Teens draped in rainbow flags, trans activists waving banners, same-sex couples holding hands: every year, usually in the closing days of June, these are the scenes taking place in Istanbul, Turkey. But, for the last three years, these scenes have been interrupted by violence; by police brutality in the form of rubber bullets, tear gas and riot shields rammed ruthlessly against tearful, sometimes bloodied victims just trying to celebrate their identities. This year, these brutal attacks look set to repeat themselves as, once again, LGBT+ activists are gearing up to defy the demands of an authoritarian government and take to the streets.
To say political tensions are running high is an understatement. In 2016, a devastating military coup was launched to topple Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man described in numerous articles as a ‘dictator by all but name’. Despite the bombs dropped on Parliament and the tanks crashing through streets, the coup ultimately failed; but it did succeed in claiming the lives of hundreds of citizens, and seriously injuring thousands more.
“Since then, authorities in Turkey have cracked down on civil society, media, political protest and LGBT+ activism,” explains Daniel Balson, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia. “There’s government intolerance towards all forms of independent and uncontrolled thought. Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of journalists, to the extent that one third of all imprisoned journalists worldwide are held in Turkish cells. The crackdown on LGBT+ rights needs to be seen in this context.”
Balson describes a climate of fear created by this relentless censorship, quoting an unnamed activist who confirms: “LGBT+ people in Turkey are living in more fear than ever before. With the overall crackdown on freedom of expression, LGBT+ people feel that the space in which they can be themselves is drastically shrinking.”
The country’s official ban on Pride parades is exemplary of its desire to silence LGBT+ people. Not even artistic expression is safe – Balson recalls queer film festivals across the country being shuttered in the name of ‘public sensitivity’.
One man who understands this violent repression more than most is Barbaros Sansal, an activist deported last year from a Turkish-run corner of Cyprus after comments made in a video, shared on New Year’s Eve 2016. (Sansal is an advisor to Platform for Peace and Justice.)
It was year ago today, with the order of Ankara i have been taken from occupied Cyprus with illegal operation, faced linych mob at Istanbul International AirPort with the help of police to official workers, arrested, jailed 56 days in Silivri dangeon in cell with isolation.Turkey pic.twitter.com/eKRBMsFYiT
— Barbaros Sansal (@barbarosansalfn) January 2, 2018
Ahval News quotes him as saying: “While scores of journalists are in prison, while children are sexually harassed, raped, while corruption and bribes are everywhere, while extremists are distributing shit to you in the streets, are you still celebrating the New Year? I am not … Carry on your celebration in disgrace, misery and dirt. Drown in your shit, Turkey.”
Upon arrival in Turkey, he was attacked by a mob of angry, pro-Erdoğan nationalists and subsequently arrested.
Sharing his story with INTO, he states that speaking out against injustice is “almost impossible – the political winds are too strong. It’s never been so bad in my 60 years of life. Of course we faced torture, arrest and investigations for being gay rights defenders in the past, but this time it’s different. They create the issue and blame you – and they’ll use fake evidence. As for the law? I don’t think it works in Turkey.”
In a sense, he’s right. Last year, Erdoğan clinched a referendum victory which granted him a wealth of new powers and strengthened his already tight grip on the country’s top position of power. This week’s snap election won’t change anything, since Erdoğan again won the vote.
International headlines have highlighted the fact that Hasan Atik, a gay rights activist, is running for a seat in Parliament; in an interview translated by LGBTI News Turkey, he recently promised to fight for HIV education in order to erase stigma, as well as push for legal recognition of hate crimes and, more generally, the rights of LGBT+ people to simply live in peace.
“The fact that there is an openly gay politician running for Parliament is extremely positive, but we shouldn’t forget there have been openly LGBT+ councilors in the past too,” explains Boris Ditrrich, Advocacy Director of the Human Rights Watch LGBT Program. He also points out that Atik isn’t the first MP candidate. That honor goes to Baris Sulu, who unsurprisingly faced media backlash when he ran back in 2015. “The pro-government newspaper, Sabah, accused him of spreading homosexual propaganda,” remembers Dittrich. “This kind of discourse is typical, and demonstrates the readiness of government circles to attack LGBT+ people and to play on homophobic sentiment in the wider society.”
