Opinion |

Are Official Bans and Slurs the Start of Full-on Persecution for Turkey's LGBT Community?

Turkey's LGBT community is a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan's vision of an Islamically 'pious generation' – and now he's cracking down on them, with enthusiastic support from other Islamists and ultra-nationalists

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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A Turkish anti-riot police officer steps on a rainbow flag during a rally staged by the LGBT community on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on June 19, 2016.
A Turkish anti-riot police officer steps on a rainbow flag during a rally staged by the LGBT community on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on June 19, 2016.Credit: Ozan Kose/AFP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

A week ago, the governor of Turkey’s capital city banned all events - "cinema, theater, panels, interviews, exhibitions" - relating to the gay, lesbian and transgender community from taking place in the nation’s capital in the name of the wider "community’s public sensitivity [and] to provide peace and security."

The governor’s official statement went on to say: "Such events publicly harbor hatred and hostilityand therefore pose a risk to public safety and morality."

It was only a matter of time until the ban reached Istanbul. And so it was: days later an LGBT-related film screening, to be held at the Pera Museum, was also banned by the Istanbul governor’s office, who claimed that the organizers had failed to submit the proper authorization papers.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening ceremony of a mosque in Ankara, Turkey, October 27, 2017Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

Why is Turkey cracking down on its gay and lesbian community right now? Is it an assertion of Islamist identity politics and a kick at secular opponents of an increasingly authoritarian regime? And how reasonable is it to assume that the orders for this repression came from President Erdogan at the top, with provincial governors acting as mere agents of the government?

If the intention was to silence the LGBT community, it didn't work, at least in the short term.

Two Ankara-based LGBT organizations, Kaos GL and Pembe Hayat, vowed to take legal steps to reverse the governor’s "illegal, discriminatory and arbitrary ban," and added that "there can be no legitimate or legal grounds for such a wholesale ban that touches the core of [our] rights."

Defying the ban, students at Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University screened a gay-oriented film. The university cut the electricity in order to stop the screening. Fortunately, the Turkish police opted not to use force against the students, who went on to march and chant slogans supporting LGBT rights.

Follwing that, a massive march held for the international day against violence against women included protesters proudly demonstrating with LGBT rainbow flags, a scene that has been less common on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara since 2015, when the annual Pride March was broken up by police with batons and water cannon. Although the police threatened intervention over the flags, the march ended peacefully.

The LGBT ban should be seen in the wider context of Turkey’s ongoing clampdown on civil society. The first spike came during the Gezi Park protests, but accelerated since last year’s failed coup, when Turkey came under a State of Emergency that continues up to today.

The great pressure Turkey’s LGBT community has been under for several years contrasts with the early 2000s, when the community experienced a kind of public renaissance. At that time, Erdogan’s AKP was winning support from liberals, and a civil society niche for the LGBT community flourished.

During those years, the LGBT community built coalitions with many other civil society organizations, not least those representing other oppressed minorities, such as Kurds. This solidarity led the mostly Kurdish party, the HDP, to adopt an ambitious agenda that advocated for LGBT rights - despite their mostly conservative voter base.

The secular, yet more socially conservative, opposition party, the CHP, began to take part in discussions at the annual LGBT Pride lecture series. It, like the HDP, gradually opened its doors to openly gay and transgender candidates within the party.

A demonstrator's costume reads: "I want to live" during a protest against the murder of 22-year-old transgender activist Hande Kader, who was mutilated, burnt and murdered in Istanbul. August 21, 2016Credit: OZAN KOSE / AFP / Getty Images

That bridge-building paid off: By 2014, tens of thousands of allies were joining marchers in the Pride March, since banned.

Of course, this is only one side of the picture.

For the ruling AKP, LGBT issues for years were too much of a taboo to address, both among the party leadership and its constituency. During its long rulethere have been plenty of of homophobic slurs by AKP members. However, these spiked as the LGBT community became more politically ambitious, as was evident during the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Then-prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, stated during the campaign that "Gays caused the destruction of the [Biblical] tribe of Lot, and the HDP offers [a gay] candidate."

Just earlier this month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rarely mentions the subject of LGBT people, openly criticized a neighborhood committee controlled by the CHP for introducing positive discrimination quotas for LGBT participants, saying they had "broken their ties with our nation’s values."

Clearly, the more LGBT community members enter the political arena, local or national, the more they pose a threat to the AKP: They offer a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan’s attempts to raise a "pious generation," based on Islamic values.

Just as important, the AKP’s attacks paint the opposition as being hopelessly liberal and out-of-sync with the generally conservative Turkish population at large, and has worked diligently to promote rifts within the opposition, where acceptance of LGBT rights does not enjoy the wholehearted support of all members.

The AKP is, of course, also tending to its socially and religiously conservative base, and its anti-LGBT line also has the potential to attract hardline nationalists.

People protests against the ban on a gay pride march, off Istiklal Avenue, central Istanbul's main shopping road, Sunday, June 19, 2016.Credit: Emrah Gurel/AP

The increasingly homophobic tone of the government strengthens various Islamist constituencies, who take it as carte blanche for broadcasting repugnant anti-LGBT slurs, often in the same pro-government media where vicious anti-Semitism is an almost daily occurrence.

Turkish ultra-nationalists have also joined the fray. One group threatened last year’s Pride, which gave the government a proximate reason to block it for the following year to secure the "security of the marchers, tourists, and residents." It is in this context of support that the recent across-the-board ban of all LGBT events is a first sign of what could easily become an accelerating repression.

With rampant homophobia and violence - often hitting hard at the transgender community - LGBT individuals in Turkey have few safe spaces to express themselves, meet, and organize. Now, with these bans, this space will shrink further.

It's disheartening but perhaps not unsurprising that the Turkish government's anti-gay direction has many similarities with the officially-sanctioned persecution of the LGBT community in Russia and Egypt, where gays and lesbians are at any and every moment subject to harassment and assault if they dare organize any type of public expression.

However, it is important to remember that Turkey’s LGBT organizations are rooted in decades-old resistance and are no stranger to animosity.

Even if there is a sustained clampdown, the seeds planted by activists, and by those activists in political circles, university organizations, and other civil society groups, know how to continue working and organizing.

And they'll also be strengthened by a wider circle of sympathizers and allies built by patient debate and interactions who, just a decade ago, would never have imagined that they would be defending the rights of the gay and lesbian community.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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