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The Secret Language of the Turkish LGBTQ+ Community

LGBTQ+ identities and the language used to define them are under constant scrutiny. The use of gender-neutral pronouns elicits a variety of responses, from apathy to outright anger. One frequent criticism is that they are grammatically incorrect, despite being included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary since 2019.

“The development of singular they mirrors the development of the singular you from the plural you, yet we don’t complain that singular you is ungrammatical.”

The English language is growing to become more inclusive of marginalised identities, but how does the rest of the world compare? In many countries, it is illegal to identify openly as gay or transgender. To go undetected, LGBT communities across the globe have found community and companionship through anti-language.

A clenched fist grips a rainbow LGBT Pride ribbon

What is anti-language?

M.A.K Halliday defines anti-language as dialects that...

"arise among subcultures and groups that occupy a marginal or precarious position in society.”

One example of an LGBT anti-language is Polari, used in the British gay scene when homosexuality was a criminal offense. Polari is largely unused now due to a positive shift in societal views. Slang words like “naff,” meaning unfashionable, originate in Polari and are still used today.

LGBT discrimination in turkey

The secret language of the Turkish LGBT community is called Lubunca. Unlike in Britain, a coded language is a necessity for the safety of the queer community. Despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1858, gay and gender non-conforming people are often subject to violent attacks. Recently re-elected President Erdoğan frequently uses his platform to spread anti-LGBT rhetoric.

“In this nation, the foundations of the family are stable. LGBT will not emerge in this country.”

This widespread conservative view demonstrates the importance of Lubunca in modern-day Turkey. It also has a deep historical significance to the Turkish LGBT community.


Where did lubunca begin?

Linguist Nicholas Kontovas theorizes that Lubunca has roots in the Ottoman Empire. In 19th century Turkey, traditional bath houses no longer allowed male sex workers to operate. Subsequently, relations between two men became taboo. The government offered no protection to transgender women, leading to the creation of Lubunca. It was used to offer services and protect vulnerable LGBT people.

Although prostitution is legal in Turkey, transgender people cannot obtain a license. The government does not provide STD testing to LGBT sex workers, despite doing so for straight, cisgender workers. Lubunca allows sex workers to operate discreetly in heavily policed areas. Lubunca consists of 400 words from several world languages, including Romani and Armenian. The name itself comes from the Romani word “lubni,” meaning prostitute. Lubunca words are deliberately unintelligible to outsiders and are largely undocumented online, ensuring it remains a safe method of communication.


What can we do?

Turkey’s situation teaches us the importance of opening our hearts and our vocabularies to welcome marginalised communities. Although the Turkish government has largely disbanded LGBT activist groups, KAOS GL offers regular updates on the fight for equality in Turkey. You can find their website here.


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