For Turkish performer, drag is a political act – Burcu Karakaş / REUTERS

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Ilker Yazici – stage name Miss Putka – was in secondary school when he discovered he was gay. There he met LGBT advocacy groups and joined street protests in Turkey’s capital Ankara to defend LGBT rights, carrying rainbow flags.

Reuters, July 5, 2024

Photography by Dilara Senkaya
Reporting by Burcu Karakas

“At first I struggled with myself a lot,” he said. “You grow up in the Middle East. It is not easy. I felt like I was the only one, just like most LGBT people feel.”

Ilker, now 23, never felt the need to hide, however and went on to celebrate who he is. Inspired by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” series on Netflix, he sees drag performance as an act of self-expression rather than just entertainment.

“Drag is a political act. The audience probably look at me and think, ‘What is this freak doing?’ I’m getting them used to seeing something they are not used to seeing.”

Ilker puts on make-up before a show at XLarge Club in Istanbul, Turkey, August 5, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

Many in Turkey’s LGBT community live in fear after last year’s election campaign when President Tayyip Erdogan described LGBT groups as deviants and vowed to strengthen traditional family values. Homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, but hostility to it is widespread.

Ilker’s conservative father is unaware of the drag life: although other relatives found out about the performances – which take place every Friday and Saturday night – no one has dared to tell him.

“When I go on stage as a drag queen, the make-up makes me feel like I am hiding behind a mask,” Ilker said. “Miss Putka is a confident person, very open to communication. I am not.”

Ilker studies industrial design at Marmara University in Istanbul but is considering studying performing arts in Spain. “You can perform as long as you are healthy. I’ll do it as long as I’m able,” he said.

He has no worries about performing drag, but living in Turkey does worry him.

“I don’t know what the future will hold for me here,” he said. “It is so unpredictable.”

Ilker performs during a show at XLarge Club in Istanbul, Turkey, August 26, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya
Ilker poses during the shooting of a sequence of a TV series in Istanbul, Turkey, July 25, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

‘You have to behave with respect’

Ilker never thought he would become a drag artist on the day that, as a teenager, he stole his mother’s black sequined blouse from her closet to perform on stage for the first time in 2019.

He was preparing for the university entrance exam at the time, and left home at night by telling his parents he forgot a book at the library.

Ilker cleans windows while his friend Akif Dogru sits on a sofa, at Ilker’s home in Istanbul, Turkey, September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

“I cut a pair of black jeans into shorts and wore them under my mother’s blouse with silver-coloured seven-centimetre heels and a bonus lilac wig I borrowed from a friend,” he said.

“Despite my terrifying make-up and costume, the audience applauded like crazy and I felt like a star.”

Born and raised in Ankara, he traveled for two years across the country to appear at gay life magazine GZone’s events. It was then that he began to buy costumes and shoes from second hand stores and flea markets.

Ilker pets a stray cat as he walks next to the Golden Horn estuary in Istanbul, Turkey, August 23, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

When Miss Putka, whose name comes from a slang word for vagina, began to take the stage at XL, a night club in Istanbul, it was no longer a hobby but a regular job. Before his first professional show at the club, he was trained for a month by Russian dancers with whom he shared the stage.

“The venue is huge. I’ve got dancers behind and a tailor ready to do what I want,” he said.

At first he was annoyed by customers who ignored his performance and treated him rudely when he visited their tables. But he learned how to deal with it.

“I started to say, ‘I work here and you have to behave with respect’. They apologized.”

Ilker (second left) watches dancers Franky and Meva Altay after a rehearsal outside the XLarge Club in Istanbul, Turkey, August 10, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

He became the stage manager, coordinating a team of about 15 people. Experienced drag performers advised him to use choreography to tell a story and also broaden the shows’ appeal. That is how he began playing popular Lady Gaga songs.

Miss Putka’s nun-like outfit with a bright red cross on her head was inspired by American singer Todrick Hall, who was a choreographer and judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Although this five-minute performance is the most acclaimed, it is not his favourite.

“I love the one where I shoot flames from my conical breasts while singing Rihanna songs.”

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