People say the children in Trabzon grow up with weapons in their hands. Locals from this port town on the Black Sea coast in northeastern Turkey are considered hot-tempered and explosive, quicker with a knife than with their wits. It's a rough place, known for a spicy fish dish called hamsi, for fanatical soccer fans and for its legendary soccer club Trabzonspor -- the only one that's ever been able to offer up resistance against Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, the country's big three teams in Istanbul.
Football referee Halil Ibrahim Dincdag, 32, has short hair, a few days' worth of stubble, and striking features. He loves his city. Nowhere is the air as pure and sweet, he says, as on the Black Sea. If Dincdag had his way, he would stay in Trabzon. He would continue working as a referee in his hometown, moonlighting as a radio host for local station Bayrak FM. Simply put, he would like to continue living out his dream, just as he did before.
Two months ago, Dincdag became famous for being Turkey's first gay referee after outing himself on television. The purely macho world of Turkish soccer had never seen anything like it. The Turkish Football Federation suspended him. Homosexuality isn't forbidden in Turkey -- in fact, it's widely accepted in the TV and music business -- but in soccer?
Soccer is a national affair in Turkey. The national anthem is played before Süper Lig games, and the country's honor is always at the heart of the game. But it's a world in which homosexuality is still taboo.
"You're gay!" is also still the worst smear fans can hurl at the other side's players, but that's how it is in Turkey -- and likely everywhere in the soccer world.
Since his outing, Halil Ibrahim Dincdag has become a stranger to many. Friends have broken off contact with him, and someone on the Internet called him a "bloodless fag." Another referee declared: "I believe that someone like that referees according to his feelings. It's entirely possible that he'd give more free kicks to a good-looking player."
Dincdag worked for 13 years in amateur leagues, and this year he was on his way to the professional soccer world and big league games. But what he didn't know was that in order to do so, he would need to have completed his required military service. Early this year, military doctors confirmed during a physical examination that Dincdag was inclined to homosexuality. In Turkey, that's grounds for rejection. The doctors wrote of a "psychosexual disorder" in his medical report.
At the beginning of May, that report landed in the hands of the central board for referees, which suspended Dincdag. "Someone who was barred from performing military service for health reasons," they wrote, couldn't be a referee. Dincdag protested and wrote a letter to the TFF soccer association. "Is homosexuality an illness?" he asked. "I haven't committed any crime!"
Before the Turkish soccer federation had answered, the Turkish sports magazine Fanatik reported on the case, writing, "The gay referee wants his whistle back." A member of the federation had provided the magazine with all the information, even Dincdag's letter. The only thing Fanatik didn't print -- at least initially -- was Dincdag's name.
Two days later, Turkey's biggest newspapers and television stations began calling Dincdag on his mobile phone, camera teams were dispatched to Trabzon and his lawyer advised him to leave the rural province for the relative security of Istanbul. "I could have left the country, or disputed everything," Dincdag says. "But I knew the media wouldn't let it go. So I decided to tell the truth -- yes, I'm the gay ref you're looking for."
Dincdag has since decided to sue the Turkish Football Federation. "They violated my personal rights," he says. "They're the reason I had to leave my family. They've destroyed my life." If necessary, Dincdag adds, he'll take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The Turkish referees' association is now claiming that Dincdag's dismissal had nothing to do with his homosexuality, but came instead because he was "only a second-rate referee with no talent."
Dincdag speaks by phone regularly with his brother, an imam in their hometown on the Black Sea. His mother has also stuck by him, telling him he's her son and she doesn't want to lose him.
Meanwhile, the referee from Trabzon has become an icon for the Turkish gay movement in Istanbul, which invited him to participate in Turkey's Gay Pride festival in late June. Dincdag declined -- that would have been going a bit too far for him.