as a lecture-led seminar followed by class discussions to equip the students with theoretical prerequisites, which they can implement in the latter weeks of the seminar. This theoretical inquiry is accompanied by assessments and group exercises that aim to uncover our own perceptions and emotions about family, gender identity, and gender roles. Moving to a student-centered approach, the following weeks consist of students presenting about topics related to concepts such as intimate relationships, marriage, motherhood, violence, unpaid labor, emotional labor, hegemonic masculinity, and sexualities. The readings incorporate Turkey-specific researches on family and gender issues, as well. Within this flow of the course, I screen My Child in the week where we address the topic of sexualities and queer theory, accompanied by Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender and R.W. Connell’s Hegemonic Masculinity.

Students in this class often come from very diverse backgrounds, so I encounter a range of reactions to the documentary. Some students from Turkey or other mostly Islamic countries share that they have been raised in more traditional families, where the gender roles are fixed, so homosexuality and transgender individuals are a taboo. Others—mostly exchange students socialized in Western countries and students from Turkey who grew up in more liberal families or were parented by single mothers—have much more progressive approaches and search for ways to denaturalize heteronormativity in Turkey and elsewhere. After a screening, students, almost without exception, are deeply moved and find themselves in a state of inner personal stimulus that leads many to share intimate and sincere thoughts. The discussions encourage strong arguments and debates, but these exchanges can be transformative and encourage a growing self-awareness and self-exploration for students. Most students are simultaneously assertive and emotional while reflecting on the film. Their reactions to the documentary are similar: the film has reached out to them, it has touched their hearts and minds, and it made them want to act together with all minorities to safeguard their equal rights before the law and, most importantly, their rights to live in dignity. Further, all agree that the sincere and heartfelt narratives of the parents about how they feel, act, and stand with their children within this process of identity formation is the most powerful feature of the documentary. Students are moved by these mothers and fathers, the fears for their children’s lives, their public demands for their children’s safety, their fight for equal citizenship rights. The more intimate the personal stories of the parents become, the more political the impact.

After the screening, Pınar Özer, one of the film’s protagonists, visits our class. Pınar, utterly natural and outspoken, shares abundantly the most private moments in her journey with her gender variant child. With every authentic account—from the moment when she first put a bra on her daughter, to her feelings about just wanting to “fix this problem” in the beginning, to her frustration with anyone who would see her “trans-baby” (as she lovingly called her child) as the “other”—Pınar plants a seed of love. She also discusses gender norms in Turkey in relation to her transgender daughter, who now would experience the barriers of being a woman in a conservative society, whereas transgender men would not be exposed to such discriminative practices, at least not because of their gender identity. Pınar then distributes booklets and pamphlets from LISTAG, the organization that offers guidance and support for LGBTI individuals, their parents, and anyone who wants to advocate for LGBTI rights. It is often obvious that the students aren’t prepared for this much genuineness and openness, but these conversations turn the classroom into a locus of transformation. One student, after sharing with the class her sexual orientation as lesbian, sought Pınar’s advice for coming out to her mother and about building her life in a homophobic society. I have also observed how some of the more conservative and/or religious students enter a quiet space of self-inquiry and transform their rhetoric, demonstrating a genuine effort “to understand.” Since students who identify as conservative tend to consider the family as a sacred institution, an unquestionable place of love and compassion, the parents’ stories can have a much greater effect on them, generating feelings of empathy and tolerance. In this sense, the documentary and Pınar’s contribution further serve as tools of political awareness-raising, equipping the students with information for accessing solidarity networks and fields of activism.

Concluding Reflections

For me, as a professor of gender studies for more than fifteen years, nothing has been more powerful and more transformative than the moments in class after watching My Child. The journey of the parents—their frustration, their solitude and isolation in an intolerant society, their self-questioning, their redefinition and re-creation of themselves, and their empowerment become our own. We have the opportunity to transform from paralyzed bystanders in an often violent, rigid, and intolerant society to capable and legitimate members of that society, and into those who can take part in creating a more equal social coexistence. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association’s annual review of the human rights situation of LGBTI people in Turkey in 2016 (ILGA-Europe 2016) reveals the devastating degree of violence and discrimination. The rising murders of transgender women in Turkey stand out in their brutality as hate crimes. Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the subsequent political repression and the ongoing state of emergency is affecting the field of activism and overall visibility of LGBTI individuals as well. The Istanbul LGBTI Pride Week March, which after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 had become a crowded and colorful rally of tens of thousands of LGBTI activists and allies, has been violently attacked by the police since 2015, like all other demonstrations and public events critical of the government.

