'If we don't talk about us, nobody will care about us'

Story highlights

  • Transgender people in Turkey tell their heartbreaking stories
  • Some became sex workers because they had no other way to make a living

(CNN)Serkan Yonuk, a transgender man in Turkey, was finally able to trade his pink ID card for a blue one last year.

But before his gender identity could be legally accepted by the government, he had to have his ovaries surgically removed.
    "It was not my choice," he told photographer Miguel Angel Sanchez and his colleague, Nuria Teson. "I was forced to be sterilized, and that feels terrible."
    According to the rights group Transgender Europe, Turkey is one of 24 European countries that require people to be sterilized before a change in their gender identity is formally recognized.
    It is just one of the many challenges facing Turkey's transgender community -- a daily struggle that can mean life or death.
    Photographer Miguel Angel Sanchez
     Writer Nuria Teson
    From January 2008 to April 2016, more transgender people had been murdered in Turkey -- 43 -- than any other European country, according to a report published earlier this year.
    And just last week, a prominent transgender activist named Hande Kader was brutally killed. The body of the 23-year-old sex worker was found mutilated and burned in Istanbul.
    "This community struggles to be accepted by a very conservative society where their options are too often limited to sex working," said Sanchez, an Istanbul-based photographer who interviewed transgender people in Turkey along with Teson. "We let them speak out, to define themselves in front of the camera...
    "They talked about many things related to this society, their goals, their relationship with their bodies, with their families, friends and even clients and the lack of rights that they are facing."
    The heartbreaking stories, some of which can be seen in the photo gallery above, share similar themes. Many of the people said they were rejected by their families because of their gender identity, and after leaving home they found it difficult to find work. Some, like Kader, turned to the sex industry because no one would hire them and they had no other way to make a living.
    "When (transgender people in Turkey) become sex workers, they face a lot of problems," Teson said. "They are raped, they are starved, they are sold. We met, for example, one woman who was explaining how she had to leave her house and then when she arrived in Istanbul, one of her clients attacked her and tried to kill her. She was kidnapped and kept in (an apartment) for some time and then she was abused for a long time. It's something that is happening very often."

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    Sanchez and Teson said it was very difficult to get transgender people into their studio. Because of the discrimination that's out there, many are understandably suspicious.
    Teson said the country has gotten more conservative in recent years.
    "If you talk to any of these transgender men and women that we have been in touch with, they will tell you how bad things were 20 years ago, how good they became for a while or the improvements they witnessed, but also how they feel that the situation somehow has taken a step back. It's going backwards," she said.
    They interviewed some activists but made a concerted effort to include many who weren't.
    "Some of them, they are tired because they really think that sometimes these kind of projects, they really don't help them," Sanchez said. "But when you talk to them finally they accept it and they say, in a way, 'If we don't talk about us, nobody will care about us.' "