Gay referee gets red card in Turkey

After coming out on TV, Halil Dincdag sues football federation over sacking

Turkey's football authorities were at the centre of a growing scandal this week after a referee they had sacked for homosexuality and outed to the press began fighting back in the courts and the press.

"They thought I was an ant that they could crush, they thought I would run away and hide in a corner," Halil Ibrahim Dincdag said. "But they have destroyed my life and I will fight them to the end."

Mr Dincdag, 33, from Trabzon, had been refereeing in the local league for 13 years when he was informed this May that his licence would not be renewed. Two days after he appealed his dismissal to the football federation, stories about him began appearing in the national press. As a result he was sacked by the local radio station he worked on and forced to flee to Istanbul to spare his family from an influx of journalists. It was at this point that he decided to come out as gay, while appearing on a popular television sports programme.

"The day the press started writing about me, I went into a coma, and the day I appeared on TV I died," he said in his lawyer's office. "Thirty-three years of my life had disappeared. Since then, I have been trying to resurrect myself."

Mr Dincdag's television appearance was an act of considerable courage. Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, unlike in some other Muslim countries. But homophobia is widespread, no-where more so than in the world of football. "The crowds shout 'faggot' at referees whose decisions they don't like," Mr Dincdag said. "Well, here I am."

His principled stance brought him a wave of support. Three-quarters of Trabzon's 80 referees rang him up to congratulate him. Thirty thousand people signed a petition launched by Turkey's most influential newspaper backing his campaign. One columnist even compared him to Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician. Turkey's deputies brought his case to parliament. Most importantly for Mr Dincdag, his pious family, from whom he had kept his homosexuality secret, stood behind him.

Caught off balance by the outcry, Turkey's football federation began back-pedalling fast. Its vice-president Lutfi Aribogan said Mr Dincdag's sacking had nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his lack of "talent". The head of the referee's board then said the door remained open for Mr Dincdag to return to the fold, insisting that it was Mr Dincdag's lawyer, not the federation, that had leaked his name to the press.

"Do they have no fear of God," Mr Dincdag asked, pointing to a sheaf of match reports dating back a decade that show him to have ranked among the best local referees. "I've already gone to the courts over this, and I'll go all the way to Europe if necessary."

Empowered by Turkey's European Union accession bid, the Turkish gay and lesbian rights lobby has become increasingly outspoken over the past decade. Activists say Mr Dincdag's fight for his rights has the potential to become a landmark case. "For years, the European Union has been talking about the importance of legislation on sexual discrimination in the workplace," said Ali Erol, a spokesman for KAOS-GL, an Ankara-based gay and lesbian rights group. "So far Turkey has not taken one step forward."

Old-fashioned views of homosexuality remain widespread. Speaking on television shortly after Mr Dincdag came out, Turkey's most popular football commentator Erman Toroglu, himself a former referee, said he didn't think the 33-year old should be given his job back. "I reckon [homosexual referees] would have a tendency to give more penalties to good-looking, tough footballers," he said.

Mr Dincdag's eyes glaze over with anger at the recollection. "Does Toroglu assault every pretty girl he passes in the street?"

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