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Gay Emancipation and Moslim: Be Yourself!

by Norbert Splint in Lifestyle & Fashion , 30 September 2018

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 6 minuten

Mr Bear Netherlands 2018, Kenan Sakalli (40), is a special one, as he is also Muslim. His coming out resulted in a family quarrel, after which he received death threats. But he did not let himself be pushed back into the closet and enthusiastically devoted himself to his duties as Mr. Bear. He occasionally speaks at Secret Garden. His motto: being gay means being true to yourself.

Although Kenan is of Turkish descent, he was born in Amsterdam. After a career in the world of finance, he ended up being a desk clerk and trainer at Fit for Free on the Amsterdam Looiersgracht. He has been working there for several years now.

He also made a remarkable move in his personal life: he married a lovely woman, and has an even lovelier daughter with her. But then he decided to come out of the closet as a gay man and go his own way. This ultimately resulted in being elected Mr. Bear Netherlands, and his pep talks at Secret Garden, the Foundation by and for GLBTIs with an ethno-cultural background and their sympathizers. His ex-wife and daughter have no problem with it, but the rest of the family is not amused to say the least.

His former wife handled his coming out quite well. Kenan: “She’s not stupid. She studied Art History of South and Southeast Asia at Leiden University. She sensed that I was gay for a while and gave me all the freedom I needed. My daughter also knows that I am gay and thinks nothing of it. She is only eleven, but is already attending secondary school. Recently, the three of us went on a holiday. It has now been five years since my divorce. I told my family that my marriage was experiencing difficulties, but did not mention my homosexuality.”

‘Mr. Bear Fits Me Like A Glove’

Amsterdam is a village and its old city a hamlet. Everyone knows each other, if only from sight. Couples meeting each other at a XXXLeather party will be sitting at the opera the next evening. On a relatively small area, it’s crawling with gay people and various subgroups, all blending in nicely. Through sports club Tijgertje and work, Kenan met a former Mr. Bear Europe. He told Kenan that he was perfectly suited to become Mister Bear Netherlands. “He said that with the right preparation while passing all rounds, I stood a chance. It fitted me like a glove. Because in my financial career as well as in my sports career I had done a lot of presentations, which is what the election is all about, I figured that I stood an 8/10 chance of winning.”

It turned out to be the gold. As Mister Bear, you need to speak flawless Dutch with no accent, be social, and have a specific goal in mind. Kenan ticked all the boxes. He elaborates on the specific goal. “As Muslim, I experienced many family related problems relating to my homosexuality. In Islamic circles it quickly is a disgrace and dishonourable. The family name has been injured. My goal is to turn this around.”

But there is more: not only is homophobia a family matter, you also see numerous expressions of homophobia on the streets, especially among Turkish and Moroccan guys. Kenan: “They verbally abuse and spit on gays and beat them up. Especially in a group. I would like to tell these boys to just stop this. Everyone is the same, and homosexuality is certainly not something inferior.”

Kenan continues to state that homosexuality is not a choice, but something that you carry with you since birth. It’s there, whether you like it or not. Being gay means being true to yourself. He quotes Prof. Dr. Dick Swaab, who phrased it as follows in his book “We are our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s” (2010; English translation 2014): “The choice concerning your sexual orientation is made for you in the womb.”

“Everyone should read Swaab,” according to Kenan. A fantastic aspiration that is likely to face opposition from the twenty-first century trend of the lack of reading books in general, and by Muslims in particular. How is this goal to be achieved then?

In the first place by visibility, says Kenan. “At the Gay Pride Parade on the boat in early August I made myself visible alongside Mr. Leather Netherlands. Because of my travel budget for winning the Mister Bear Netherlands contest, I can attend several events. Not just here in the Netherlands, but also abroad. The more visibility, the better.”

Secret Garden

Recently, Kenan shared his story at a Secret Garden meeting. His talk is praised by Emir Belatoui of the Foundation Secret Garden: “We were extremely happy to receive Kenan at our weekly get-together, sharing his story with the attendees. It was interesting, and a lively debate about being gay in the Muslim community followed. He encouraged the attendees to also openly talk about themselves. Role models such as Kenan are needed to further gay emancipation within the migrant communities.” Kenan intends to do this more often. “It is certainly necessary. Do not forget that Secret Garden’s target group is sent to the mosque every Friday to hear all sorts of horrible things. Here on earth you are cast out, and later on when you’re dead, you will burn in hell. And similar stuff. You are completely brainwashed in the mosque. I know all about it.”

The Imam’s teachings had a counter-productive effect on Kenan. He no longer saw himself as part of the Muslim community and for a while was completely lost, even by Dutch standards. Repeatedly he took random cocktails of drugs. “I would forget about everything. I took coke, ecstasy, ketamine, crystal meth, GHB, in short: anything to make you numb. Of course I ended up in hospital at one point and asked for help. From that moment on, things improved.”

An extended version of this withdrawal process - and then becoming yourself, is what Kenan is telling about during his appearances as Mister Bear Netherlands, but also at Secret Garden. “There are a lot of young people there who do not dare to come out. Otherwise they will be killed. I am the living proof: first it goes from bad to worse, trying to repress it all by going to the mosque or by drug usage. Both are the wrong idea. It is all about being true to yourself. Only it comes later in the process.”

Kenan admits that when he came out of the closet, he was almost immediately threatened by his family. His father thought it was a disgrace to his family name and said he would kill him. His sister repeatedly warned him about this. Although Kenan doubted whether his father - or one of his uncles - would be capable of murder, he immediately contacted the police. “The police have a special unit called ‘Blijfgroep.’ If you are being threatened, you can be taken to a safe place outside of Amsterdam, but you can also opt to be connected to the ‘Award system,’ a sort of mobile control room. I chose the latter.

It is a box with a button that operates a GPS system in order for the police to be with you within minutes. It also contains a microphone, so they can hear what is happening. I’ve had it for six months, but can use it for a longer period of time, if needed. Fortunately, I have never needed the system, but I am a lot less anxious. I can walk around again.”

Partly because of this, Kenan is now able to carry out his message freely as Mister Bear and at Secret Garden: you are gay or you are not. But if you are, there is no point in hiding in the closet. You deceive others as you are not yourself, and do not become happier. Kenan is the living proof of this. “Yes, I became a happy person! And: read Swaab!”


In our youngest issue, Gay News 344, April/ May/ June 2020


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