When Turkey's family affairs minister recently described homosexuality as a curable disease, she was roundly criticized for discrimination and flouting human rights.
- Homosexuals feel they have to hide their sexual identity so as not to risk losing their jobs
- Unlike other Muslim countries, same-sex relationships have never been criminalised in Turkey
- The Islamist-rooted government has enacted a series of rights reforms but has turned a blind eye to gay rights
But for activists her remarks only underscore what they say is increasing prejudice, discrimination and violence -- even from police -- against homosexuals and transgender people in this Muslim-majority country stuck between its conservative roots and flourishing modernism.
A total of 45 gays and transgender people were killed over three years in "hate murders", said Demet Demir, a transsexual and leading activist from Istanbul-LGBTT, a civic body promoting homosexual rights.
"In February alone, five people were killed. In Antalya (southern Turkey), a transsexual friend was brutally murdered; her throat was slit.
"In Istanbul, another was stabbed to death. Three young men... killed her for money, but she only had 70 liras (46 dollars, 34 euros) and a gold chain," Demir said, adding that three gay men had also been killed in Anatolia.
The violence comes against a backdrop of clashing values in this secular democracy that is vying to join the European Union.
Unlike other Muslim countries, same-sex relationships have never been criminalised in Turkey. Prostitution and sex change operations are legal.
Several gay and transgender bars have flourished in major cities such as Istanbul, while a transsexual singer and homosexuals figure among the country's top celebrities.
There are also several associations fighting for gay and transgender rights that organize regular conferences, parades and demonstrations.
But at the same time, traditional Islamic values hold sway over large sections of this macho society, which frowns upon displays of femininity.
Discrimination is rife: transgender people are forced to work in the sex sector as nobody will employ them while homosexuals feel they have to hide their sexual identity so as not to risk losing their jobs.
Last year, for example, a football referee came out on television, only to see his refereeing licence revoked.
The Turkish army classifies homosexuality as a "disease" while police are notoriously harsh against transsexuals.
"Just yesterday, police raided the flat where we meet our clients, breaking down the door," Ece, a 43-year-old transsexual, said.
"They arrested everyone and beat one of the girls with a truncheon. She had to have three stitches to her head," she added.
Although the Islamist-rooted government has enacted a series of rights reforms to boost the country's EU bid since it came to power in 2002, it has turned a blind eye to homosexual rights.
In March, Family Affairs and Women's Minister Selma Aliye Kavaf declared in a newspaper interview that she believed homosexuality was a "biological disorder, a disease."
"I think it should be treated," she said, attracting a storm of anger and enhancing fears that Islam is taking a more prominent place under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to Demir, the violence against homosexuals and her kind has its roots in a "rise in nationalism, Islamic values, poverty, and unemployment in the past seven or eight years".
"In such a climate, homosexuals and transsexuals are easy targets. Assailants think that nobody will ask questions and that they won't risk heavy penalties if they kill a transsexual," she said.
Ece, who has been working in the sex sector for 22 years, said she felt compelled to take precautions to minimize risks to her life: making sure she is not alone when meeting clients and never seeking work along motorways.
"In the flats where the girls work, there are always housekeepers and cleaning ladies... We are never really alone with the client," she explained.
"If there is ever any aggression against one of us, we all intervene. If there is a fight, we all join it."
In a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February, several non-governmental organizations called for the government to ensure security for gay and transgender people.
They pointed out that eight transsexuals had been killed between November 2008 and February this year.
Ece said the authorities share responsibility in those crimes.
"When a minister makes such declarations, when the police break down your door and beat you up with a truncheon... there will always be people who think that we are evil creatures," she said.
"They will think they have a right to eliminate you, make you disappear."
Firat Soyle, a lawyer for Lambda Istanbul, a gay rights group, said the government needed to ban discrimination on sexual orientation.
"In the Turkish legal system, there is no reference to homosexuality, neither penalisation nor positive discrimination. But this legal vacuum is always used against homosexuals," he said.