Gay soccer referee in Turkey wages high-profile legal fight after sport's governing body fires him
He is from Turkey’s Black Sea region, famous for its alpha males, guns and conservative ideas. He also used to work in Turkey’s most male-dominated job arena for 14 years: soccer.
Halil Ibrahim Dincdag was a referee until a few years ago, when he lost his job because he is gay. It all started when he refused to perform his mandatory 15 months of military service and told the Turkish army he was gay. After spending months in limbo at military hospitals, he finally got his “diagnosis.” He supposedly had a “psychosexual disorder.”
In no time, he was booted from soccer. The official reason? According to the Turkish Football Federation, anyone who is barred from military service for health reasons cannot work as a referee.
Dincdag, now 36, lost his job and had to leave his family and hometown. He is in a bitter legal fight with the federation and feels optimistic. He believes his trial would set an example for people who lost their jobs because of their sexual identity.
How did you decide to go public about your homosexuality?
In 2009 I was called in to do my military service, but I hated the idea of being a soldier. It is like being in the grave. I hate guns, and I hate the fact that you are obliged to do your military service in Turkey. Why? Are we at war? Did they ask me if I wanted to do it? No. So when I went to the military offices, I told them that I was gay.
What was the procedure like?
It was very long and tiring. It took me three months to get a medical report from the army, running from one hospital to another. They made it super difficult. At one military hospital, they put me with three other gay friends in the heavily mentally ill ward. It was a place for people suffering from schizophrenia or serious depression. We stayed 10 days in rooms with metal grills on the windows and doors. Toward the end I thought I was really going mad. If they kept me a bit longer, I would probably be having psychological treatment now.
Then you got your medical report.
Yes. The medical report said I had a “psychosexual disorder.” The army sees homosexuality as illness. But I had no other choice. I did it to avoid the military service.
This is a confidential report. How did your employer know about this?
In the beginning they did not ask for anything. But the local referee organization asked for my military service documents. At the bottom of the document there was a note saying that I am not eligible for military service for health reasons. In Turkey if you don’t do your military service due to health reasons you cannot work as a referee. I filed a complaint to the national organization, the Turkish Football Federation. In a few weeks the whole national media started writing about the “gay referee.”
So the federation leaked your private information to the media?
At first they did not give any names, but then a famous journalist wrote where I come from and my initials. How many referees are there with those initials in my hometown do you think?
What did you feel?
I was shocked beyond words. The national media was pursuing me vigorously. They wanted to come to Trabzon, my hometown. I realized they would not leave me and my family alone, so I came to Istanbul to go on TV to explain everything. I knew anything could happen to me but I decided not to hide.
Did you receive any threats?
Lots. People threatened to kill me because according to them I stained the honor of the Black Sea region. I received threats to wound me, suggestions that I should leave the country. But still I went on TV and I told the whole country that the gay referee was me and that I was determined to get my rights. That was how my family learned about my homosexuality. I especially felt sorry for my mom. But she was very supportive.
And you sued the federation?
Yes. The case has been going on for three-and-a-half years now. The last hearing will be in December, and it looks like we are going to win.
In Turkey the soccer world looks so macho. How do you explain this?
But this is simply a mask. You would be surprised at the number of gay soccer players in Turkey. But I refuse to give names. Why would I ruin their lives? This is something cultural here: People say boys play soccer, girls do sewing. No, girls can also play soccer and boys can sew. This is an imposition of the patriarchal society. I have been dealing with soccer for 24 years. I never felt the urge to be macho.
I think people find it hard to combine soccer and homosexuality.
The perception of gays here is someone very feminine. They expect you to dress like a woman or carry yourself like a woman. It is hard to make them understand that you can be gay without being a transvestite. One day I was at a university giving a speech, a young woman took the microphone and told me that I do not look like a gay at all. And in hetero environments I hear people making comments like, “If all gays are like you, then it is cool.” We have to break these perceptions.
Do you think behind these perceptions lies the fact that Turkey’s majority is Muslim?
I think this is purely cultural. My family is also pious. Pious people are never dangerous, but people who are narrow-minded can be. My religion, Islam, does not say that homosexuals will go to hell.
But you seem to be paying one hell of a price.
Yes, I am. People ahead of society always paid a high price. I may be carrying out a small revolution. When we win the case I believe that many homosexual friends who are regularly fired because of their sexual choices will see it as an example. This is what I am fighting for. I want these people to think that there is justice in this country. And employers will think twice before they fire anybody.
I think you are closely in touch with LGBT groups?
When they invite me to certain activities, I try to be there. I support their cause. I might say I am an activist too. Talking to the media, participating in conferences and so on is also a part of the activism.
How did you survive without a job so far?
With my family’s support. During this time I applied for over 150 jobs. I was even refused as a dishwasher boy. Everybody knows me now. And I think they are worried about the reaction. But I still continue working in some radio stations on a project basis. I also go on refereeing in amateur leagues.
How does it feel?
It breaks my heart to watch a match but not be able to do what I like most. When I am in the stadium, the fresh smell of grass makes me tearful. For 14 years I worked in that sector, and now it means nothing. Soccer is my source of life. And I have been away from it for the last four years. And now if I go back to stadiums and the hooligans shout “faggot referee,” I will turn and say, “Yes, I am. You have a problem with it?”