“When I was a child, I was told that homosexuals would burn in hell,” said Ertugrul, a Muslim fighting for greater freedom for gays in a country where homosexuality remains taboo.
Ertugrul, who did not want to give his last name, is president of the group Muslims and Gays, which he says wants to “break taboos” in Muslim-majority Turkey, where gays are still subject to violence and abuse.
“There are still regions where people kill gays and lesbians to keep the honour of the family intact,” he said.
“For religious clerics, homosexuality is a test. If you succumb to temptation, you will go to hell. If you resist, you will be pardoned and go to heaven,” explained the 39-year-old, a practising Muslim.
Homosexuality and trans-sexuality are not illegal in Turkey but police regularly swoop — with or without authorisation — on parks, bars or hammams they believe gays frequent to check for prostitution.
People are then taken to police stations where officers check their identities and if they have a criminal record.
Critics say the checks are a way of putting pressure on the gay community.
In 2010, the Turkish minister for Women and the Family, Selma Aliye Kavaf, fell foul of gay rights groups when she classified homosexuality as “a biological disorder” and a “disease” which needed to be “cured”.
When anti-government protests swept Turkey in June, members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) association used the demonstrations to try and highlight their cause, but in vain, as violent attacks and even murders continue.
Gulsen, a 24-year-old who is gay, told AFP that, just the previous day, a transsexual friend had been found dead.
“We have lost count of the number of attacks, there are so many of them,” he said.
He was attacked in Istanbul’s Gezi park, the site made famous after controversial plans for its redevelopment sparked the June protests.
“I was talking to a young guy the other evening in the park when I was attacked by two guys who stabbed me in the face with a knife,” said Gulsen, who like Ertugrul, preferred that AFP did not use his last name.
But reporting the attack is out of the question.
“Why would I?” he said. “We know that there will be another version of events and that the attackers will never be punished.”
As gay Muslims struggle to reconcile religious teaching and sexuality, some prefer to try and get rid of their feelings, eager to believe that being gay is merely a phase.
“I couldn’t stay gay — my family and friends could not accept it,” said Mustafa, 26.
He underwent therapy to “better understand himself” and to “try to desire a woman’s body”. Convinced that he could change, Mustafa married a woman in June.
“She knows that I am not in the least attracted to women but that I’m working on it,” he said. He wants “to be normal”, he said, “like everyone else whose lives are simple”.