ISTANBUL – With lashings of glitter, makeup and political satire, 39-year-old Seyhan Arman transforms herself into Matmazel Coco, a transgender activist who is the main protagonist at an irreverent theater in Istanbul that lifts the lid on the taboos of Turkish society.
“Matmazel Coco lives in an imaginary world but at the same time is a very political character. She entertains people and creates political awareness,” Arman said of her alter ego in a recent interview with Turkish newspaper T24.
The character of Matmazel Coco, who came about at the beginning of 2014, not only shines a light on the sore spots of Turkish politics, she also tackles issues like transphobia in a country that tops the European list for the number of murders and attacks against this community.
At least five trans people were killed in Turkey in 2018, while in the past 10 years that figure reaches about 60.
Activists lament that hate crimes against people for their sexual orientation or for changing their gender are not classified in the Turkish penal code, which leaves members of the LGBT community in a vulnerable situation.
And trans people are also affected when it comes to employment in Turkey.
“Almost the only alternative of a trans person is being a sex worker. Few have other jobs. Those who manage to get on without going into prostitution almost always do it with the support of family and friends,” trans activist Demet, who did not wish to be fully identified, told Efe.
Arman’s trajectory is a special case, being a transgender person who has been able to dedicate herself to theater.
“Matmazel Coco does so many things! She does concerts, performances, shows at weddings, sometimes karaoke… It gives me so much and the audience enjoys it, we have fun together,” Arman said.
Before she transitioned to a woman, Seyhan had been doing theater for children in her native city of Adana in southern Turkey.
In 2000, she moved to Istanbul, a metropolis with a big LGBT scene, and decided to take the leap toward transsexuality. “I’ve been a trans woman my entire life. I know myself and I know my soul,” she said in the interview.
Seyhan told Epa she discovered she was different before primary school, but at that time she didn’t know what it meant. “I didn’t know any other transsexual or homosexual besides me, and I was thinking that I am the only one around the world.”
Unlike other Muslim countries in the region, Turkey has no laws against homosexuality or transsexuality, and the main cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir host vibrant gay scenes.
Arman is also known for her political activism along with the NGO “Lambda Istanbul,” one of the country’s first LGBT organizations.
Transsexuality is “something public,” she said, adding: “it’s obviously who were are (but) for society we are a bit strange because we show it. We are humiliated for not keeping something as sacred as masculinity. They also tell us we’re not women,” she said.
The fight for LGBT rights in Turkey has in the past four years been marked by pressure exerted by the conservative Islamist government, which has banned the annual pride march and other LGBT activities.
“I believe we can all live together. People could think a bit like me. Without hate speech. The moment you realize that ethnicity or sexual orientation does not matter at all, you feel much more comfortable.”