Rüzgar Erkoçlar and the draft: the problem with ‘vulnerability’

Daniel Wren

LGBT+ publications and Twitter users alike have this week been discussing Rüzgar Erkoçlar – the trans actor who was drafted into military service in his home country of Turkey. There has been a degree of concern that a trans person should be drafted into service – occasionally, it feels, with a kind of patronising paternalism that irks me.

Often letters that draft a person into the military (as with jury service, for instance) are automated, and occasionally get sent out at inopportune times (such as when a person is ill or facing bereavement). States typically implement processes to account for this – often asking individuals to send in proof of circumstances, and then issuing a letter with a judgement on a case-by-case basis. Erkoçlar, it should be noted, has been issued an exemption certificate stating that he does not need to serve a term in the military.

The incident seems to have run like this (bearing in mind I do not speak or read Turkish):

Upon legally changing his gender, Erkoçlar was asked to prove any exemption to the draft or serve a term in the military.

In Turkey, the law states that every man over 18 is legally required to serve a term in the Turkish Army. There are only three possible exceptions: ongoing medical problems, disability or homosexuality. The latter has to be proved through a series of tests which Human Rights Watch has labelled ‘humiliating and degrading’. Stranger still, any gay or bisexual men who are already in the military and are subsequently discovered to be non-heterosexual will be expelled under changes to the military code implemented in 2012. It’s not clear whether these men will also have to ‘prove’ their sexuality, or if they’ll just be kicked out anyway – possibly creating the absurd situation of men being enrolled into the military for not proving their homosexuality, and then being kicked out later on for being labelled queer.

Trans men, unless living with a disability, would most likely have to prove a medical exemption – although some trans men are also gay or bisexual and could opt to prove this instead, if they wanted to face the military’s invasive tests. This might be because they are still undergoing treatment or because their own everyday health needs might not be met if they were stationed in the army.

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Erkoçlar went on to explain why he didn’t want to serve a term in the military: ‘Amid all the psychiatric process, hormone process, name change, a series of operations, while the situation is challenging and requiring emotional adaptation, it should not be made any more difficult. People working in those areas should be better informed. It should not be us directing them; it should be them directing us.’

His resistance to joining the army seems based on the premise that he is still not at full health, and that doing a term of service might create additional health complications. That seems as good a reason as any to be exempted from military service. Further comments by Erkoçlar indicate his exemption was most likely on medical grounds:

‘Finally a committee gives you “He is not suitable for military service” report,’ he said. ‘How can we be suitable for military service when we have undergone a series of operations?’

I’m not sure what hoops Erkoçlar was made to jump through as a trans man, and his critique of the system may in fact be about the manner in which he was made to provide proofs of his medical state, rather than the fact he had to submit proofs at all (his comments could be interpreted this way). If so, then it might be that there’s a problem with trans awareness which should be dealt with. There are no specific protections for LGBT+ people in Turkey, and violence against trans people has increased in recent years. It stands to reason that Erkoçlar’s application for exemption was a lengthy and complicated process – possibly made worse by the failure of the state to implement equality legislation and proper staff training.

This column deals less with the specifics of Erkoçlar’s case – which would require an understanding of Turkish red tape, and the language, that I do not have – and more about the response to the news by LGBT+ people in the UK.

Given the information we have, the shock of some members of the UK LGBT+ community seems entirely based on the fact Erkoçlar was faced with enrolment in the army at all. Responses seem to be something along the lines of: ‘How dare they force a trans (or LGBT+) person to join the army?’ His health and wellbeing aren’t really discussed – more the fact that a trans person, by default, shouldn’t be in the military. (Perhaps this is just the company I’ve found myself in over the last few days, and I apologise if your peers are much more understanding.)

