Turkey’s LGBTs: Unlikely Winners in Nation’s Summer of Unrest?

Erda Halisdemir

01 Aug 2013


Taksim Square, during Turkey’s ongoing summer of discontent, has been a veritable patchwork of disparate factions and distinctly contrasting ideological groups. Istanbul’s LGBT community has been right at the forefront of these, standing in solidarity with the disenfranchised, traditionally apolitical youth (the ‘Chapullers’), Kemalist secularists, Armenians, Kurds, Alevis, liberals, communists, liberal Muslims and even football hooligans and ultranationalists.

This disparate band of groups has been bound together by a common sense of invisibility in the eyes of an AKP regime increasingly confident in the electoral majority secured by its conservative base. No group has perhaps felt more invisible during that time than Turkey’s resilient LGBT community. While almost all of Turkey’s other minority groups have been, at some point over the last decade, the subject of a reform initiative or outreach effort from Erdoĝan’s AKP (albeit with varied results), LGBTs have felt deliberately ignored, with the incumbent regime most recently disappointing them in September 2012, when a proposal to include sexual orientation in constitutional anti-discrimination provisions was rejected by AKP deputies.

The reasoning given at the time by AKP Istanbul deputy Mustafa Şentop, ‘we don’t find it right that gays should be referenced in any part of the constitution,’ might actually be one of the milder anti-LGBT statements put out by AKP politicians in recent years. In March 2010, Minister of State Responsible for Women and Family Issues Aliye Kavaf claimed that homosexuality is a ‘biological disorder’ and an ‘illness that needs to be treated’; in December 2011, Interior Minister Idris Naim Şahin described homosexuality as creating ‘an environment in which there exists all kinds of dishonour, immorality and inhuman situations’; in April 2012, AKP Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek stated in response to when Turkey would have a gay mayor, ‘we have our own way of life, our own traditions and morals… God willing, there won’t be a gay mayor in Turkey, nor should there be’; in March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdaĝ commented that ‘the assignment of Lesbian, Christian foster parents is unacceptable for Turkish families’; while in June 2013, AKP Istanbul deputy Türkan Daĝoĝlu characterised homosexuality as ‘an abnormal activity’ and a symptom of ‘societal decay’.

While such prejudices have not manifested themselves in legislation criminalising homosexuality, they give a fair reflection of why the ruling party has been resistant to several areas in desperate need of reform.

One of the most notable examples relates to compulsory military service. All male Turkish citizens between the ages of twenty and forty one are required to serve six to fifteen months in the Turkish army depending on educational background (those who have worked abroad for more than three years may gain an exemption on payment of a €10,000 fee); exemptions are also granted to homosexuals (they are ruled medically unfit for military service as homosexuality is categorised by the military as a ‘psychological disorder’) on the condition that they provide a picture of themselves in female garb or engaged in a homosexual sex act. Alternately, they may be asked to undergo invasive and degrading physical examinations which ‘prove’ their homosexuality.

Employers in Turkey will often inquire with the army as to why an individual has been ruled medically unfit for military service. With no law protecting individuals from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, military exemptions on such grounds can form a ‘black mark’ on an individual’s permanent record, limiting their ability to find employment or gain promotions in the workplace. On the other hand, those homosexuals who choose not to apply for an exemption are left vulnerable to a culture of institutional bullying, physical abuse and torture within the Turkish army, where conscripts are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than other Turkish males in the same age group.

Other examples include a legal requirement that individuals wishing to undergo gender reassignment pass medical tests proving that they are infertile before such a process can commence; laws on ‘public exhibitionism’ and ‘public morality’ being used by the police to harass LGBT individuals in public spaces; and institutional, overt discrimination in education, healthcare as well as throughout the employment sphere. Add to this the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals’ ruling (in the case of Lambda Istanbul) that LGBT associations can lawfully operate as long as they don’t ‘encourage or incite the population to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender behaviour’, and one can understand the sentiment felt by many in the LGBT community that those in power want them to be invisible in Turkish society.

Despite positive signs of support from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) – who have both backed a raft of failed parliamentary proposals to include LGBTs as protected groups within anti-hate speech and anti-discrimination legislation – LGBT issues have remained largely side-lined in the national discourse regarding human rights reform in Turkey, with no significant pressure being applied to the government from mainstream groups to respond to the needs of a community in major need of attention. The only time LGBT individuals seem to make the news is when they are killed; media coverage of LGBT topics in Turkey is often limited to lurid reports of familial ‘honour killings’ and transgender murders (Turkey had the most transgender murders in all of Europe from January 2008 to December 2012 according to a Transgender Europe report, with four trans individuals having been murdered in Turkey in the last seven months alone).

However, since the advent of the Gezi Park movement, those within the LGBT community are beginning to ask whether this is all set to change. ‘We are no longer caricatures in the eyes of groups who perceived us very differently before,’ says Sezen from Istanbul-based LGBT organisation SPoD. ‘We engaged in dialogue with football fans, Muslim groups and conservatives. In the past, it would be LGBT groups at the forefront during Pride marches; for the first time, we saw major participation from other groups. Conservative groups called on their members to attend Pride, Taksim Solidarity called on people to attend Pride. Pride participation doubled as a result.’

Istanbul Pride’s record 20,000 participants certainly caught the attention of the international media, and the significance of the large non-LGBT participation should in no way be understated. Besides this landmark demonstration of support for LGBT rights, there have been other, more visceral examples during the Gezi Park protests. As a consequence of sharing the same space as the LGBT block, protesting football fans abandoned their use of the Turkish pejorative term for homosexual in their chants, while popular chants of ‘son of a whore Tayyip’ became ‘Tayyip! Resign!’ in deference to the transgender prostitutes of Taksim’s backstreets who took in protesters fleeing truncheons and gas canisters. The Eastern city of Dersim recently held its first ever LGBT Pride, demonstrating increased acceptance of LGBT issues outside of the community’s traditional strongholds in Western Turkey.

It seems increased, positive visibility can make light work of supposedly deep-rooted bigotry and prejudice. The increased sensitivity and support displayed by many of the groups in Taksim shows that it isn’t fundamental Turkish values or morality that are in conflict with LGBT rights, rather a simple matter of ignorance.

What remains to be seen is whether the LGBT community can take the momentum started in Gezi Park to deliver mainstream political awareness. With local elections coming up in Turkey in March 2014, the challenge facing Turkey’s LGBTs lies in leveraging their post-Gezi visibility to galvanise political participation. Reinvigorated AKP efforts to offer much-needed reforms to Kurds show that Erdoĝan is willing to take on board calls for greater pluralism in his administrative approach. Can LGBT groups force Erdoĝan’s hand to do the same for them?


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