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A New State-Sponsored Homophobia in Turkey

By Lily Zacharias

On June 17, the governor of Istanbul, Vasip Şahin, banned the Trans Pride march that was scheduled for June 19 and the LGBTQI+ Pride march that was scheduled for June 26. The government cited security concerns to justify the bans. The reason given for the ban was a threat made by Kürşat Mican, the provincial head of the ultra-nationalist youth group Alperen Ocakları (a subgroup of the Great Unity Party, or BBP), that if the Turkish government allowed the march to continue, they would stop it by force. “Degenerates,” Mican said, “will not be allowed to carry out their fantasies on this land.” Two days later, government media sources reported that three militants affiliated with the so-called Islamic State were arrested after police received intelligence that they were planning an attack on the pride march. However, independent media sources have been unable to confirm these reports. 

This signals the emergence of a new form of state-sponsored homophobia. State-sponsored homophobia is usually characterized by the criminalization of homosexuality and a lack of legal protections for LGBTQI+ citizens, such as anti-discrimination laws. Instead, this form suppresses LGBTQI+ people through the rhetoric of protectionism and security.

While the government claimed that 15 members of the ultra-nationalist group were detained, this was again unconfirmed by independent media sources, leaving it unclear whether or not action was taken against anyone other than the 50 LGBTQI+ people who showed up for a press statement on June 19. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowd and told them to “disperse and allow life to go back to its normal course.” Independent press workers were also attacked by the police. While the government did not allow transphobic groups to gather, footage was recorded of a man burning a rainbow flag while a police officer stood by. On June 26, when activists “dispersed” into the streets on orders from the police, they were arrested.

The police’s use of force calls into question whether or not a ban under the pretext of security, regardless of whether or not it is truly motivated by concern for the safety of LGBTQI+ people, has an effect that is any different than a ban openly motivated by homophobia. It is clear that if the Turkish government doesn’t want a protest to happen, the police will use force no matter what the motivations of the government are in banning the protest. 

Aengus Carroll, the author of the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s report on state-sponsored homophobia, believes that “if the state had been able to protect six years of pride in Istanbul [and] had been able to deploy a police force protection” to do so, then it should be able do the same now. He argues that the threat of the Islamic State in this case is “completely unprovable” and was not cause enough for the bans. A Turkish LGBTQ volunteer who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained that the governor “should be providing alternatives,” such as a different venue for the event, if he truly cares about the safety of LGBTQI+ people.

The volunteer explained that they couldn’t “really measure how much the ban was due to a security concern versus homophobic actions, because the security concern itself wasn’t told transparently,” citing the two days between the alleged arrests of Islamic State militants and the pro-government media reports. The lack of transparency and communication is what the LGBTQ volunteer cited as one of several indicators that the government had alternative motives besides the safety of LGBTQI+ people. Additionally, the LGBTQI+ movement was crucial in the 2013 anti-government protests at Gezi Park. Suppressing this community to the point of invisibility makes solidarity across minority groups even more difficult. According to the volunteer, the ban has the community “worried that it’s turning into a pattern” since this was the second year in a row that the parade had been forcibly stopped by the government. Carroll views these new methods as “policy instruments, some of which develop into hard law.” He explains that this is a “show of power” in which the Turkish government is telling LGBTQI+ people, “You will be erased from the public space.”

The impact of these events is the suppression of the community’s visibility and rights, both of which are crucial as Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries where same-sex sexual activity is legal. The parade is the only one in the Muslim world, proving that it is possible for predominantly Muslim countries to respect the rights of LGBTQI+ people. The parade serves as a motivation and hope for change elsewhere.

The best way to protect the LGBTQI+ community is not to ban the pride marches, but to ask the community what they want and focus on structural and societal change. Instead, the Turkish government has tried to silence LGBTQI+ people further. Government actions that claim to protect the LGBTQI+ community but disregard the daily reality of being LGBTQI+ are still homophobic, regardless of how they are packaged or framed. LGBTQI+ people are not only in danger during pride parades. They regularly face danger and threats multiple times a day. The only difference is that the packaging allows the government to appeal to the far right on a domestic scale and appear more liberal on an international scale. The government’s ban is a more covert form of state-sponsored homophobia, but still results in further discrimination and erasure of LGBTQI+ people and further political polarization of Turkey. Ultimately, the safety of LGBTQI+ people in Turkey must be negotiated by LGBTQI+ people themselves—and not through protectionist government actions. 

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Lily Zacharias is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of quinnanya]

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