Breakthrough coming for LGBTI rights in Turkey?

Even as the government appears to be ratcheting up its hate speech, LGBTI activists see a broader shift behind the scenes, setting the stage for a more equal and accepting Turkey. 

It has been more than two months since Turkey reported its first coronavirus case, and in the past few weeks the number of confirmed daily cases and deaths has steadily declined, transforming the initial widespread criticism of the Turkish government’s corona response into cautious praise. 

Yet one area in which the Turkish government has been broadly denounced is its treatment of the LGBTI community during the coronavirus crisis. As detailed in a recent article, an outpouring of online support and solidarity for Turkey’s LGBTI community spurred the government to deliver a harsh response: The country’s top religious official, in his first sermon of Ramadan, said that Islam curses homosexuality and suggested LGBTI people were responsible for the spread of covid-19. 

“It was all so terrifying,” Yıldız Tar, media and communications coordinator for the Ankara-based LGBTI advocacy organization Kaos GL, told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the April 24 sermon by Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet. 

It was not the first time a top official had denounced homosexuality, but Tar said this time it hit particularly hard. 

“It’s during the coronavirus, when people are already feeling afraid and isolated. Everybody is looking for a reason for this virus and you are saying the reason is homosexuals, which is the first step of a hate crime and a very systematic attack against LGBTI people,” said Tar, adding that the official Friday sermon is written by the Diyanet and usually distributed to all mosques around the country. “It has a wider effect, it can lead to a lot of backlash...so it was more dangerous than some official saying something.” 

It was not just Erbaş. Turkey’s justice and interior ministers, a top presidential adviser and finally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan all came out in support of Erbaş and his statements, saying he was the voice of Islam and of Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkish bar associations said his statement was against human dignity and could spur new hate crimes. 

Research by Kaos GL, founded in 1994 and one of Turkey’s oldest LGBTI advocacy groups, found that hate speech in Turkish media increased eightfold in April. Most of it appeared after Erbaş’s sermon as many pro-government outlets and columnists targeted LGBTI people. In addition, Tar said that LGBTI organisations around Turkey have received a higher number of calls to their hotlines in recent weeks to report hate crimes and hate speech. 

Exact data on hate crimes against the LGBTI community is almost impossible to come by, according to Tar, because the Turkish government does not include verbal and even physical assaults on LGBTI people among official hate crime statistics. He said that because of the lockdown, with most people staying in their homes, the reach of LGBTI organisations was severely limited, which meant that many attacks might well be going unreported and unknown.  

One attack survivor is Istanbul-based trans woman and LGBTI activist Ajda Ender, who was forced out of her apartment in January, fleeing beatings by her neighbours, and had since been staying with a friend. After Erbaş’s sermon, her friend’s neighbours cut the TV and internet cable and shut off the water to her friend’s apartment in an attempt to get Ender to leave because they feared she might give them coronavirus.

“They said they didn’t want me in the apartment. They insulted my trans-woman identity,” Ender told Ahval in an interview.  

“The state and society are far behind in respecting sexual identities. State and society need to be educated,” she added. “There will be improvement when the state’s hate speech ends. Hate speech by the state causes society to commit hate crimes.”

Homosexuality is legal in Turkey, a purportedly secular state with a 98-percent Muslim population. But under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is seen as Islamist and has been in power for 18 years, homosexuals have faced increasing hostility, including the banning of their most prominent public event, Istanbul’s pride parade. 

Tar said that, in addition to a governmental shift in regards to the rule of law and human rights, it was the fast-growing popularity of that event – nearly 100,000 people attended in 2014 – that spurred the government to crackdown on the LGBTI community. 

“In the last five years especially we have seen a drastic change in the attitudes of the government toward LGBTI people,” said the 30-year-old Tar, who has been reporting on LGBTI issues for a dozen years. 

He pointed to the banning of the Istanbul pride march in 2015, then two years later the Ankara governor’s office banning all public LGBTI events, in addition to several anti-LGBTI statements by top officials, including Turkey’s minister of family.

In leading rights group ILGA Europe’s most recent review of 49 European and Central Asian countries, Turkey has fallen to second from last in its treatment of the LGBTI community, ahead of only Azerbaijan and behind the likes of Tajikistan and Russia. Yet Tar believes homophobia in Turkey has little to do with Islam, or the Islamism of the ruling party. 

“It’s not really about one particular religion,” he said. “It’s more about the patriarchy and the heterosexism -- it’s affecting every institution, from the state to education to the military system.”

As a result, Tar does not expect the government backlash against the LGBTI community to end with the pandemic. In recent years, every time there has been a significant show of public support for LGBTIs, the government has amped up the repression, and Tar expects that to continue for some time. 

Even so, he also sees a growing momentum. One of Kaos GL’s most notable achievements came last year, when it challenged Ankara’s blanket ban on all LGBTI events by the Ankara governorate and, following an initial rejection, won the appeal in April 2019. 

“Support is increasing day by day in society,” said Tar. “It’s not possible to silence a movement that asks for equality.”

Tar recalled visiting several smaller Turkish cities a few years ago to talk about LGBTI issues and being surprised by locals’ curiosity and the number of sincere questions. More recently, in response to Erbas’s sermon, bar associations across Turkey took the side of LGBTI people and denounced the religious leader’s position.

“We are on the edge of a very historical turning point,” said Tar, acknowledging the continued human rights abuses as well as the potential to find new allies. 

Asked when he expected to live in a Turkey where people are punished for public denunciations and insults of LGBTI people, Tar recalled that 20 years ago few Turks had any experience with words like “gay”, “bisexual” or “trans”. 

“Now we know the words and we are organised and we can achieve and become a more egalitarian society,” he said. “Society can change very fast…It is up to us, actually. If we continue to see that kind of solidarity, we eventually will see a change in the law, a change in the system.” 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.