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At Istanbul's Queer Olympix, the aim is for LGBTQ+ athletes to have fun and feel safe

Participants hang out on the second day of Queer Olympix V in Kalamiş Park, Istanbul, on Aug. 28, 2021. The first Queer Olympix following a 2019 police ban and a 2020 hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 event was held in secrecy. This year, the Olympix were once again held at Kalamis, again in secret, with two lawyers present in case the police came.
Hannah Cauhépé
Participants hang out on the second day of Queer Olympix V in Kalamiş Park, Istanbul, on Aug. 28, 2021. The first Queer Olympix following a 2019 police ban and a 2020 hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 event was held in secrecy. This year, the Olympix were once again held at Kalamis, again in secret, with two lawyers present in case the police came.

Every summer since 2017, Istanbul has played host to a sporting event known as the "Queer Olympix." Created by a handful of soccer-loving Turkish queer activists, the annual event — which is not affiliated with the international Gay Games organization, though they have similar goals — includes beach volleyball, dodgeball and soccer.

The organizers see it as an opportunity to create and reclaim spaces for the LGBTQ community in Turkey, and to rethink how sports are practiced and played. Unlike traditional sports, the Queer Olympix doesn't keep score solely by counting goals; instead, they emphasize fair play (the lack of which can result in a loss of points) and fun over competition.

The LGBTQ-friendly games have continued despite opposition from the Turkish government, which also banned Pride starting in 2015. In 2019, organizers of the Queer Olympix faced a police ban for including the word "queer" in the event's name. To enforce the ban, the police arrived at the games that year with water cannons and detention buses. The event organizers, prioritizing the safety of the participants, canceled the event and cleared the park. Since then, other than a hiatus in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have rented a private field so the games can continue.

Even so, they have faced challenges: the owners of some fields refuse to rent to them, and when they're able to hold the games, they do so in near-total secrecy and without online promotion.

Organized teams and individual players come from across Turkey to compete. Secil, one of the event's organizers, describes it as an "alternative Pride for the people — they [come] together in public, not in a party, not in a workshop or behind [closed] doors."

Secil and others photographed and interviewed asked NPR to use only their first names to be able to speak freely about LGBTQ issues without fear of retaliation.

The Queer Olympix have given many participants — including those who had to abandon sports in their teenage years due to their sexual orientation or gender identity — a safe place to play. "People came to the field and realized they missed playing [soccer]," Denzi, another organizer, explains. "We like this sport — there is nothing bad inherent in [soccer], it's the environment."

Changing that environment is part of the goal for Queer Olympix organizers: people with bodies of all shapes and sizes are welcome to play in non-competitive matches. Their aim, organizers say, is to have fun and feel safe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Left: Meriç, a trans non-binary sociologist and a member of Atletik Dildoa, the soccer team that organizes the Queer Olympix, in Istanbul in 2021. Their shirt says "we will not be normalized" in Turkish. Right: Meriç shaves their head in their dorm room at the University of Oslo in Norway in November, 2019. They learned to cut their own hair due to a lack of queer-friendly salons in Istanbul.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Left: Meriç, a trans non-binary sociologist and a member of Atletik Dildoa, the soccer team that organizes the Queer Olympix, in Istanbul in 2021. Their shirt says "we will not be normalized" in Turkish. Right: Meriç shaves their head in their dorm room at the University of Oslo in Norway in November, 2019. They learned to cut their own hair due to a lack of queer-friendly salons in Istanbul.
A beach volleyball game during Queer Olympix VI in Istanbul in September 2022. In the background, the stands are mostly empty. The Queer Olympix were banned by police in 2019; since then, the event has been organized in secrecy, with participants made aware only via invitation.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
A beach volleyball game during Queer Olympix VI in Istanbul in September 2022. In the background, the stands are mostly empty. The Queer Olympix were banned by police in 2019; since then, the event has been organized in secrecy, with participants made aware only via invitation.
Meriç wrestles for the ball during a soccer game at Queer Olympix V in Istanbul in August 2021. Although the goal isn't to win, participants still play soccer.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Meriç wrestles for the ball during a soccer game at Queer Olympix V in Istanbul in August 2021. Although the goal isn't to win, participants still play soccer.
Olcay, a member of Atletik Dildoa, plays beach volleyball during Queer Olympix V in August 2021. Many of the participants, particularly women and trans men, share what Seçil calls a "classic story." They played sports with other kids until puberty, when their families forced them to stop. For many, like Seçil, Queer Olympix has been the occasion to reconnect with their love of sports.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Olcay, a member of Atletik Dildoa, plays beach volleyball during Queer Olympix V in August 2021. Many of the participants, particularly women and trans men, share what Seçil calls a "classic story." They played sports with other kids until puberty, when their families forced them to stop. For many, like Seçil, Queer Olympix has been the occasion to reconnect with their love of sports.
Members of the queer community play in the water on Heybeliada Island, outside Istanbul, the day before Queer Olympix III was meant to start in August 2019. The day after this photograph, police appeared at the public park where the event was to take place and ordered them to disperse. The group complied in order to protect participants.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Members of the queer community play in the water on Heybeliada Island, outside Istanbul, the day before Queer Olympix III was meant to start in August 2019. The day after this photograph, police appeared at the public park where the event was to take place and ordered them to disperse. The group complied in order to protect participants.
Left: Members of Atletik Dildoa and another team celebrate after a soccer game during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. While some people are part of already-existing teams, others form one on the spot. Right: Participants embrace during Queer Olympix V in August 2021.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Left: Members of Atletik Dildoa and another team celebrate after a soccer game during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. While some people are part of already-existing teams, others form one on the spot. Right: Participants embrace during Queer Olympix V in August 2021.
Ezgi, who often plays goalkeeper, holds the ball after a play during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. Ezgi is a member of the queer soccer team Muamma ("enigma" in Turkish), from Mersin, a Turkish town close to the border with Syria. The Queer Olympix prioritizes having fun over scoring and winning, encouraging people to play who dislike sports or were always told they couldn't play.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Ezgi, who often plays goalkeeper, holds the ball after a play during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. Ezgi is a member of the queer soccer team Muamma ("enigma" in Turkish), from Mersin, a Turkish town close to the border with Syria. The Queer Olympix prioritizes having fun over scoring and winning, encouraging people to play who dislike sports or were always told they couldn't play.
Left: Bilge, of soccer team Muamma, rests between games during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. The Muamma team has been in all of the Queer Olympix. Right: Ra, a member of Atletik Dildoa, watches a soccer match on day 3 of Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. Since the first Queer Olympix in 2017, the situation has dramatically deteriorated for the LGBTQ community in Turkey, activists say.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Left: Bilge, of soccer team Muamma, rests between games during Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. The Muamma team has been in all of the Queer Olympix. Right: Ra, a member of Atletik Dildoa, watches a soccer match on day 3 of Queer Olympix VI in September 2022. Since the first Queer Olympix in 2017, the situation has dramatically deteriorated for the LGBTQ community in Turkey, activists say.
Derin, of the Muamma soccer team, rests between games at a small brainstorming event organized by Atletik Dildoa with other teams in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Turkey. Atletik Dildoa organized the event to discuss the ban from the previous summer.
/ Hannah Cauhépé
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Hannah Cauhépé
Derin, of the Muamma soccer team, rests between games at a small brainstorming event organized by Atletik Dildoa with other teams in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Turkey. Atletik Dildoa organized the event to discuss the ban from the previous summer.

Hannah Cauhépé