Now, shock is an understandable reaction, and everyone is entitled to feel what they feel – whether others think it’s fair or not. Feelings are personal and not always under our control. But I wonder if, perhaps, we’re worrying about the wrong thing. Justice, at least, was served in this instance. Erkoçlar, after all, provided evidence to support his claim he should be exempt from a term of service, and the exemption was granted. There appears to be no great miscarriage of justice. It may later transpire that the process by which this exemption was finally granted was unnecessarily protracted because of a failure of the state to understand the needs of trans people – and if so, that certainly does deserve our anger. But asking for evidence in order to issue the exemption certificate is not unreasonable if the individual in question is treated with appropriate respect. Being trans does not make a person unfit.

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Firstly, a trans man is a man, and therefore legally bound by the same laws as other men in his country. Once a trans man has ‘male’ stamped on his passport, his country should treat him exactly the same as any other man – which, unfortunately, means that any law requiring a term of service in the military applies to him too. We shouldn’t be upset that trans men are asked to do service in the military – that a trans man should be automatically assumed vulnerable or somehow ‘different’ is problematic in itself.

Secondly, the problem isn’t having to submit evidence to evade the draft – it’s that there’s a military draft at all. Rather than complaining that LGBT+ people are being forced into the military, we should be fighting to stop anyone being forced into service.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a trans person might have medical reasons that make them unsuited for military duty. But not every trans person is the same – medically, emotionally, ideologically. Not every trans person opts for surgery or hormones – and even if they do, not everyone heals or adapts at the same pace. While one trans man might not be able to fight on medical grounds, another might pass all the military tests and medicals to be deemed fit enough to serve – and he may indeed be glad to do so. Erkoçlar’s request to be exempt was personal and due to his own individual needs – not necessarily the needs of all trans people.

It seems only fair, then, if the above is true, that Erkoçlar should be asked to submit evidence to prove he can’t serve – an assumption that any trans man is automatically unfit is unfair and unjust.

On the other hand, the draft itself denies people the right to live according to their own beliefs (e.g., pacifism), it denies them their democratic right to protest (pacifism can itself be a form of protest) and it denies them their own bodily autonomy (their bodies, and lives, become the property of states who use them to settle their own political disputes). This is what we should be mad about.

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We should be mad that, as most states with the draft only forcibly enrol men, the draft insists on a state-endorsed system of rigid gender roles that often works against the LGBT+ community and can make our lives more difficult. This is before we even get into the politics of class, which mean that, in the UK at least, it is the working classes who fight and die on the front line, while the middle and upper classes often occupy leadership roles that keep them safely at the back. The draft turns the bodies of working class men into collateral damage for governments and business interests – and that is shameful whether those men are cis or trans.

The other thing that is unfair – and which the LGBT+ community ought to be particularly upset about – is the lengths to which gay and bisexual men (whether cis or trans) must go to prove their sexuality. Putting aside the problematic assumption that gay and bi men are inherently unsuited to military service (again, this is discriminatory), each individual should be able to self-identify as LGBT+ without state intrusion.

Asking people to prove their sexuality is apparently a favourite form of abuse for some state apparatus – including here in the UK, where the Home Office and border officials demand proof of sexuality from asylum seekers. Forcing us to prove our sexuality demeans and degrades us, and also reduces our queer identities to the act of sex . What, for instance, of celibate LGBT+ people who nevertheless identify as queer?

‘There are many things that need to be fixed in our system,’ Erkoçlar wrote in his blog. And I agree. The Turkish state should repeal the legislation that compels its young men to serve in the military. It should end its automatic expulsion of gay and bisexual men from service. It should respect our right to self-identify without proof. It should create protections and equality legislation for minorities. And – if Erkoçlar’s application for exemption was indeed delayed in any way – it should probably have its employees catch up on their trans awareness training too.

Meanwhile, we in the UK should be mindful of what our outrage betrays about our own privilege. If we really are implying that trans men are inherently unsuited to (or should be protected from) undertaking any task because of their trans identities, perhaps we need to undergo a bit of trans awareness training too.

About Daniel Wren

Vada Magazine staff writer. Interested in travel, news, politics and dating.