A Cinematic Outcoming

From Istanbul to Chicago, and C.R.A.Z.Y. to Spirited Away, Letterboxd member, writer and film programmer Emre Eminoğlu explores the films that drove his gay awakening.

I see it as my duty to never shut up about how representation matters.” —⁠Emre Eminoğlu

I was one of the luckiest ones, yet I had no idea how lucky I was. Growing up in Istanbul, Turkey, a predominantly patriarchal, conservative and homophobic society, my luck was being born into an open-minded, secular and loving family.

In this bubble, I was isolated from the struggles of the majority of my people. I was not bullied at school by my peers, I was not forced into being someone else by my family. Yet I still had that voice in my head. As soon as I realized something could be different with me, I became my own bully and forcefully adopted a fictional persona: ‘exceptionally normal’.

Coming out was hard, but coming out to myself was harder. Although I was perfectly aware of my sexual identity, I could not come to terms with the possibility of being ‘abnormal’. Cue cinema. Watching films was a way of escape for high-school Emre—it still is—and it was inevitable that I would come across some LGBTQ+ films. I was not consciously in search of a ‘truth’ about myself but I started seeing my reflection in them, as they slowly disarmed the bully I involuntarily created.

Twenty years later, now, as a 34-year-old gay man professionally writing on cinema and television, I see it as my duty to never shut up about how representation matters. Streaming LGBTQ+ shows on various platforms, seeing widely released, mainstream LGBTQ+ films, listening to the music of openly LGBTQ+ stars, and hearing words of wisdom like “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”, I am confident that the personal, inner bully that I created twenty years ago would not survive a week in today’s world.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005).
C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005).

Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) was definitely not the first LGBTQ+ film I ever watched, but it was an invaluable juncture in my life. It was a hot summer in Istanbul, freshman year of college was over. One of my best friends, who had been accompanying me through most of my cinematic discoveries, told me about a French-Canadian film with this guy on the film poster with David Bowie makeup on his face. We headed to an independent theater in Kadıköy to see it.

Zachary Beaulieu was different. As the lone gay son in a family of five boys, he too was forcefully adopting a fictional persona, and his way of escape was music. He was constantly worried about how to be worthy of his parents’ love, how to realize their ideals of him, and how his difference and truth contradicted all of that. Zac’s 1960s basically mirrored my story in the 2000s. I perfectly muted the life-changing enlightenment I was going through and did not vocalize my inner screams.

In two hours, C.R.A.Z.Y. helped me realize my true self and admit my sexual identity after all those years. It was a personal threshold I had been longing to cross… but there was still a lot to go through.

Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires, 2010).
Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires, 2010).

Liking someone, falling for someone, being loved, dating someone, sex, refusals, misinterpretations, heartbreaks, break-ups, bad sex. On the other side of the closet, I was being introduced to new, sometimes euphoric, sometimes gut-wrenching experiences. But coming out to my friends was still a challenge. I was feeling so lonely keeping all these wonderful and horrible experiences in my chest.

But I was not alone: LGBTQ+ films were my life’s understudy. The same heartbreaks, worries, and disappointments I was going through were right there on the silver screen. I took note as two best friends, Francis and Marie, fall for the same guy and navigate their friendship in Xavier Dolan’s Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats, 2010). I studied how a popular student, Jarle, falls for the new guy in school, but cannot risk his reputation to be with him in Stian Kristiansen’s Mannen som Elsket Yngve (The Man Who Loved Yngve, 2008) and I watched as close friends Tobi and Achim become lovers, until one’s need to keep everything secret threatens to destroy the relationship in Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Sommersturm (Summer Storm, 2004).

Things were not always accessible via online platforms and the internet, so film festivals were often the only chance to see the latest independent and queer films. Two of the biggest film festivals in Istanbul, thankfully, had LGBTQ+-focused sections; !f’s Gökkuşağı (Rainbow) and Istanbul Film Festival’s Nerdesin aşkım? (Where are you, my love?) felt like home.

Tomboy (2011).
Tomboy (2011).

Being the lone avid cinephile among my friends, I was used to seeing half of my festival picks alone. Even before coming out to myself, my hopes for a romantic relationship included, among other things, having a festival partner. When I, fortunately, found the one, I was delighted to have also found the perfect festival partner. Shortly after our first month together, the first film we saw at a film festival was Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011).

Although I was a 24 year old cis man, I was more than able to empathize with the title character, a ten-year-old trans boy. With his family unaware of his true identity, Mickaël experiences the liberation of a fresh start when ‘mistaken’ for a boy after they move to a new neighborhood—finally able to introduce himself as Mickaël, not Laure.

