We speak to Erkmen Savaskan, architect, designer and queer activist, about the experience of leaving Turkey to live as a proudly gay man. He discusses with us the importance of fostering safe spaces and connection for the often marginalised queer refugee and migrant community.
Today is Wear it Purple Day, an initiative that aims to foster supportive, safe, empowering and inclusive environments for rainbow young people. The idea is to wear purple as an expression of support and acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community, to amplify queer voices and send a message of hope. Wear it Purple was was founded in 2010 as a response to a series of horrific news stories gripping the media, with reports of young people taking their own lives due to bullying, harassment and a lack of support due to their queer identity. Check out their website for ways to support.
Erkmen Savaskan is an established architect, interior designer and passionate queer activist. He has lived an incredible life moving between his home in Turkey, spending part of his childhood in Germany, working for retail spaces in New York, returning to Turkey, and now residing in Sydney, Australia. For Erkmen, the decision to leave Turkey and seek refuge in Australia was one of needing to find the safety to live as his authentic self.
Leaving Turkey was a reluctant choice that came later in life for Erkmen, ‘right now I’m 53 years old, and when I came to Australia, I was 47. And that was due to the changes happening back in Turkey… my problem became a later problem about my queer identity, because my younger years were actually my years of activism – and I wasn’t the only one, it was a massive movement back in Turkey.’ He tells me that although he wouldn’t exactly call it a privileged position, still living within a minority, he was fortunate to live a very open life as a gay person in Turkey.
Throughout the 80s, following movements that were echoed across the world, he became active in advocating for gay rights. ‘My younger years, they were about coming out. I was happy. I grew up as a fabulously queer teenager,’ he says, ‘and I actually grew up as a healthy gay person, despite my family’s attitude to it because of different reasons, like social reasons, cultural reasons, because of their social position, and so on.’
Being gay is not illegal in Turkey, unlike in some other Muslim countries, and in fact by 2014, Turkey saw its largest Pride attendance with over 100, 000 people gathering to celebrate. Things began to change after a 2015 shift in government, with elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backsliding in democratic values and at times making openly homophobic statements. The 2015 Pride parade was a violent disaster, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water balloons to break up the gathering. Since 2016, the Pride parade has been banned and remains suppressed.
While Erkmen had been able to live a relatively peaceful life, homophobic attitudes escalated in his country. In 2017, President Erdogan stated that empowering the queer community in Turkey was ‘against the values of our nation’. In that same year, Erkmen had no choice but to leave in order to live safely as an openly gay man, ‘having the police and the government, the institutions against us, seriously against us. Or [telling us] to shut up. For some of us, shutting up was not possible.’
Under the radar
Refugees and migrants who identify as queer face layered challenges. On top of language and cultural barriers, there is the nuance of queer identity. As Erkmen explains, ‘you know, displacement, but on top of that displacement you actually come from a background of never ending discrimination. And then you go through a very difficult psychologically and physically difficult phase, like becoming an asylum seeker and refugee, and everything that process entails. So the trauma of it, I believe, has its own unique differences.’
For some, there are still fears about coming out due to persecution and family remaining back home, problems aren’t always relieved by relocating. ‘Many queer asylum seekers in Australia still actually have to remain under the radar, thinking of their own safety, thinking of the safety of their close ones,’ Erkmen tells me. Because of the complicated nature of being a queer asylum seeker it can be easy to fall through the cracks, ‘it becomes one of the least visible asylum seeker communities and migrant communities, and it has its very, very specific problems.’
The queer asylum seeker population face severe under-representation and a lack of resources to find help and connection. Erkmen finds it frustrating that there isn’t any readily available research, or statistics representing the number of queer asylum seekers in Australia, due to the population lacking any real visibility or attention. It’s time for us to shine a light on queer refugee and migrant voices, and properly deal with the issues they face, ‘the community support I have to say is quite weak,’ says Erkmen.
Speaking your truth
When talking to Erkmen, it’s clear that he is a passionate advocate for underrepresented queer voices. As he tells me cheekily, it’s not in his nature to shy away from speaking out. ‘I don’t know any other form of existence… It’s caused the most wonderful experiences in my life, but it also caused the worst experiences and most traumatic aspects of my life as well. So, it’s both of them together, but it makes it right when you blend those in, it makes for a fantastic life.’
He believes that for queer asylum seekers, and for everybody else, the key to finding connection and freedom is speaking your truth. ‘Look, it’s about being outspoken…it actually supplied my freedom to me. It gave me my identity, it gave me my best friends and my biggest support from society.’ It’s about amplifying the voices of those who are not being championed, just as Wear it Purple aims to do.
‘You can’t do anything by hiding. You can’t do anything by not speaking out, by not living your identity,’ Erkmen says. He considers it his duty to speak up and fight for his community, ‘in a way, I was one of the lucky ones, but that gives me more responsibility of representing and expressing what the other not so lucky ones are going through.’
Erkmen Savaskan can be found here for all of your interior architecture needs.
Today Wear it Purple and show your support to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Keep an eye on the Welcome Merchant socials to see how we will be supporting the LGBTQI+ and refugee communities in the near future.