Activists undeterred by Turkey’s assault on LGBTQ rights

Turkish President Erdogan has said that efforts to empower gay people are “against the values of our nation.”

Participants of a Gay Pride event chant slogans after police sprayed water canon to disperse them, in Istanbul, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Participants of a Gay Pride event chant slogans after police sprayed water canon to disperse them, in Istanbul, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — In the month since the governor of Ankara indefinitely banned all public LGBTQ events, claiming that such events were contrary to public morality and carried public safety risks, LGBTQ activists have been forced to choose between silence and harassment or arrest.

LGBTQ groups Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) and KAOS GL filed a lawsuit against the governor’s office last month. Istanbul-based activist Gorkem Ulumeric, who helped organize a campaign called LGBTI Yasaklarını Geri Cekin, or Reverse the LGBTI Ban, told ThinkProgress that he believes the court will overturn the ban. Ulumeric warned the reversal would take time, but if the judicial process drags on, he said, he is worried the ban could expand.

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Ankara’s ban is the latest in a series of anti-LGBTQ actions after a state of emergency was declared following a failed military coup attempt against the government in July 2016. This past summer, the Istanbul governor’s office banned the Istanbul pride march for the third year in a row. Activists who decided to march anyway were met with arrests and pepper spray.

While homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey — a majority-Muslim, secular country — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that efforts to empower gay people are “against the values of our nation.” In its 2016 country profiles on sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish “Authorities frequently impose arbitrary bans on public assemblies and violently disperse peaceful demonstrations.”

Turkey’s current state of emergency enables the government to issue decrees rather than enact laws through the Parliament. Governing by decree can mean even speedier crackdowns on critics of the government with little judicial recourse. This means that if a judicial decree, rather than an announcement by a governor’s office, were to ban LGBTQ events, groups would have to appeal their case to a special commission. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported in July that the commission was expected to receive over 110,000 applications in its first stage of applications. If a speedy reversal is what activists are seeking, a backed-up commission likely will not provide it.

Queer activists across the country see the ban as an attack on their very existence and a sign of the shrinking space for public demonstrations in Turkey.

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KAOS GL’s attorney, Kerem Dikmen, warned in a statement that though the ban did not technically force organizations to close, the government is signaling that activists should not “step out of their buildings.” Dikmen said Ankara’s decision is essentially a “de facto banning.”

If the ban is really about safety, then the government has decided the security of LGBTQ people is not included in public safety, KAOS GL representative Yildiz Tarik told ThinkProgress. In language and in action, the government is excluding LGBTQ citizens from its interpretation of the public, Tarik added.

Moreover, Tarik said, the government seems generally disinterested in protecting queer people. In his experience, the government will ban an event under the guise of security concerns and then the police will attack activists for participating.

A domino effect of anti-LGBTQ policies

Since its inception, the ban has triggered a number of anti-LGBTQ responses. Shortly after Ankara authorities announced the ban, the governor of a central Istanbul district, Beyogulu, cancelled a planned showing of short films “on the grounds that it might be contrary to the constitutional order and general morality,” according to Turkish news organization Bianet.

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In honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, Bursa-based Ozgur Renkler had also planned a film screening, but police reportedly told activists that if they insisted on holding the event, authorities would intervene. Although the police did not produce a written order, activists decided to cancel the event.

LGBTQ groups in Ankara may face government pressure over their public health work as well. In the past, activists were able to organize educational events about HIV and AIDS and provide information on where to get tested. Now, anything organized by a LGBTQ group is suspect.

What’s more, the government’s public position on LGBTQ events can result in non-governmental barriers.

Owen Harris, who works with Istanbul’s Aman LGBT Shelter, told ThinkProgress that he is often unable to openly tell medical professionals about clients’ sexual or gender identities because he does not want to expose them to discrimination, which now seems to be sanctioned by the government. Additionally, queer individuals may be uncomfortable sharing their full medical history if government officials in Turkey are stoking public feelings of homophobia.

Ulumeric said that it is impossible to know what the government will consider too provocative for public sensibilities, adding that, “you never know where the line is.”

Janset Kalan of Pembe Hayat agreed. “No one has any idea where this ‘public morality’ starts and ends,” Kalan told ThinkProgress.

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Ulumeric said the arrests that followed the coup attempt and the current state of emergency have had a noticeable effect on activism in Turkey.

“When pride was first banned [in 2015], our allies were there. They helped us create awareness. Now all our allies are in jail, or left Turkey, or stopped doing human rights work,” he said.

Ulumeric’s concern stems from a combination of government action against LGBTQ events and its aggressive stance toward possible critics. Since the coup attempt, the government has dismissed or detained almost 150,000 civil servants over possible ties to coup plotters. The Interior Ministry dismissed the mayors of 10 provinces and nearly 100 districts. Well-known investigative journalist Ahmet Sik was detained almost a year ago over a tweet and remains imprisoned. Hundreds of academics are facing charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda” over charges stemming from their signing of a 2016 petition that criticized the government’s military operations in the southeast region of the country.

Activists in other cities throughout Turkey worry about the domino effect that the Ankara ban could trigger.  

Yusuf Gulsevgi, a member of the Gaziantep-based ZeugMADI, a group against “heterosexism, fascism, capitalism and militarism,” told ThinkProgress that the ban “is an attack to every minority in Turkey.” He also acknowledged that it’s nothing new. “If you are minority in Turkey, the law is never going to be on your side.”

In a smaller, more traditional city like Gaziantep, Gulsevgi said it is not only the police who will attack him and his fellow activists, but locals too. He is scared of being arrested. Gulsevgi said the police have arrested him in the past, once when he travelled to Istanbul earlier this year to march in the pride parade and again in Gazientep while he was protesting the April 2017 referendum, which gave the president greater, unprecedented powers.

Gulsevgi’s activism is not confined to LGBTQ rights. ZeugMADI works with a number of smaller socialist parties in the city. Stories of past arrests and harassment often interspersed activists’ discussion of the ban.  

Similarly, part of KAOS GL’s activism is media monitoring. Yildiz named several newspapers that he said promote hate speech against the queer community.

One of the newspapers Yildiz mentioned, Takvim, published an article on the day of the Ankara ban claiming that LGBTQ groups are in fact a tool of imperialist forces trying to break up the traditional family structure and turn youths to “perversion.”

Conservative newspapers will publish the time and place of LGBTQ events, according to Yildiz. While the information is public and published on queer group websites as well, spreading information in the context of hateful speech against queer individuals can be dangerous. This danger is exacerbated when members of the LGBTQ community feel they cannot rely on the police for protection.

Representatives from both Pembe Hayat and KAOS GL said they were optimistic about the lawsuit. If the lower court does not find in their favor, they will take it to the Constitutional Court and, if necessary, the European Court of Human Rights. But the court case is not only about having the ban reversed, according to Kalan. The damage done to LGBTQ organizations’ budgets, staff, and members requires compensation.

“If it takes forever, well then that is my timeline. Forever is my timeline,” Kalan told ThinkProgress. The government “can close our NGOs, but our activism didn’t start with the NGO sector,” she added, “the demand for rights cannot be stopped.”

Ulumeric, too, remains optimistic, buoyed by his past successful campaigns. When studying at Bogazici University in Istanbul, he was part of a successful campaign for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

“These threats by the government are nothing if you compare it to what I have lived as a child,” he said. “We know how to fight with these bullies.”