A drag queen’s guide to queer safe spaces in Istanbul
Makeup artist and drag performer Tusidi gives us insider access to their home city
image Ilkin Zeybek
words Darshita Goyal
A wildly personal curation. An insider’s guide. An ode to the countless hours we’ve all spent scouring through the internet to find “cool” places in a new city. No Baggage is all this and more. Every month, we place the reins in the hands of a creative and ask them to take us through their home city. Forget TikTok, where do the locals get their pastries? Which hidden gallery features trailblazing artists? What is the best hangover cure in the neighbourhood? No gatekeeping, no holds barred, no excess baggage. Here, access is all inclusive.
Back in 2013, more than 100,000 people arrived at Taksim Square in Istanbul to celebrate pride, making it the largest ever LGBTQIA+ event in a Muslim-majority country. A year later, the celebration was stunted by hate crimes and violence, and the government enforced bans on all pride activities. In May 2023, conservative president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected to office, extending his anti-queer rule until 2028. While homosexuality remains illegal in Turkey, each year, thousands of protestors gather on 25th June to rally against the ban.
And through the rest of the year, a vivid underground scene holds the queer community together. Among them is Tusidi, a drag queen, makeup artist and nail technician from Istanbul, who relies on their craft to feel like they belong. The 27-year-old identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns – a shift that Tusidi only became comfortable with, five years ago. “Ever since middle school, I knew that I did not want to be limited to a male identity, but I tried to suppress that for most of my life," they tell woo. "I didn’t know if anyone else felt the same way and I had grown up seeing how people from the queer community were treated in Turkey."
But in 2019, Tusidi confided in their cousin who introduced them to their first queer friends, and by extension, an exciting (but concealed) world within their home city that accepts them for who they are. In the following months, the creative spent hours backstage with drag performers, doing their makeup and practising their act, until of course, they got on stage themselves and there was no going back. Tusidi explains, “I had severe performance anxiety and was always uncomfortable in my skin. But my drag mother Ceytengri kept me company on my first performance and now that has become my biggest creative outlet.”
Over time, drag helped Tusidi grow into their queer identity and discover spaces that didn’t sexualise or objectify their way of being. For the first edition of No Baggage, we asked the drag queen for insider access into the queer safe spaces in Istanbul. From delish mezze and hangover cures to wild swims and thrifted shopping, here’s a no holds barred guide to the Turkish capital, full of good vibes.
You’ve landed in Istanbul after a long flight - where are you getting breakfast?
My answer is a little biased because my mum manages this place, but Hepsimeze is the place to be. Everything here is delicious, but you should try the acılı girit ezmesi. It's a spicy walnut and ricotta dip and is really good. The chicken salad is also amazing. My friends and I go here all the time to eat and hang out. You can be yourself here. No one is going to look at you strangely and everyone is welcome. Oh, and it’s also a great hangover cure!
Let’s say you and your friends have some time to kill. How are you spending the day?
In the morning, we’re probably going to Validebağ korusu for a walk. It’s an ecological shelter with hundreds of rare species of birds and trees. But for us, it’s the perfect way to start the day and just feel the breeze. Then we would go to Caddebostan sahil — I’m heading there after our call today as well. It’s not exactly a beach and some people are sus about swimming there because the Marmara sea is very busy and it also gets kind of dirty. But we usually find a less crowded spot and get in the water just to cool down because it gets so hot here. And to end the day, we’d probably get some drinks and go bowling in Kadikoy.
I think we choose these places specifically because they’re outdoors and are communal areas where we can be ourselves without getting anxious. I have a lot of friends who express themselves in different ways, whether that’s clothing or makeup, and we want to be in a place where we don’t have to censor ourselves. Earlier, we used to feel very conscious about chilling at the seaside as people from all socioeconomic backgrounds would come and we weren’t sure how they’d see us. But then we realised, the only way to make it a safe space is by being there and taking up space, and so that’s what we did. The first few days, we didn’t swim. We just sat there and got comfortable, and then step by step, we made it our go-to place. Now we don’t think twice before going there.
