How Erdogan Spurs LGBT Hatred for Political Gain

Facing growing challenges to his rule, Turkey's president has tried to redirect the fire at a number of other groups, most recently gay people.

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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In this June 5, 2015 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses an election rally in Golbasi, Ankara, Turkey.
In this June 5, 2015 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses an election rally in Golbasi, Ankara, Turkey.Credit: AP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Over the last two years, Turkey's former prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been challenged with protests, corruption scandals, and now court rulings declaring his almost-billion dollar palace illegal. As a result, Turkey has become polarized to the core, with the president and his hardcore supporters often using hate speech to counter their opponents.

Once Erdogan targets a certain person or group, the hate is then disseminated on the front pages of the pro-government press: The Alevi religious minority opposition is brushed off as “non-believers,” Jews are regularly cursed and blamed for international conspiracies, and the rival Gulen group was once even compared to bacteria in bad milk that needs to be cleansed from Turkish society.

During the recent run-up to the elections last spring, this pattern continued, even though the Turkish president is expected to remain neutral. Erdogan regularly campaigned on behalf of his party, the AKP, taking the stage and riling up the masses. However, during this round, a new group was at the epicenter of his hate: the LGBT community.

For most of the 13 years of his single-party rule, Erdogan and his ministers seemed to have purposely avoided discussing gays, as it simply was too much of a taboo topic to tackle. There was the case in 2010 when Minister of Women and Family Affairs Aliye Kavaf declared that homosexuality was a sickness. However, it was clear Erdogan did not like the attention given to the topic, and a year later she lost her position.

Despite the government’s silence, since 2002, the LGBT community has challenged the AKP’s homophobic policies while thriving from the early democratic reforms implemented during Erdogan’s first years. Groups like KAOS GL, Lambda, and SPoD have created important ties with other oppressed communities, and for the past 13 years, Istanbul’s Pride march has grown, turning into a festive day for not just gays, but also many of its supporters.

Gay Pride Parade in Istanbul, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP)

Parallel to this, Turkey’s Kurdish politicians, such as Sebahat Tuncel, regularly take part in events; in 2011, she and party member Sirri Sureyya Onder briefly led the march, just minutes after police attacked their rally with teargas. Less visible perhaps, but no less important, Turkey’s opposition People Republican Party (CHP) also began to take part in panels during Pride, which showed that the secular yet sometimes socially conservative party was warming up to the idea of change.

These newly formed coalitions merged into a much stronger force following the 2013 Gezi Park protests, with the LGBT community taking center stage in the struggle against Erdogan’s growing authoritarian ways. Despite this, almost strangely, the 2013 summer Pride was one of the only mass gatherings that summer that was not attacked with teargas, despite turning into a massive pro-Gezi event, which led some to believe that the government did not want bring the issue of gays into the mainstream media.

Undoubtedly, the LGBT movement and its allies’ hard work paid off, and in the most recent elections, the newly formed, mostly Kurdish, left-wing Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) ran an openly gay candidate, and the CHP also presented a supportive platform. However, with so much attention given to the topic, Erdogan and his AKP could no longer skirt the issue; especially sense it was clear that the HDP was succeeding in convincing religiously conservative Kurds to vote for it.

During the election campaign, Erdogan lashed out at the HDP, stating, “We are not the ones with a homosexual candidate.” This was met with praise in the conservative Islamist pro-government press, which has always been vehemently homophobic. Parallel to this, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated, “gays caused the destruction of the (Biblical) tribe of Lot, and the HDP presents [a gay] candidate.” Not surprisingly, just days later, the HDP headquarters in Eskisehir, where the openly gay candidate was running for a seat, was attacked with gunfire. Luckily no one was injured.

The AKP’s strategy of using virulent language against its opponents, including its desperate attempt to play the “gay card,” did not pay off. The AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June election, with the HDP getting over 13%; further, after a month since the elections, the AKP has been unable to form a coalition, and new elections may be held in the fall. Nevertheless, Erdogan and Davutolgu’s campaign against the LGBT community did unleash a dangerous wave of homophobia.

During the election season, Zorlu Performing Arts center cancelled an evening with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus after conservative newspapers slammed the theater for sponsoring the program. Yet Istanbul’s Bogazici University opened its doors to the choir, on June 27, a day before the planned Pride march, leading one pro-AKP university rector, M. Ihsan Karaman, of Istanbul’s Medeniyet University, to state on twitter, “Our universities are not the place to legitimize perverted tendencies and acts.”

Just three weeks after the election, on Jun 28,for the first time in 13 years, Istanbul's Pride march was attacked with teargas and water cannons. While the AKP-appointed Istanbul governor declared it banned due to Ramadan, last year the march took place during the first days of the Islamic Holy Month. Not only that, absurdly, the AKP even passed out election brochures in liberal neighborhoods explaining that the fact the march did take place during Ramadan was a sign of the government’s openness.

Even more worrying, almost two weeks ago, on July 7,a group named the Islamic Youth Defense posted political posters throughout Ankara, calling to kill gays or anyone who interacts with them.

As we have seen over and over, when publicly elected officials promote hate, this provides a carte blanche to much more radical groups to take action. As it is, Turkey’s LGBTs are subjected to a great amount of violence - especially members of its transgender community - so these calls should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The AKP might think twice before embarking further on this campaign of hate, since it actually seems to be backfiring: More Turkish citizens than ever openly support a pro-LGBT agenda. Plus, it is likely causing a rift within the party itself, pitting the vocally homophobic groups against those who would prefer to place the topic of homosexuality back deep into the closet, returning to the former status-quo of not addressing the issue head on, and trying to keep the topic on the margins of the society. Ironically, this all comes at the same time a small group of pro-AKP gays have organized and are now starting to “come out.” Whatever stance the party takes, the topic is not about to go away anytime soon.

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