Interestingly, the commentators we spoke to underline the strength of Turkey’s non-profit organizations. Dittrich describes them as “dynamic and well-organized”, both qualities which have made them specific targets of the country’s repressive government and, in particular, the media outlets which pass Erdoğan’s censorship policies.
“Attacks on LGBT+ people – especially trans people – continue, but the last few years have seen huge efforts to clamp down on the visibility of LGBT+ people,” he continues. “The media largely ignores the community but is also capable of homophobic, hateful coverage and smear campaigns.” To underscore his point, Dittrich cites an annual analysis of the country’s press content (written in Turkish, translated internally by Human Rights Watch) which states that, in 2017, LGBT+ issues were mentioned in 2388 articles. Of these thousands, only 46% were in compliance with rights journalism principles, whereas 54% included hate speech and regurgitated homophobic sentiment. Even amongst the articles that did meet journalistic principles, only 15% highlighted LGBT+ human rights violations, and just 3% sourced statements from charities.
The problem isn’t just the violence – overwhelmingly, the problem is the censorship. A recent New Yorker feature uncovered the maltreatment of LGBT+ refugees, most of whom have fled widespread violence in the Middle East, and are awaiting formal resettlement. When they are assigned, they’re often placed in conservative small towns. Hate crimes are a regular occurrence. A source, named only as Ali for security reasons, recalls the case of a trans woman hospitalized due to a series of aggressive knife attacks. “People are beaten up, raped, gang-raped.”
Pride parades have long served as an antidote – albeit a minor one – to these forms of injustice, uniting a minority community to send a powerful message: we won’t be silenced.
Hope may seem lost, but Balson highlights that the input of activists worldwide – even in the form of something as seemingly simple as an internet petition – can genuinely forge change: “Activists face substantial risk to their safety, freedom and professional lives for protesting government policy, but we do know that activism works.”
He cites a planned march in response to the ongoing Pride ban earlier this year as an example; the march was scheduled to take place at a university in Ankara, but was subsequently stifled by the university. Frustrated would-be protesters took to social media to share their censorship, and were met with support from people and organizations worldwide, all of whom sent emails to the university pleading for the march to take place. It did. “International activism, media attention and protest helps raise the political costs of suppressing LGBT+ voices and violating their freedom,” states Balson. “It yields results.”
International media may have been proven to play a positive role, but there’s work to be done in order to make any truly meaningful change. Despite his previous trauma, Sansal is planning to stand in solidarity with other resilient LGBT+ trailblazers and march for their collective freedom this year.
“I was one of the first Pride walkers more than 20 years ago in Istanbul,” he says proudly, pointing to the landmark 2013 Gezi Park protests as proof that activism can spark change – although often superficial. He cites Erdoğan’s apparent acceptance of trans musician Bulent Ersoy as an example of public-facing LGBT+ acceptance; in 2016, she was invited to his palace alongside other prominent public figures. “Imagine that,” exclaims Sansal. “They were there, but at the same time our friends were being gassed, beaten and tortured at Istiklal street!”
For those of us fortunate enough to live in more progressive countries, it seems unthinkable to imagine Pride being snatched from underneath us. Despite an international rise in right-wing sentiment, continuously high hate crime rates and state-sanctioned discrimination, we’re at least allowed the right to gather annually alongside our LGBT+ siblings to celebrate our victories won so far, as well as those still to come.
Pride – no matter how many companies co-opt it – can feel like a much-needed glimmer of hope.
Sansal remains adamant that he will never abandon his fight to experience this joy. “I will be there again, on the streets in Istanbul,” he states, a steely determination inherent in his words. “I just hope I won’t be murdered by the police.”