It’s Friday night, where are you going for a boogie?
We have a handful of places in Istanbul that we alternate between. There’s Sahika, which is on the other side of the city, and most of the staff is queer. It’s like a second home for us. They usually book queer talent to perform drag there and even the DJs are largely from the community. Then there’s Mecra. It’s a bar and restaurant and I perform there, so you must come to see that! Banger is also a proper, loud nightclub. Most of these places play techno, so if that’s your jam this is great. If I have drinking coupons — which I usually get if my friends are performing — I like to go to the bar and ask the bartender to surprise me. All these clubs have really good cocktails and I don’t want to limit myself to the same drink. But if I had to choose, my favourite drink is from Sahika. They have a vodka cocktail with smoked lavender in it — so so good.
If you’re attending a big gig, where are you grabbing pre-drinks and food?
My friends and I like to drink outside so we usually go to kalamış sahil. It’s by the sea and there’s always a lot happening. There are basketball courts, a skate park, a trampoline and just big open spaces; you’d see someone riding a bike up a hill, another person doing tricks on skates. It’s really cool. No one disturbs anyone. We’re all just there with our people, doing what we like, but sometimes we mix and meet new people to hang out with so it’s fun. For food, we usually get Burger King or McDonald’s — a quarter pounder never disappoints — and if my friends are feeling hamarat (Turkish for generous), they’ll cook something for us to have with our drinks.
Where do you scout your drag costumes from?
I usually get my looks from Cuma Pazari. It’s an antique market that happens every Friday and you can find literally everything here if you spend enough time looking. Pro tip: don’t try on anything until you give it a good wash because most of the clothing is second hand and comes in big garbage bins, but the quality and style is worth the hassle. From dresses and high heels to jewellery and wigs, I get everything here, and the prices start as low as ₺5 lira (£0.20). There’s also an app called Dolap which is very good. It’s like Depop for Istanbul. People sell their clothing online and you can find what’s actually trending on the internet but for really cheap. To be honest, most of the stores in Istanbul are too expensive so I like these options better.
People think of Salt Bae and Nusr-Et when they think of steaks in Istanbul but where should they actually go?
Nusr-Et is so overrated. I’ve never been there and I don’t plan to ever go there. There are so many alternative burger and kebab places in Kadıköy-Moda. Ekspres İnegöl Köftecisi has the best meatballs. Yer has a very good tasting menu and some of the employees there are also queer so it’s a safe space.
If there’s a birthday or a big occasion, what are you doing to celebrate?
On birthdays we like to get out of the city for a bit, Burgazada is a beautiful island about an hour away from Istanbul. The fastest and cheapest way to go is by ferry and that costs between ₺30 to ₺35 lira (less than £3). Definitely never go there on weekends because it’s too crowded, but on a random weekday the water is absolutely stunning.
You’re looking for new sex toys, which stores do you go to?
There are a bunch of incredible erotic shops in the Kadikoy area, but I would recommend Taksim and Nokta. They are queer friendly too. I have also heard that Eromega is very popular. It is run by and for women.
Instead of Time Out or TripAdvisor, who should people follow from Istanbul to know where to go and what to see?
Okay, I have a long list for this because I know so many people from the scene who will give you the best suggestions on safe spaces in Istanbul and tell you when to go to each place to get the best crowd. Here are their usernames: @Kiki.Cicinash, @Ceytengri, @AntreSezgin, @FlorenceDelight and @Dirty_Projector. All very talented, very kind — feel free to DM them.
You meet someone who is visiting Istanbul for the first time and you have 10 seconds to give them recommendations or advice. What do you say?
You have to go to a drag show. We have brilliant talent and a very warm community, and there are new events happening every week. Oh and if you’re a smoker, be careful outside — it’s banned in most places so make sure you go somewhere secure before lighting a cigarette.
Follow Tusidi on Instagram here.
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