Mehmet Sander was born in Mettman, Germany on January 20, 1967. His family moved to Istanbul when he was 11 months old. Mehmet was surrounded by the arts in his family growing up — his mother was a radical painter, his father was a poet, and his uncle was a film and theater actor. Mehmet’s parents regularly took him to see film screenings and live dance shows, which cemented his lifelong love for art.
At 15, Mehmet met a 33-year-old openly gay sailor, and they became pen pals; three years later he went to his first gay bar, Tequila in Taksim Square. In 1985, Mehmet saw the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham, inspiring him to seriously pursue dance and choreography. He auditioned for choreographer Geyvan Mcmillen’s contemporary dance company and became the principal dancer within a year. Under Geyvan’s advice, Mehmet auditioned and got into the prestigious London Contemporary Dance School, where he spent two summers training. In London, Mehmet got to explore the goth subculture. He rocked black eyeliner charcoal makeup, a second hand tuxedo jacket and bow tie, a tight black skirt, pirate boots up to the knee, and signature fake jewel dangling earrings.
In 1987, Mehmet decided to further study the Cunningham technique in California State University, Long Beach. As he moved to the U.S., he came out to his family as gay. After some initial challenging conversations, they are loving to this day. In Long Beach, Mehmet tested positive for HIV at age 21. He refused to see HIV as a death sentence; he proactively sought counseling and medical advice at Long Beach’s LGBT center. Mehmet became active in the Long Beach neighborhood watch and patrols to make sure people got home safe at night, and organized protests for ACT UP.
Alongside his political activism, Mehmet excelled in dance — the CSU Long Beach dance department chose his work to represent the school at the American College Dance Festival. Consequently, he got to train for a summer at Harvard’s dance school in 1990 on a full ride scholarship. That same year, he started his own dance company, where he recruited classmates and outside dancers. Their company’s first performance, “Actual Life,” went up in September 1990, where they explored the theme “silence equals death” as a send off for ACT UP. After three years of sold out shows in Long Beach, his company was featured in the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair.
Mehmet also started a dance company for queer youth in Long Beach in 1995, in response to the high suicide rates among queer youth. He opened up his studio in the afternoons to queer teens, where he provided intense physical training as well as reading assignments, showing them queer culture and history to empower them in their queer identities. He led the teens to perform a dance piece telling the utopian story of a queer sovereign nation and donated the proceeds to support unhoused queer people.
Mehmet moved back to Istanbul in 2006. Now, he spends his time participating in Istanbul pride events, creating pieces in collaboration with other artists, and spending time with his partner, Sepe. He remains passionate about AIDS activism, animal rights, and Roxy Music.