“You Are Like A Virus”: Dangerous Bodies And Military Medical Authority in Turkey

by Oyman Basaran

In Turkey military service has been compulsory for all men since 1927. It is culturally coded as a rite of passage that prepares and shapes young boys towards an “ideal” manhood. Considering the cultural and political importance of military service in Turkey, it is no surprise that the Turkish military has a very strict recruitment policy with only a few options for exemption. These options are available to men with severe medical problems that are considered an obstacle to fulfilling their duties in the military. My research focuses on the experiences of men who seek exemption based on homosexuality.  

The Turkish military classifies homosexuality as a psychosexual disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM II). The military has recourse to medical expertise and demands that exemption-seeking conscripts undergo medical inspections that may involve psychological tests as well as interviews and physical (rectal) examinations. The ineligibility certificate is granted to those who have succeeded in convincing the military psychologists of their homosexuality at the end of these inspections.

In my article I examine these medical inspections and discuss why the Turkish military needs such a complex apparatus. Both the medicalized and cultural notions of the homosexual body play a crucial role in the medical experts’ decisions regarding the conscripts’ ineligibility status. A gay person is stigmatized as effeminate and passive in public culture in Turkey. An integral part of this culture, the Turkish military constructs gender inversion (effeminacy in men) as a threat to the order of military service because it is thought that overt femininity in men would provoke and seduce other men and disrupt the military order. With the help of the inspections, the military scans bodies for signs of femininity and exclude those that, the experts fear, would shatter the order in the military service.

Moreover, through these inspections, the Turkish military also seeks to prevent the conscripts from earning unjust exemption by pretending to be homosexual/feminine. While the conscripts—whether gay or not—constantly engage in performances that mimic the stereotype of homosexuality in order to receive the exemption from military service, the surveillance mechanisms in these inspections are used to filter out the undeserving/pretending conscripts (in addition to the feminine/dangerous bodies). The performances of the conscripts bring about suspicion and mistrust on the part of the medical authority regarding the “true” identity of the conscripts. My article concludes that the interplay of these two functions of the inspections significantly shapes the military medical authority in Turkey.

Oyman Basaran is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His article, “’You Are Like A Virus’: Dangerous Bodies and Military-Medical Authority in Turkey,” is published in the August 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.

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