The fight by Turkey’s LGBTQI+ people

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The fight by Turkey’s LGBTQI+ people

President Erdoğan’s government call LGBTQI+ people in Turkey terrorists but they are finding ways to express themselves and work together, writes Tuğçe Özbiçer.


The event was banned but they celebrate Pride in central Istanbul on 30 June 2019. MURAD SEZER/REUTERS/ALAMY

As my friends and I go up to a bar in Istanbul’s lively Taksim district, I’m surprised to hear the name of the bar. I thought Şahika was shut but it seems my friends only stopped going. ‘They have queer managers now,’ they say, ‘and so we all came back!’

We pass people we know in colourful clothes, they are laughing and kissing, and we go into a room full of life. Akış Ka, a drag artist, performs to a cheering crowd. The government says terrible things about them but the people from the LGBTQI+ community come here to be with each other, as they are, true to themselves.

In February 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the country, ‘LGBT – there is no such thing.’ They try to exclude the LGBTQI+ community, and the feminist movement, from public places. But in underground places like Şahika, it’s clear that Erdoğan is wrong.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey for almost twenty years. After a big win in 2002, the AKP slowly changed from a conservative rightwing party to an authoritarian far-right government. They re-elected Erdoğan as President in 2014. He won 51 per cent of the vote, the most populist time for him as a leader began. There have been attacks on minority groups and increased suppression of the political opposition in education, media, and civil society.

Istanbul’s annual Pride March started in 2003 and it is more and more popular now. In 2013, almost 100,000 people came and by 2014 it was the biggest LGBTQI+ event in Turkey’s history. But in 2015, the Istanbul Governor’s Office banned Pride and said there were security problems. Pride still takes place but the police attack the event every year. In 2021, police fired tear gas into the crowd and arrested about 20 people.

Erdoğan finds making minority groups ‘enemies’ useful as he makes his hold on power stronger. Akış Ka says, ‘AKP is violent against Kurds, Alevis, working-class people, and women. The LGBTQI+ community is the easiest to attack. In a way it is a mathematical plan: individuals can unite from all social, ethnic, or class backgrounds in homophobia and transphobia.’

Solidarity - important to work together

With increased oppression, solidarity is growing, often in places like Şahika. This solidarity is very important for the LGBTQI+ community in Turkey. Discrimination often begins in the family and moves into all areas of the society.

This solidarity appears in different forms: listening to each other’s problems, giving support when someone suffers from violence, or sharing creative work to help queer groups and individuals to find a bigger audience.

‘The solidarity in the LGBTQI+ community made me the person I am today,’ says Akış Ka.

Akış Ka says solidarity is important emotionally, ‘First of all, we are together. And then we can cry together. It means the world. Crying with someone, for the same thing.’

They have made stronger links with other social justice movements. The queer movement, political parties, and human rights organizations worked together more in 2013 when there were anti-government protests across the country. These groups working together make it easier for the LGBTQI+ community to speak in public about their problems and demand people recognize and accept them. ‘Suddenly they called us a “threat” because we had so much support and we were very visible. Erdoğan’s conservative supporters were scared their children would also come out as gay!’ Akış Ka says.

‘Crazy and scary’

In 2021, there was a six-month-long student protest calling for the democratic election of a university rector and it turned into a fight for LGBTQI+ rights, with many arrested for showing rainbow flags.

Students at Boğaziçi University protested against the appointment, by Erdoğan, of rector Melih Bulu. Bulu was one of the AKP’s parliamentary candidates in 2015, and he was still a close friend of the party and the President.

‘The protesters are not students,’ said Erdoğan in January 2021. ‘This is something involving terrorists.’

Hazar is an activist and artist from Istanbul and was a student of Boğaziçi University. She helped to start BOUN Art Collective (Boğaziçi University Art Collective) which, as part of the protest, organized an exhibition of over 400 works by artists across the world.

One piece was called ‘Yılanı Güldürseler’ (To make the serpent laugh) showed a picture of Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, with LGBTQI+ flags in each corner. Hazar says that conservative students posted a photo of it on Twitter, saying ‘it is insulting Islam’.

Erdoğan said, ‘We will lead our young people to the future not as the LGBT youth but as the youth that was there in our wonderful past.’ Interior minister Süleyman Soylu followed Erdoğan and tweeted that ‘the government would not tolerate the LGBT perverts trying to occupy the rector’s office’.

They arrested hundreds of students, including Hazar and six others from the Collective. They charged them with causing the public to hate. Hazar now lives in Berlin, and he was on trial – she calls it ‘crazy and scary’.

‘The judge asked me if I’m working for LGBT. How is LGBTQI+ a kind of illegal organization that you could work for!’ says Hazar. She was on house arrest for a month.

The blame

‘Trying to present the LGBTQI+ movement as a terrorist organization is to do with the state’s increasing militarist, transphobic. and homophobic ideas,’ says lawyer and activist Eren Keskin. He started the Legal Aid Office Against Sexual Harassment and Rape in Detention.

The President supports these terrible ideas but others agree with him, including anti-LGBTQI+ ministers and corrupt media platforms.

They even blamed LGBTQI+ people for the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2020, Ali Erbaş, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, said that homosexuality caused disease. ‘Let’s come and fight together to protect people from this kind of evil,’ he said. President Erdoğan supported him and said that Erbaş was ‘100% right’.

Erbaş also helped Turkey leave the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women in March 2021. It was the most comprehensive agreement to stop gender-based violence and domestic violence. It worried some conservatives because it recognized the abuse of a husband, boyfriend, father, or a brother.

Keskin says, ‘Erdoğan’s government and its supporters are terrified by the feminist and LGBTQI+ movement because they are fighting against so-called “traditional Turkish family values”.’

At least 280 women were murdered in 2021 says the ‘We Will Stop Femicide Platform’ – most killed in their homes. In 2020, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said Turkey was the second worst place out of 49 countries in Europe for LGBTQI+ rights. And Turkey had Europe’s highest trans murder rate in 2016.

A place for expression

‘Most of my clients are trans people and they have experienced human rights violations. When they are walking along the streets, the police stop them and charge them with “polluting public areas” or “abusing public spaces”,’ says Keskin. In prison, trans people face a double punishment. If they haven’t had gender-affirming surgery, they put them in solitary confinement. It is legal to ask for gender reassignment but in prison the Turkish state will usually refuse. It is illegal when it says that ‘gender-reassignment surgery is a type of plastic surgery’.

In 2018 Buse Aydin, a trans woman prisoner, asked for all the necessary processes to get surgery. She ended up on a 38-day hunger strike for a human right in the European Convention on Human Rights. After that, the Ministry of Health refused to pay for the costs of the surgery. Keskin, Buse’s lawyer, said, ‘Buse cut her penis in solitary confinement in 2019. With the wonderful support of women’s and LGBTQI+ organizations, she had her gender-affirming surgery and the state paid for the costs. She is happy now.’

Turkey’s LGBTQI+ community faces so much protest, but it is more visible than ever before. Queer people continue to resist and express themselves in state and non-state places, especially in creative works and a growing arts and culture scene in big cities.

‘We’re expressing ourselves through art, music, performance... We’re telling our own empowering stories out loud, writing our own history. If we don’t, then there will be no memory or evidence of a LGBTQI+ community in Turkey,’ says Akış Ka.

‘Our stories inspire and empower others. The state doesn’t support us, but what can they really do? As long as the world is here, we’ll be here. If we lose our hope for equality, justice, and freedom, there is nothing more to hold on to.’

Turkey’s LGBTQI+ community is stronger now and the fight will go on.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)