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Struggle for homosexual rights strikes the football field in Turkey

Istanbul — The fledgling homosexual movement in Turkey has ventured into the roughest of fields — the macho world of football — after a referee "came out" on television, dropping a bombshell in this football-mad country and leaving authorities confused.

Already stripped of his refereeing licence, Halil Ibrahim Dincdag, 33, vows to fight on to restore his career and, if need be, go as far as the European Court of Human Rights.

"I have not committed a crime, I have not defamed my profession. I’m only a homosexual," he told AFP from Istanbul, where he was on "self-exile" after leaving his home in Trabzon, a conservative bastion on the Black Sea coast.

Dincdag’s "coming out" last month was an act of unprecedented courage in a country where gays are widely ostracised and derisive words such as "fag" are among the favourite booing chants against referees at the stadiums.

"Since then, my life has turned into hell," he said, explaining that he lost not only his licence but was also "thanked" for his services by a radio station in Trabzon, where he used to do a programme.

"I have inadvertently become a standard-bearer of the homosexual struggle" in Turkey, he said timidly, adding he still had the support of his family, which includes an imam brother.

The Turkish Football Federation dug around to find an argument to revoke Dincdag’s licence: since he was exempt from military service due to his homosexuality, thus falling into the army’s classification of "unfit", the federation said he would be physically unfit for a refereeing job as well.

Scrambling to defend the move, federation vice president Lutfi Aribogan argued that Dincdag was a mediocre referee lacking "talent" and would have never made it anyway from the amateur to the professional league.

But as criticism of the decision mounted, the head of the referees’ board said the door remained open for Dincdag to return to the fold even though he did not explain how.

"They are not sincere … In any case, they would not like to see me at the matches," Dincdag said.

Despite his pessimism, Dincdag is bent on fighting to restore his licence and has already lodged an appeal at the courts.

"If necessary, I will go even to the European Court of Human Rights," he said.

Despite his personal plight, Dincdag’s "coming out" is a cause for celebration at the offices of KAOS-GL, the increasingly outspoken group for gay and lesbian rights in Turkey, where the referee’s case is hailed as a step forward for the movement.

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, in which respect for human rights is a key condition, has already "contributed to a better understanding of homosexuals" in the country, said Ali Erol, a senior KAOS-GL member.

He complained, however, that "Turkey, which has managed to break taboos on the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish problem, is yet to openly face the reality of homosexuality."

Unlike most Muslim countries, which punish homosexuality — some with death, Turkey has never criminalised same-sex relationships and homosexual traditions can be traced back to the palaces of Ottoman sultans.

But even though gays today figure among the country’s top celebrities, prejudice against the ordinary homosexual remains strong in daily life.

Police are notoriously harsh against transsexual prostitutes. Several of them have been killed in "hate murders" in recent years.

"While an openly homosexual mayor is running Paris, we are still at the point of discussing whether a homosexual can run a football match," grumbled Murat Soylemez, Dincdag’s lawyer.

Burak Akinci/AFP/Expatica