Hidden along a gritty street in downtown Istanbul, the first Turkish shelter for transgender women is virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors, except for the conspicuous cobalt paint and trail of cigarette butts that signal its entrance in the stairway of an old walk-up apartment building.
Inside you might find Ebru Kiranci, a prominent Turkish LGBT activist who helped launch the newly opened refuge, visiting in the kitchenette surrounded by some of the 10 residents, chain smoking. You won't find drugs or alcohol.
"I am an atheist, but I do believe the shelter is a heaven on earth for transsexuals," Kiranci told VICE News. Because it is located in a Kurdish and Roman neighborhood, where her opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is widely shared by others, Kiranci said she rarely gets harassed.
LGBT people in Turkey are vulnerable to abuse and discrimination in various respects, but those who are transgender are often singled out — bullied on the streets, barred from establishments, intimidated from using public transit, and menaced by disturbing incidents of violence, especially over the last several years.
The group Transgender Europe reported in 2013 that Turkey has the highest rate of transgender murder cases in Europe or the Middle East based on available data.
Because few employers in Turkey will hire transgender women, in many instances they solicit sex to get by.
"The government won't employ us," Kiranci said. "We have to do sex work. But after a certain age, it's impossible." She retired from sex work ten years ago, when she was 43.
Kiranci was partly inspired to establish the shelter seven years ago by the plight of a striking transgender sex worker whom she had idolized, who developed Alzheimer's in her middle age. Because Kiranci's friend with Alzheimer's was unable to work, she became destitute. When she went missing, her family did not look for her. Kiranci found her two years later at a home for the elderly.
A German videographer produced a documentary about Kiranci that helped her raise the first donations for the shelter. In February of 2013, she opened the top floor, calling it "Gypsy Rose" after the nickname of Cingene Gul, a transgender sex worker who was found dead of a suspected murder in her apartment.
This year during Ramadan, Kiranci saw pictures of a well-known transgender sex worker named Oyku Ay breaking fast with a group of Islamic transsexuals. Ay is nicknamed the "veiled trans" because she wears a headscarf. Kiranci wrote Ay an email saying, "You are dining with your friends but here at the shelter we need food. How about helping them instead of sharing photos and showing off?"
Ay was compelled, and calling on her wealthy friends, she organized a fashion show and raised more than $16,000, enough to rent the second floor of the shelter. Kiranci and her friends named it after Eylül Cansin, a 24-year-old transgender woman who jumped from the Bosphorus Bridge earlier this month.
"I couldn't work," Cansin said in a video she made before her death. "I wanted to do stuff, but I couldn't. They impeded me many times and made me suffer a lot." Kiranci said that Cansin was being pressured by "a gang of pimps."
Prostitution is legal in Turkey, but licenses are scarce. About 3,500 of the country's sex workers are licensed, but the number of unlicensed sex workers has been estimated to be as high as 100,000, and they are under constant risk owing to their legal status. Police can arrest them on solicitation charges, or fine them for calling out or disrupting traffic.
One of the shelter's residents, a tall blonde named Seda, was repeatedly attacked while sleeping in parks before she moved in. Another named Mesha served seven months in jail in Syria for sex work before fleeing to Istanbul and joining the house.
Prejudice is still severe, but Turkey's LGBT community has grown more united since the days of police raiding the houses of transgender people in the 1980s.
"The police would enter and cut women's hair," Kiranci said. "They would hit and beat, and then torture in the jails."
Sexual reassignment surgery in the country was legalized in 1988.
"Now we are more organized and feel more solidarity," Kiranci said. "When people are discriminated against, we fight."
Kivilcim Arat, in the offices of LGBT Istanbul. A poster on the wall declares, "The murder of transsexuals is political!" (Photo by Ekin Calisir)
Transgender activists don't shy away from confrontation with the government. An overt political agenda was on display at last year's Trans Pride march, during which a procession of 15,000 demonstrators walked down a major thoroughfare in central Istanbul, followed by riot police and water cannons. They chanted, "The murderer is the state," and demanded an end to violence against transgender people.
Kivilcim Arat is a young transgender Kurd who is the managing director of LGBT Istanbul, an advocacy group. She sat in the shelter's breakfast nook across from Ebru, wrapped in a filigree scarf.
When there's a clash with the police, she told VICE News, "we are always part of it, fighting to protect others."
Transgender activists gained respect for their role in the 2013 anti-government protests in Gezi Park and in the Kurdish solidarity protests this winter that chided Turkey's government for inaction in Kobane.
Arat described transsexuals as being at war in Turkey. Though the country has a law against hate crimes, it does not include provisions for people targeted for their gender identity or sexual orientation. She and her fellow activists are pushing for those elements to be recognized and given constitutional protection from discrimination.
Those who commit violence against transgender people must also be prosecuted. When transgender women bring charges, Arat said, "aggressors often get a reduced charge because they claim that they were provoked or that their masculinity was insulted."
Because their struggle is also economic, sex workers want their profession legally recognized, and the right to form a union. They point to examples of unionization in the Netherlands and other countries.
Kiranci is regarded as a leader of the transgender rights movement, and once ran for municipal office. She didn't succeed, but such political bids have gained traction for the LGBT movement. Another activist, Sedef Cakmak, ran for municipal office last year. When she lost, she was appointed a counselor to the mayor of Besiktas Municipality. She implemented LGBT trainings for staff after taking her post, and the mayor today spoke out against hate crimes and flew the rainbow flag on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a date in November that honors victims of transphobic hatred and violence.
"We want to support women when they need, as much as they need," Arat said. "But it is important that they can stand on their own feet again."
Like Kiranci, Arat lives on her own in the neighborhood of Beyoglu, but frequently drops by. She does sex work when the pay from articles and film work isn't enough.
"When I visit the house I feel safe, as if I'm in a castle," she said. "Every trans may need that place one day. And when you need it, it's great to know it's there."
Follow Xanthe Ackerman on Twitter: @XAckerman