Turkey: Anti-LGBTQ display reflects nation’s political shift

ISTANBUL – The 25-year-old translator by day and trans-drag performer by night felt overwhelming panic and fear as several thousand protesters rallied and marched in Turkey on Sunday to demand a ban on gay propaganda and support LGBTQ organizations to forbid.

The Big Family Gathering parade in the conservative heart of Istanbul attracted parents with children, nationalists, hard-line Islamists and conspiracy theorists. Turkey’s media watchdog gave the event the government’s blessing by including a promotional video calling LGBTQ people a “virus” in its list of public service announcements for broadcasters.

“We must do our full defense against this LGBT. We have to get rid of it,” said construction worker Mehmet Yalcin, 21, who attended the event and wore a black headband printed with the creed of Islam. “We’re fed up and really uncomfortable with our kids being encouraged and pulled into this.”

Seeing images of the gathering startled Willie Ray, the drag performer who identifies as non-binary, and Willie Ray’s mother, who burst into tears after speaking to her child. The fear was not misplaced. The European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Turkey second to last in its latest 49-country index for legal equality, ahead of Azerbaijan, and said LGBTQ people have “countless hate crimes”.

“I feel like I could be publicly lynched,” Willie Ray said, describing the daily sense of dread that comes with life in Istanbul. The actor recalls exiting a makeup-on nightclub on New Year’s Eve and hurrying to a cab when strangers shouted abuse in the street and were “basically trying to chase me.”

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Sunday’s march was the largest anti-LGBTQ demonstration of its kind in Turkey, attacking the civil rights of a community commonly referred to here as LGBTI+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other gender identities and sexual orientations in the years since 2014 an estimated 100,000 people have celebrated Pride in Istanbul.

As a visible sign of change, the anti-LGBTQ march passed without police intervention. Conversely, freedom of assembly by LGBTQ groups has been severely restricted since 2015, with officials citing both security and morality reasons.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the Pride march planned for this year. Government officials have since banned the event. Activists have nevertheless attempted to rally, and more than 370 people were arrested in Istanbul in June.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s views have also become increasingly anti-LGBTQ over time. Ahead of the 2002 elections that brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he co-founded, to power, a younger Erdogan said at a televised campaign rally that he saw the mistreatment of gay people as inhuman and legal protections for them in Turkey consider it a “must”.

“And now, 20 years later, you have a very different president who seems to be self-mobilizing based on this dehumanizing, criminal approach to the LGBTQ movement,” said Mine Eder, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

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Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has labeled LGBTQ people as “perverts”. In 2020, Erdogan defended the head of religious affairs after claiming homosexuality “brings disease and causes the generation to decay”. While defending his longstanding belief that women’s identities are rooted in motherhood and family, last year the Turkish leader urged people to reject what “lesbian schmesbians” say.

Turkey has also withdrawn from a European treaty protecting women from violence after lobbying by conservative groups claiming the treaty promotes homosexuality.

The country could become less friendly to the LGBTQ community. The Unity in Ideas and Struggle Platform, organizer of Sunday’s event, said it plans to push for legislation that would ban the alleged LGBTQ “propaganda” the group claims is broadcast on Netflix and in the US ubiquitous on social media, as well as in the arts and sports.

The platform’s website says it also supports a ban on LGBTQ organizations.

“We are a Muslim country and we say no to it. Our statesmen and the other parties should all support this,” said Betul Colak, who attended Sunday’s gathering wearing a Turkish flag scarf.

Plagued by “the feeling that he could be attacked at any time,” Willie Ray says it would be a “total disaster” if a ban were placed on LGBTQ organizations that provide visibility, psychological support and safe spaces.

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Eder, the professor, said it would be “simply illegal” to shut down LGBTQ civil society on the basis of ideological, Islamic and conservative norms – even if Turkey’s norms have actually shifted to “using violent language, violent strategies.” and to legalize them”.

Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association, a non-governmental LGBTQ advocacy and outreach organization in Istanbul, commonly known as SPoD, is among LGBTQ groups to stop posting their addresses online after receiving threatening phone calls.

“It’s easy for a madman to hurt us after all the hate speech from state officials,” said SPoD lobbyist Ogulcan Yediveren, 27. “But these security concerns, this atmosphere of fear, don’t stop us from working, they remind us every time how much we have to work.”

Gay activist Umut Rojda Yildirim, who works as a lawyer for SPoD, believes that Sunday’s anti-LGBTQ sentiment is not dominant in Turkish society, but that the minority voicing it “appears louder when it’s state funds when supported is the government watchdog.”

“You can just close an office, but I’m not going away. My other colleagues will not disappear. We will definitely be here,” said Yildirim.

This story has been corrected to show that the non-governmental organization’s name is Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association, not Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association.

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