Feb 5, 2014

Spring 1989: A Bodybuilding Contest in Turkey

In September 1988, everything was going wrong.  I passed my qualifying exams for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, but my first committee nixed my dissertation topic, and my second committee was insisting that I llearn a new modern language.

My car was starting to fall apart from driving 100 miles per week in L.A. traffic.

Even with 3 jobs, I didn't make enough for USC tuition.  I owed $20,000 in student loans and my credit cards were maxed out.  I was thinking of bankrupcy.

Living in a gay ghetto, surrounded by 30,000 gay men, I hadn't had a relationship in months (Richard Dreyfuss  and the ex-boyfriend of President Reagan don't count.)

It was time for a change.



The Chronicle of Higher Education listed several job openings for the spring semester, including Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

The Middle East!  I remembered my long-ago plan to "escape to Arabia" with my junior high boyfriend Dan, and Todd, the Lebanese boy who was my "first time."

And it would be a good base for trips to Greece, Egypt, Israel, and the Balkans.

They wanted a specialist in Victorian literature.  I hated Victorian literature.  No matter -- I said I was writing my dissertation on Dickens and Balzac, and got the job.

On January 16th, 1989, I flew with two suitcases and a box of books from Los Angeles to Washington DC, then to Munich, then to Ankara, where a dozen college boys were waiting for me.  They asked about my trip, grabbed my luggage, drove me to my tiny furnished apartment on the campus, and though I was jetlagged, made sure I got a tour of the city and a refrigerator-full of groceries.

What I liked about Turkey:

1. Turkish is not an Indo-European language, so there are few cognates, not even for common words like "car" and "restaurant."  How much of this menu can you figure out?  It was a lot of fun to study.


2. Visiting the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, followed by iskender (lamb with tomato sauce and butter on pita) at the Uludag Kebabcisi

3. Whenever I needed anything, or even if I didn't, a dozen university students were eager to help.

4. Men and women were socially segregated, so it was not at all uncommon for a heterosexual man to spend all of his leisure hours with men
5. The Remzi Kitabevi (bookstore) had a huge English section.

6. Turkish homoerotic oil wrestling.

7. You could see Columbo, Star Trek, Head of the Class, and Perfect Strangers dubbed in Turkish.

8. There were lots of muscular, hirsute men who were not the least bit shy about physical contact.


9. Everyone was technically homophobic, but the homophobia was aimed at feminine or passive men, not same-sex activity itself.

Just as I noticed in India, cruising was everywhere: in the metro station, in the park, in the hamam (bathhouse).  Same-sex activity was an ordinary part of life for most men, their main sexual outlet before marriage, and often after.

10. Turkey invented bodybuilding, and nearly everyone I met competed in the Young Bodybuilders Clubs, the Gymnastics Association, or the Heavy Weight Lifting Association.  Like Halil, who had a girlfriend but still invited me to share his bed at a competition in Istanbul.

By the way, Kielbasa+, making him #8 on my Sausage List.