For Transgender Turks, Discrimination Said to Loom Larger

Restrictions on Pride events and other curbs on free speech reflect the government's heavier hand on the LGBTI community

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Cayan Hakiki at her home in Ankara, Turkey.
Cayan Hakiki at her home in Ankara, Turkey.Credit: Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

Cayan Hakiki trimmed their finger nails and scrubbed off the polish last week in order to take Turkish university entrance exams without being hassled, as advocacy groups say LGBTQ+ people face increasingly open discrimination.

"I didn't want any problems at the entrance," Hakiki, 23, told Reuters at home in the capital Ankara. Hakiki identifies as "lubunya" in Turkish, a term that refers to people who identify with LGBTQ+ culture but for which there is no direct translation. "We are subject to all kinds of violence from the moment we begin to exist as an LGBTQ+ person, whether from people on the street, the government or the police."

Advocates say crackdowns on Pride events and other curbs on free speech and assembly reflect the government's heavier hand including recent open denunciations of the LGBTQ+ community.

Cayan Hakiki studies for the university entrance exams at her home in Ankara, Turkey.Credit: Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

President Tayyip Erdogan's government has dismissed such claims of discrimination and says police are upholding the law against "unlawful" protests. In other instances, the government has denied the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals, or said the concept was imported from the West, and posed a threat to family values.

Transgender Europe, a network of organizations that advocate for rights, says 54 transgender people were killed in Turkey from 2008 through September 2020, the highest rate in Europe. Unreported cases means the number is likely higher, it said, adding that transgender people face discrimination including denial of jobs, housing, health care and education.

Last week, as international Pride month ended, Turkish authorities including police in riot gear detained an estimated 100 people taking part in parades and demonstrations across the country. Police used tear gas to disperse some of the hundreds who had gathered, and the government said they were responding in part to vandalism. Such events have been banned in recent years, though in the past thousands took part in the main Istanbul Pride parade.

Police clash with demonstrators taking part in a rally as part of the LGBTQ+ Pride Month in Ankara last month.Credit: Adem Altan/AFP

Asked to comment on claims that government rhetoric and policies increases personal risk for transgender people, the Interior Ministry and Palace did not immediately comment.

European Union concerns over human rights have hindered Turkey's accession process, which has been languishing for years after the bloc informally suspended membership talks. For the third straight year in 2020, Turkey ranked second lowest in the "Rainbow Index" that measures respect for LGBTQ+ human rights in 49 European countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe).

'LGBT Deviants'

Cayan Hakiki at her home in Ankara, Turkey.Credit: Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

Advocates like Hakiki, who is part of the Ankara-based Pink Life transgender awareness group, say examples of discrimination are multiplying. In February, amid student and faculty protests over the naming of an Istanbul university rector, Erdogan and other officials seized on the display on campus of an image that combined Islamic imagery and rainbow flags.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu labelled the students "LGBT deviants" and Erdogan praised his Islamist-rooted AK Party's youth wing for not being "LGBT youth". The Interior Ministry and Palace also did not immediately comment on claims that government rhetoric amounts to discrimination against transgender and other LGBTQ+ people.

Last month, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic sent a letter to Turkey's interior and justice ministers expressing concern about rising homophobic narratives by some officials, and called on them to reverse course and protect LGBTQ+ rights.

Cayan Hakiki walks along a street in Ankara last month.Credit: Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

"I want to stay in this country and continue our struggle for rights," said Hakiki, who completed the entrance exams and aims to study performance arts management in Istanbul.

Hakiki jokes they prefer the "B for Barbie" pronoun, but accepts using "they/them". "If there's going to be a change in this country, it will be led by the LGBTQ+ movement. It is the government who is afraid of this movement, and not the other way around," they said.

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