The smell of roasted chestnuts sweetens the tough streets of Istanbul. Police with rifles stand on every corner, in full riot gear, their fingers hooked on their triggers. Every few hundred yards, promoters invite you to clubs. “One thousand capacity clubs,” they say, “free drinks all night,” as you envisage the vodka breath and thirsty gazes of the eight guys they managed to lure inside earlier.
You walk fast, your head down, your coat buttoned up, beelining straight to your destination. The ripples of a devastating attack in October (on the street and then in the police station) are still surging through the city’s women’s and LGBTQ+ communities. During a recent press conference, local activist Oğulcan Yediveren stated that the “attack targets all LGBTI+ [people],” and is the result of the current government’s active policy of hostility against these groups since 2015. Istanbul Pride, for example, has been banned since 2015, and when activists took to the streets in June 2022, the Turkish police “attacked and arrested hundreds of people,” in what Human Rights Watch declared “a sweeping display of violence and discrimination.”
Tonight you’re heading to one of three queer bars in the city – right in the heart of Taksim, the central nightlife and shopping district. Past discrete signage, up four flights of crickedy stairs, sits Bigudi – the only woman-owned queer bar in Istanbul, a beacon nestled on top of this hostile city.
Walking inside, your armor peels away in an instant, as you’re greeted by the big smiles and liberated bodies of Istanbul’s community, getting their life on the dancefloor. This surge of excitement, safety and freedom is the sensation of entering an essential queer bar anywhere in the world. And Bigudi, it turns out, is a fundamentally important queer space in a country that needs them now more than ever.
You arrive late, 1am on a Sunday night, but the party is still very much in full swing. The venue’s rectangular shape – it’s about the size of a bus – means you’re launched straight onto the dancefloor. At this time, on this day, it’s spaciously full (though on a Friday and Saturday night, it miraculously hosts 300 people), filled with students, fabulous and gender-queer, shooting shots of Jäger under a sign that reads Fuck Gender Roles.
The DJ takes great pleasure in swinging the crowd from Turkish tracks to “Born this Way.” “‘God makes no mistakes,’” someone bellows alongside Gaga as they jubilantly shroud themselves in a trans flag. Past the dancefloor, four beautiful queers in hoodies sit in a line of bar stools, nursing Efes beers and elegantly smoking cigarettes out of the big open windows,. The moonlight streams into the penthouse-style bar to cinematic effect.
Behind the bar, owner and filmmaker Adar mixes drink after drink, while chatting away like a Haus Mother – her beautiful heart and impeccably chiseled jaw have been serving this space since she opened in 2008.
“Back then it was just a women’s space,” Adar tells GO. “Then in 2017 I changed it, based on my queer experience – my gender has changed and our community has changed too, so now we’re LGBTQ+,” she says, standing across from the blanket of queer flags she’s printed on Bigudi’s wall: Gynephilia (sexual attraction to women or femininity), Two Spirit (Native Americans who hold a masculine and feminine spirit), and Sapiosexual (attraction to intelligence), amongst others.
The contrast of the atmosphere inside Bigudi and out on the streets is stark, as though you’re floating in a hot air balloon above increasingly tumultuous lands.
“You feel it,” says Adar, “this is not the Turkey of 10, 15 years ago; we had so much more freedom then.”
“We want people, and especially women to feel safe here, because everywhere else, it’s straight people, and in Istanbul, it’s not like before: it’s not safe. For women, it’s really bad, they can’t go out dancing in most clubs, you feel when walking in the street, if she is a little bit open, many people are looking and talking and fighting her. It’s everyday and it’s getting worse, there’s so little freedom,” Adar says, a mix of anger, sadness and utter disbelief coursing through her vocal chords.
“It’s about atmosphere and about government, there are many conservative people and many religious people coming to Turkey – and of course this is political – the government, they want it like this,” says Adar, referring to Turkish President Erdogan – now a de facto dictator – who in March 2021 withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women, under the auspices that the convention, which protects all regardless of sexual orientation, had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” There is an election next June – a flicker of hope for Adar and her community.
In the present climate, the simple existence of Bigudi feels like activism. A community incubator tucked away with a pink triangle as its logo – a nod to the pink triangle the Nazis placed on homosexuals during the Holocaust, a symbol that has since been reclaimed by queer activists. “I was born with activism inside,” says Adar, “I was born Kurdish and a woman and then I realized myself to be lesbian, I also didn’t have a religion so all of me was the opposite of what society wanted. That’s why I have to be an activist.”
“Actually, I was an activist,” she says, correcting herself. “I mean, still I am but in Turkey, we can’t do anything, it’s very difficult now to be an activist.” Referring to that specter-like police presence outside, Adar tells of her experience at Istanbul’s Pride this year, noting that the police wouldn’t let the community congregate. “We had to walk a meter apart, when even three people were walking together, the police would break us up,” she says.
Wondering if she feels in jeopardy as a queer space, Adar mentions that the police, especially last year, would visit unannounced, but she has the front of being a “women’s bar… women owner, of women’s space. They [the police] don’t care so much about that.” The traditional feminine association to the bar’s name Bigudi – French and Turkish for hair rollers – helps with this disguise. “When I was a child, I would watch my big sister put bigudi in. She’d wake up with this beautiful curly hair. I was always so impressed and curious about this and so when I opened the bar I thought to honor this tradition of women doing bigudi in the evening and in the morning, waking up different.” It is clear from the expansive atmosphere in this space that countless people have spent a night in Bigudi and woken up different.
As closing time draws close, the DJ casts their magic for their final track. Leaving their booth, they unleash into a Ballroom-esque floor spin to acid-trance scorcher “Ceytengri“ by Sahibinin Sesi. Those remaining on the dancefloor squeeze the final moments of liberation from the night, before its time to reapply the armor and coats to take on the world outside.
Five nights a week Bigudi is open until morning. Every night, Adar is behind her bar, scrubbing the sink, shaking cocktails and mopping the floor as the clock strikes 4am. As you watch Adar chatting away to her patrons with the wisdom and kindness of a grandma, you realize that the profound feeling of safety and familiarity in this space originates from the beautiful, queer, Kurdish heart of its owner – an activist by birth, a bar owner by choice.
Bigudi, Mis sk. No.5 Kat:5 Taksim (there’s a subtle pink triangle sign and a staircase to climb)
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