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(The Gay Beacon… with Sasha B & Tema P in Istanbul)

When I was doing my PhD, I spent a lot of time in Tbilisi, Georgia. At the time I remember several gay guys there talking about how much they loved Istanbul. The freedom, the nightlife, the artistic air, the cosmopolitanism, the colour… I know it’s based largely on prejudice but I wondered how gay guys from a Christian country could feel so blissful in a Moslem one. After seeing it for myself, however, I saw that they were right. And well, dogmatically at least Islam is no more anti-gay than Christianity, or than Judaism for that matter, but still I was surprised.

Of course it’s not Berlin or London, but for the region it certainly is a gay beacon, drawing people from countries all around it. I suppose if Georgians could travel easily to the EU, they might go to Amsterdam, but they need visas. So do Russians, which is perhaps a factor in why Sasha B and Tema P love Istanbul so much. They’re from Moscow and come often to Istanbul. Indeed it was during one of their long weekends to Istanbul that I met them. Even though they weren’t local boys, I decided to shoot them anyway, but I left them for the Istanbul series of Elska Ekstra rather than for the main issue.

But beyond Russians, Georgians, and other people from the Post-Soviet neighbourhood, Istanbul draws in LGBT people from the mostly Moslem countries of the region, being a gay haven in the Middle East. Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis and others flock here – indeed I saw quite a few on the gay apps when I was in town. And while I didn’t meet any Israelis when I was in town, I did shoot a guy who wore a Tel Aviv shirt, which he put on right as we were outside a mosque. lYes, there is a rising tide of religious conservatism doing its worst to stamp out the gaiety, but Istanbul remains resistant, strong and independent.
So what about after Elska Istanbul? People tell me that Beirut comes second as gayest city in the Middle East, so that could be the setting of a future Elska issue. Others say that gayest of all in the region would be Tel Aviv. Israel seems to have a very progressive society, and in fact the Israeli state dedicates 1/3 of its full tourism budget to attracting LGBT visitors. So yeah, Elska Tel Aviv is definitely on the list!

See more of Sasha & Tema and read their story in Elska Ekstra (6.1)

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