After a fun night at the Toronto-based Club Quarantine, on March 28, four Turkish queers decided to start their own digital club. Naz, Ela, Akış Ka, and Efe knew each other from Istanbul’s LGBTQ scene. After spending days in social isolation and facing financial and emotional loss due to the COVID-19, they were united in one simple goal: to create the fun and loving environment of their queer community online.
Setting up a queer digital club in Turkey, a country with increasingly authoritarian tendencies and anti-LGBTQ+ governance, was a hefty challenge. Yet, against the odds, everything worked out.
On Friday night, May 1, on the fourth week of my strict social isolation, I sat at my computer to join my first Club Coweed party. A friend texted me the link, adding that this Zoom “meeting” was like nothing else I’ve seen. As the view of my camera downsized to the bottom right, I understood why. The Club Coweed screen was filled with people in drag, kink costumes, and colorful clothes, moving together harmoniously to a fast-beating electronic tune. It took me a moment to absorb what I was seeing. I let out a broad smile and quickly dimmed the light and slowly started dancing around my room, an activity I hadn’t done since the beginning of the pandemic, and entered the wonderous world of Club Coweed.
Turkey, COVID-19, LGBTQ+
Turkey implemented social-distancing policies at the beginning of April, including closures of public spaces and travel restrictions to combat the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. Unfortunately, the late implementation of such measures did not stop the virus from reaching thousands. By the end of April, Turkey became the most affected country in terms of cases in the Middle East, and even surpassed China in confirmed cases.
At one of the worst moments of the pandemic, Turkey’s most senior Muslim cleric accused homosexuality of “…bringing illnesses,” and warned the community to protect themselves from “such evil.” This announcement quickly drew support from Turkey’s leading political figures, including the President, and created an ever more hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people in Turkey.
Against this background, I explore how digital clubbing created new affordances and mediums for Turkish LGBTQ+ people during COVID-19.
Building an Online Queer Community
A trailblazer among Turkey’s digital clubs, Club Coweed is part of the rapidly growing queer performance scene in Istanbul. Two of the founders, Akış Ka and Efe are queer performers who previously appeared on stage with Turkey’s hippest drag collective, Dudakların Cengi, as have other drag performers who frequent Club Coweed.
Akış Ka said that their initial expectation was that Club Coweed would help connect friends and alleviate the stress and panic of the pandemic. However, they reached a bigger audience than thay had initially imagined. “People from Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and even from other countries have joined. Sometimes, we even have people who have never met an LGBTQ+ person before, but they join our events to get to know us.” Though many of the participants perform in a similar style to Rupaul, Akış and their friends try to push beyond this standard to include a broader spectrum of queer performance.
On a usual night, Club Coweed reaches around a hundred participants. Efe, who mostly moderates the publically accessible online parties, noted that most of the participants do not know each other when they log on. Yet, this group of strangers becomes “closer” by the end of the night, as Efe noted: “We start sharing beautiful things, including our concerns, anxieties, hopes. We discuss our assumptions about each other, our life stories, and with each day, we become closer.”
After hearing the stories of broad and inclusive reach of these parties, and their unifying potential, I couldn’t help but wonder how a queer online platform can be this open and “safe” at the same time. Naz and Ela, two other creators, told me that they sometimes come across aggressive comments, but they always find support from Club Coweed’s party-goers who are as watchful as they are in spotting the online bullies. They say that “Club Coweed is against homophobia and other discriminatory behavior, and we all take part in creating a better and safer online platform.”
“We start sharing beautiful things, including our concerns, anxieties, hopes. We discuss our assumptions about each other, our life stories, and with each day, we become closer.”
Is there a future for digital clubbing after COVID-19?
I quickly became acquainted with Club Coweed participants and performers once I began regularly attending the parties. Many participants have become accustomed to the online clubbing scene and feel comfortable in cyberspace. They seem to agree that the Club Coweed platform has many affordances, especially amidst Turkey’s curfews.
One benefit of the platform is that it opens room for participants to diverge from normative social expectation that is often more directly present in physical spaces. Soxana, a popular cis-woman drag performer and passionate advocate of free-the-nipple movement, said that womxn at Club Coweed are more open to diverge from the traditional traits of femininity: “Some womxn may not feel comfortable in taking off their clothes in a physical club; they worry about physical harassment, or just being too exposed. But, in a virtual space, one can be drunk and naked without worrying about cab drivers, arriving home safe, and all that. Also, visual filters make it easier for womxn to experience nudity on their own terms.”
Digital filters and anonymity appear to be two of the main factors that “change the terms” of fun. Efe explained that the digital filters are beyond the purpose of aesthetics: they allow participants to be free. “Everyone creates a different persona. By using either filters or backgrounds, they become something different from their everyday lives. This twist from reality brings the freedom to decide who they want to be for that night in Club Coweed.”
Ayden Titties, one of the most colorful faces in Club Coweed, defined her experience as “transformative.” For her, the affordances of the virtual space also extend offline. Ayden said that she found the courage to start her drag persona and come out to her family after her time at Club Coweed: “I am social-distancing at my family’s house. After days of doing make-up behind the doors, one day, I showed my mother the make-up I put on for Coweed. It took her a moment to understand and accept, but now she agrees to support who I am.”
Ayden called people she met on the platform “Coweed friends”: a friendship between people who have never met in a physical space, yet found a meaningful connection during these dire times. As the usual Club Coweed night slowly comes to an end, people begin falling asleep in front of their cameras. Efe said in a soothing tone, that “rather than sleeping alone, they sleep with us,” as if we are now living a new normal in which we are ever more connected, yet alone.
Despite the rapid development of virtual spaces and digital platforms, and the opportunities they offer, not all of these changes are universally welcomed. Many Club Coweed participants worry about the new Zoom policy banning any display of nudity. This policy was informed by the act, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which was passed by the US Congress in March 2018 to protect sex trafficking victims. However, for many queer performers, curators, and fans around the world, this act severely limits and censors a form of an essential mode expression and embodied practice, and fundamentally changes the nature of their digital encounters.
In times of increasing control and hostility, Club Coweed accomplishes something more than just organizing parties: it provides a platform that nurtures solidarity and acceptance, and builds queer interactions and identities in a global crisis. With all of its potentials and limitations, only time will show whether this online experience ever translates into claiming more inclusive and accessible queer publics in an “offline” world.
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