A woman with black, slicked-back hair pulls her girlfriend in for a kiss in the middle of the street. Besides a line of police and handful of journalists, they are some of the only people on Mis Street, a slightly dilapidated alley crammed with European-style facades, which has also served as a meeting place for the LGBTQ community for decades. Earlier that night, a Pride rally had packed the street with colorful revelers. But the police forcibly cleared the area, and now only media and police remain as they scan the area for possible returning protesters.
As the couple exits the alley, where they had just been sipping beers on a balcony, they pause and embrace. Lingering photographers snap their picture. Suddenly police descend on the two women and arrest them.
After three years of complete bans on any type of Pride march in Istanbul, activists won a last-minute concession from Turkish police on July 1 when they allowed a one-hour gathering on Mis Street. Organizers were told that only a hundred participants would be allowed, but an ecstatic young crowd streamed in anyways with whistles, drums and rainbow flags. By the time the organizing committee made a defiant press statement over a megaphone, almost a thousand protesters had danced and cheered their way into the alley and the surrounding side streets.
The mood of jubilation at being allowed to occupy the street quickly turned to fear. After 45 minutes, the police dispersed the masses of people and pursued any remaining marchers with German Shepherds and tear gas — a scene increasingly common in Turkey as President Erdoğan’s rule tightens.
In total, police detained 11 people. Some of those arrested say that they the police beat them and bombarded them with homophobic insults, while others say they were detained for simply expressing their LGBTQ identities. Meltem, the 27-year-old publicist whose arrest became an international photo op, tells INTO that they “didn’t do it as a political protest.”
“I was kissing my girlfriend, Damla, in the street,” she claims, “and then all of a sudden found ourselves in a police van.”
INTO interviewed a handful of the nearly dozen LGBTQ people apprehended on the first Sunday of July, and accounts of the Pride arrests paint a full portrait of the chaos that ensued that day. Elvan*, a 33-year-old software developer, was attending the event with a group of friends for the first time since the marches were banned in 2015. She says she was standing next to a cafe in the neighborhood of Cihangir when a man in a red T-shirt started yelling at her, “Go, go, go!”
“It all happened within 10 seconds,” she claims. “I realized that this man was a police officer.”
She told him she was trying to decide where she was going. He barked at her, “Well, if you’re going, go, don’t philosophize about it!” Elvan says she then heard another officer shout, “Take that one, take that one!”
“All of a sudden, I don’t know how many people came down on me,” Elvan claims. “Male officers, female officers started punching me and taking me to the police buses.” She sustained bruises all over her body that she later had documented in a medical report. “I remember falling down as they were dragging me to the police vehicle, I took a pretty big blow to the head.”
Elvan was handcuffed and taken out of sight between two police buses. “There they left me to the female officers,” she continues. “Each officer was holding one of my arms, and they were hitting me against the bus.”
Elvan tells the story out of order, in bits and pieces, and says that in general, the night was a blur. She remembers police “roughing her up” some more after she was inside the bus, and she waited alone in handcuffs for hours until the other detainees were brought in. One of the other activists was drunk, and she claims the police beat him repeatedly.
Yasemin Öz, an LGBTQ activist and feminist lawyer, saw the police detain two young women as she was observing the area near the rally. “The police were so violent to them — they were beating them, and the policemen were even pulling their hair.”
Öz thinks the government has banned Pride and used violence against protesters because they feared the attention the 2013 and 2014 marches attracted. The past two marches that were legally permitted by authorities drew around 100,000 people, leading many to declare Istanbul’s Pride a beacon for LGBTQ communities in the region. “They recognized that the LGBTQ struggle reached a very important point,” Öz says. “It got the attention of a huge number of people, and that cannot be ignored.”
Citing the “power” of collective action, Öz added that the government found it “dangerous.”
Everything changed in 2015. Starting that year, when activists tried to march from the top of Istanbul’s main street Istiklal, they encountered hundreds of police officers along with tear gas and plastic bullets. By 2016, the Pride organizing committee had started a crisis hotline for march participants to report medical emergencies and police violence.
“I think the police are ordered to [use force],” Öz says. “The attitude of the government reflects on all the public officials as well as the police. Some of them really hate us.”
In 2017, President Erdoğan announced that a local government’s pro-LGBTQ policies were “against the values of the nation,” and one of the ruling party’s top ministers referred to an opposition newspaper editor with an anti-gay slur. The capital city of Ankara has been hardest hit by legal prohibitions, with a ban against all public LGBTQ events active since November 2017.
“Some police officers even made hate tweets against LGBTQ people,” Öz adds, noting that they will soon be opening criminal cases about the tweets.
Some activists say they were targeted by police for being visibly queer or expressing their LGBTQ identity on the evening of the event. One group of six did not participate in the protest, but they drove around the area playing “colorful songs” and waving rainbow bandanas and a rainbow umbrella out the windows. The driver, Ezgi, claims “people on the street were applauding and cheering for us.”
“The police say they stopped us because we were honking the horn,” she adds. “Look, I’ve never seen anyone wait in the police station for six hours for honking a car horn in my life.”
Meltem agrees that spending six hours in detention for such minor charges was “meaningless.” “It’s not a crime to kiss or hug someone,” she says. “That day, they yelled at people ‘Don’t gather in groups, disperse,’ but they never made an announcement saying ‘don’t kiss.'”
The police didn’t hit her or her girlfriend, but during their arrest, the police manhandled the couple to the point that they had bruises on their arms the next day.
Elvan says that nine out of the 11 people in custody were women, and almost all had short hair. “When I was looking around the police bus, I had the feeling that they were targeting queer women,” Elvan says. She also recalls an exchange she had with a female officer. “I said, ‘Did you know that you just hit a woman?'” She says the policewoman turned to her and said, “We are more woman than you.”
Elvan feels hopeless and angry after what she experienced at Pride. “I feel like we’ve reached a point that we can’t come back from in this country,” she says.
Her detention was the final straw after the depression she felt at the national election results on June 24. Before the vote, much of the opposition was energized in thinking that they would at least force the current president into a runoff vote. “This time, I really believed,” she says. “It was the last exit before the bridge.”
Elvan’s parents support the ruling Justice and Development party. Before the election, she called her parents in her conservative hometown and told them not to vote for the ruling party, saying that she’d be forced to leave the country if Erdoğan were re-elected. But the opposition candidates failed to force a runoff, and Erdoğan won the race outright. “This country is beautiful, I really love it, and everyone I love and my family are all here,” she says. “But at this point, I can’t exist anymore.”
After the violence Elvan experienced in detention, she intends to leave Turkey and find work abroad.
For Elvan, what she experienced was too overwhelming — but some activists, like Öz, pledge to keep going. When she is asked about next year’s Pride, Öz is frank in saying that next year’s march is unpredictable. “The agenda can change within 24 hours in Turkey,” she says.
As a long-time advocate for Istanbul’s LGBTQ community, Öz says winning the informal consent to gather from the police was a victory after years of struggle. On the day of Pride, she was on the ground from the afternoon to the end of the late-night celebratory parties, keeping watch for any violence or additional arrests. She says the situation could be the same, or better, than what she witnessed this year, but her voice is steady as she adds: “Next time, they could be even more harsh to us — you never know.”
Suddenly Öz interjects her sober analysis of the future with a long laugh.
“We will be there next year at Gay Pride again if we are alive, and if we’re free and not in jail,” she chuckles. “The only thing I know is that we will never give up.”
*Elvan asked that her real name be changed for safety reasons. Meltem, Damla and Ezgi requested that their last names not be revealed for safety reasons.