In my own reflections on the film, one question constantly comes up, which I eventually pose to a class: Did this documentary, since it presents the stories of LGBTI individuals in Turkey solely from the personal and emotional perspective of their parents, in any way undermine, patronize, or silence struggles of autonomous LGBTI activists, therefore diminishing their voices as self-determined and influential political actors? The question itself often becomes void in the moment I ask it, because of the documentary’s effect on students. The stories of the parents are too truthful, too pure, too real, and most importantly too powerful to be questioned. More than that, students usually agree that parents are the most effective political actors because they can reach vast parts of society.

In an increasingly polarized society, where the borders of one’s self become more rigid every day and “otherness” is more disturbing than ever, My Child stands out as an exceptional medium that engenders a language of affinity and closeness. The broad and encompassing space of “being the parent of a child” constitutes a powerful and fruitful ground for finding an ear and transforming heteronormative values and practices of a society, and, consequently, legitimizing the demand for equal rights for all.

Works Cited and Additional Readings Used in Class

Bielby, Denise D. 2006. “Gender and Family Relations.” In The Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, edited by Janet Saltzman Chafetz, 391-406. New York: Springer.

Bilefsky, Dan. 2009. “Soul-Searching in Turkey after a Gay Man Is Killed.” New York Times, November 25. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/world/europe/26turkey.html.

Butler, Judith. 2004. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” In Undoing Gender, 17-39. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R. W., and James W. Messerschmidt. 2005. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19 (6): 829-59.

Ertürk, Yakın. 2006. “Turkey’s Modern Paradoxes: Identity Politics, Women’s Agency, and Universal Rights.” In Global Feminism: Transnational Women's Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights, edited by Myra Marx Ferree und Aili Mari Tripp, 79–109. New York: New York University Press.

Kaos GL, LGBTI News Turkey, and IGLHRC. 2014. Human Rights Violations of LGBT Individuals in Turkey. Ankara: Ayrıntı Basımevi. http://ilga.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Shadow-report-16.pdf.

Human Rights Watch. 2011. “He Loves You, He Beats You”: Family Violence in Turkey and Access to Protection. New York: Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/turkey0511webwcover.pdf.

ILGA-Europe. 2016. “Turkey.” In Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex People in Europe, 164-67. Erpe-Mere, Belgium: Corelio Printing. http://www.ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/Attachments/annual_review_2016-for_web.pdf.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 2016. “Locating the Politics of Gender: Patriarchy, Neo-liberal Governance and Violence in Turkey.” Research and Policy on Turkey 1 (2): 103-18.

My Child. 2013. Directed by Can Candan. Istanbul: Surela Film. 82 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-kELSfxRRU.

Smith, Dorothy E. 2002. “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology.” In Gender: A Sociological Reader, edited by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, 63-68. New York: Routledge.


The film is dedicated to Irem Okan, a transgender woman who was violently murdered in Bursa in 2010 and ends with her mother’s mourning: “They couldn’t find a place for my child in this damn big world.”

Bihter Somersan received her PhD magna cum laude in political science from Goethe University Frankfurt in 2010. Since 2001 she has taught courses on political sociology, social movements, and gender and women’s studies. Dr. Somersan is currently an adjunct professor at Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. She received awards from Thomson Reuters Foundation as a Leading Women’s Rights Expert (2015) and from the German Marshall Fund as a Future European Leader (MMF 2010), as well as various other academic awards. Dr. Somersan has publications on the women’s movement in Turkey, feminism, gender, and democracy. Further, she is a founding member of the Equality Watch Women’s Group (EŞİTİZ), which is genuinely engaged in the advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality.