As June approaches, tensions are running high for members of Istanbul’s LGBTi (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex) community as advocacy groups debate the conditions under which the city’s annual Pride Week March will take place. The Turkish government officially banned the march in 2015 and 2016, citing security reasons as well as public sensitivities, and supporters of the event are worried they will see a repeat of the heavy-handed police tactics used to disperse any attempted gathering in the past.
Running from June 19–25, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Pride Week in the city, and given the country’s tumultuous recent past, it is likely to take place in a strained environment.
On April 17, the Turkish government extended a nation-wide state of emergency which has been in effect since last July after a failed coup by the military. During this period, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ramped up its efforts to exert pressure on virtually all political and social opposition. Not surprisingly, this hardline approach has exacerbated many of the logistical difficulties that Turkey’s LGBTi community faces, as well as the psychological mood with which these issues are being dealt.
Lara Özlen, a 26-year-old graduate student, is a member of the Istanbul LGBTi Pride Week Committee, one of the groups responsible for the annual march in Taksim Square. Commenting on how the government views minority groups, she expresses frustration.
“It’s chaos now. They know we are here and we are more visible. But it’s always at the end of [the ruling party’s] list, their political agenda. LGBTi problems, women’s issues—[the government] doesn’t care about them. It will be the case for a while, but if we don’t fight for it, it’s not going to happen, they won’t see us.”
That fight not only includes getting back to marching with the permission of municipal authorities, but establishing a legal foothold against ultra-nationalist and religious organizations, such as the Alperen Hearths and the Muslim Anatolian Youth Group. These groups have made repeated threats against the LGBTi community across the country, warning that they will intervene at any such marches and try to suppress them violently if the police do not prevent them from happening.
Pride Week members are not taking the threats idly, however. Kürşat Mican, the Alperen Hearths Istanbul Chair, has been extremely vocal about his opposition to the march, saying, “We will never allow such immorality to be normalized or encouraged.” Statements such as these have led Pride Week volunteers to file criminal complaints against Mican, bringing the charge that he is “inciting the public to hatred and animosity.” Mican’s trial took place on May 18 and a judgement has yet to be pronounced.
While the social and legal battleground continues to be a toxic one, supporters of the march claim the government’s reasoning for banning the marches lacks real substance. If not a capitulation to fear-mongering hate groups, Özlen says, these are only a thinly veiled excuses for an administration that has a history of antagonism toward the LGBTi community. Regardless, Pride Week members are currently debating whether or not they will even march in Taksim, a location highly symbolic of resistance movements throughout the country’s history, or move the event to Yenikapı, an out-of-the-way neighborhood that people such asÖzlen are wary of due to its highly conservative residents.
“This has been a huge argument last year and this year [in our organization]. People are saying, “Ok, let’s give up and go to Yenikapı.” This is wrong if you ask me. Going to Yenikapı is like admitting defeat, and it’s not logical. Who would see us there, in the middle of nowhere? You can easily get lynched there, as well—it’s not like Taksim.”
She understands the reservations of others in the committee, however.
“People are fed up with these bans. It’s been happening since the Gezi Park protests. At the end of the day, what can we do? You cannot legitimize your political discourse. You’re a marginalized group, but in any case, you have to try. It’s a huge dilemma.”
Gaining political and social ground has been a slow process, one in which people have to pick their battles, Özlen says. She is less concerned with issues like the right to marry and more worried about immediate, physical threats.
“I’m not aiming for equal rights in marriage terms. Not in the same context as the U.S. or European countries. The most important things for me are the discrimination and hate crimes.”
Describing the country’s past, she admits that keeping a low profile has had its benefits. It is clear, however, that this is not a sustainable or desirable approach to tackling the friction of being a member of the LGBTi community in a country that is largely inhabited by practicing Muslims.
“Back in the day, maybe it was better […] when people didn’t force being seen. But the moment you talk about it, it becomes visible, and it becomes a problem. You’re there. They cannot ignore you. I don’t think it should be a huge problem living in a Muslim country. At the intersections of all of these things there are people, religious people who are lesbian or gay, too. It’s not impossible to get along, but these days, it can seem like it is.”
Her determination stands out even more when one takes into account the exodus of many of her fellow volunteers and friends since last summer.
“Since the coup last year, a lot of people have left. I understand why, but I can’t leave. I feel I have a responsibility. There are people here who can’t leave. Who will fight for them? If everyone goes, I think things will just get worse.”
Compounding her fears is the country’s recent political referendum, which took place on April 16. Having won a thin and wildly contentious victory in the form of a ‘yes’ vote, the AKP is set to rewrite the constitution and change the system of government from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, granting President Erdoğan wide-reaching powers with little in the way of checks and balances. Many worry that Erdoğan will make good on at least some of the promises he made on the campaign trail, not the least of which is a push to reinstate the death penalty in Turkey, a practice that the country abandoned in 2004 as a part of its effort to join the European Union. The potential for him to use such measures against his political opponents is a thought that does not escape Özlen.
“If it gets bad—like they start introducing the death penalty for being gay—then I think I will have to go. I won’t have a choice.”
If such a picture seems rather grim, she is not one to be cowed by it. To the contrary, Özlen seems fed up when people show her and other LGBTi community members pity rather than support and affirmation. For her, the only way to get things done is to focus on moving forward, even if it is incremental.
“There is still hope,” she says with a smile. “My hope is in change, because you see little changes. Last year, we were talking to some local newspapers, and they were calling to ask if it’s ok to use certain words. And sometimes they got it wrong, using the wrong language, for example. And they listened to us. It was as if I was the boss of the paper,” she says with a laugh.
The conservative-religious, atheistic-liberal paradigm is a tired and inaccurate one to Özlen. Yes, Turkey is a nation which has an incredibly devout populace, but this does not necessarily have to entail conflict, she says.
“Education is important, because it became really religious and conservative in the last few years. But religion is not the problem. How you use religion against people is the problem. How you put religion in front of other things and make it more important than them—this is the main problem.”
The solution? Opening up lines of communication, one person at a time.
“You can always have dialogues with people. That’s the whole point of Pride Week. You can come, you can talk, you can learn. We are here, and if you want to talk to us, you’re welcome to.”