When Sepi cries, she’s careful not to ruin her makeup. Folding a tissue into a triangle, she gently dabs under her eyes and looks into a hand mirror to ensure everything is still in place: thick black eyeliner, bright green eye shadow, fuchsia lips, bleach-blond hair. Satisfied, she puts the mirror away.
Sepi is a pro at this — she wears a lot of makeup, and she sheds a lot of tears.
She lives in a dilapidated fourth-floor walk-up in Kayseri, a city in central Turkey. A small window is covered with mismatched sheets to hide the congested street below. Sepi sits on a worn-out mattress on the floor of her bedroom, a tattered suitcase next to the bed. The suitcase is always packed and ready to go, because Sepi shares the room with a man named Mehdi, and he has kicked her out several times since she moved in with him a few months earlier.
“He may kick me out again today,” Sepi says through tears. “He tells me he wants to be with a real woman. But I tell him I am a real woman.”
Sepi is a woman — but she was born a male. She’s one of dozens of transgender Iranian refugees who flee to Turkey every year to escape the dangers they face in Iran.
When Sepi first arrived in Turkey, she rented a hotel room for a couple of nights. After her money ran out, she was homeless. She stayed with people she met through refugee organizations or mutual friends, but a lot of the men with whom she stayed wanted sex in exchange. When she declined, she says, some beat her. This lasted for six months.
Then Sepi met Mehdi, another Iranian refugee, through a friend on Facebook. After a few months of chatting online, Mehdi told Sepi he wanted to be her boyfriend. He knew she was a transgender woman, and he was fine with it. Sepi could move in with him rent-free, he said. She accepted his proposal.
“I live here, but I don’t have a home,” Sepi says. “I may be here tonight, but tomorrow, I won’t. Tomorrow I may be forced to have sex with someone else just so I have a place to sleep. And he could have 1,000 different kinds of diseases. Or he might try to kill me.”