Changing my career path, a new job in the creative industry, and a stable relationship had similar effects on me. I was still not completely out to my parents, or some of my friends, schoolmates, and acquaintances from my past, but I was freed of the obligation to explain anything to my new friends or colleagues. I would proudly introduce them to my boyfriend, or simply correct people by saying I was attracted to men during a conversation. The perfect festival partner turned out to be a perfect partner as well—over the past ten years, he has helped me grow and be proud of myself.

Weekend (2011).
Weekend (2011).

We moved in together in the fifth year of our relationship. Right above our bed hangs a poster of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011). At the time we saw it, it was just another film that we watched together and liked—no significance, no symbolism. It is the story of two young men, Russell and Glen, who are fascinated by the connection they find between each other, and are surprised how their one-night-stand evolved into the perfect weekend. When Glen reveals that he will be leaving for another country the very next day, it only makes their connection stronger, and their time together more precious. Being a timid and socially anxious person, none of my romantic relationships or my friendships had formed this organically. Even my first date with my partner was a disaster. We built what we have now over time, slowly and patiently. I did not believe in ‘weekends’.

And yet, one summer night, we met a guy on Grindr, as we occasionally did. What we thought was just another one night stand was in fact a transformative experience for us both. Intense conversation, a triple connection, the drinks we enjoyed instead of hurrying to bed, and the passionate sex turned that casual one-night-stand into a magical reality for us. We realized that we still had feelings and instincts to discover in ourselves and in each other. Over a week-long, unexpected, unpredictable polyamorous fling, we learned to act as one instead of two—only to find out that he was leaving for another country the very next week. This was our ‘weekend’.

Steam: The Turkish Bath (Hamam, 1997).
Steam: The Turkish Bath (Hamam, 1997).

Thinking how LGBTQ+ films of other cultures and languages had played a significant role in some precious, threshold-crossing moments of my life, it was alienating not being able to feel embraced and represented openly in Turkish cinema. There were certainly multiple Turkish LGBTQ+ films or characters, but they were in films addressing more urgent issues—right to live, violence against LGBTQ+ individuals, honor murders, trans murders—rather than the nuanced experience of queer love.

Although I discovered it years after it was released, Italian-Turkish director Ferzan Özpetek’s Hamam (Steam: The Turkish Bath, 1997) was a mind-blowing experience for me. The relationship, and the sexual tension, between Francesco, the Italian heir to a building with a Turkish bath in it, and Mehmet, the young son of the family managing the compound, felt much closer to my story and my cultural, familial identity.

Love, Spells and All That (Aşk, Büyü vs., 2019).
Love, Spells and All That (Aşk, Büyü vs., 2019).

Today, I am glad to see more and more filmmakers finding the courage to maintain the LGBTQ+ narrative in Turkish cinema, despite the oppressive, intolerant and exclusionary policies. Some are telling the youthful, urban stories I was longing for at the time: In Leyla Yılmaz’s Bilmemek (Not Knowing, 2019), Umut, a high-school athlete from a middle-class family in Istanbul, is bullied by his so-called modern and open-minded teammates after not replying to a query about whether he is gay or not. In Ümit Ünal’s Aşk, Büyü vs. (Love, Spells and All That, 2019), Eren and Reyhan, two adult women reunite in the magical atmosphere of The Princes’ Islands on the Istanbul coast, decades after they were forcefully separated by their parents.

The story of me coming out to myself all started with an urge to escape reality through cinema, and on the way, I found films that gave meaning to my muddled existence. When I saw Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced (2019), I smiled as I noticed the Spirited Away poster in Merab’s room; this minor detail another reminder that I was not alone. Merab, a gay dancer who is part of a very traditional and conservative Georgian dance company, was dealing with similar challenges in his life. He was trying to discover his true identity in a society that does not celebrate being different. He was too, finding an escape in cinema.

Coming out was hard. It still is. A recent Instagram post by the 27-year-old actor Connor Jessup, who came out as gay two years ago, reminded me coming out is not a single moment, but a never-ending process, a ‘becoming’. He writes, “When I first came out, a friend wrote to me and said, ‘Now you can really start coming out.’ Start? I thought. I just did it. But he was right. […] I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to keep looking.”

I keep trying, and looking. Learning about myself, my identity, my relationship. And LGBTQ+ films keep helping and inspiring me, just as they did in my journey to accept myself and become the person I am today. This is the power of cinema; unconsciously, you see your past, actuality and possibilities through the stories filmmakers tell. And I am so grateful to these filmmakers.

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