Turkey’s LGBT community is being used as a political football

Protests taking place in Turkey against the appointment of a government-linked rector to Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University have in recent days included students with LGBT flags. The Turkish government’s response has been to attack the LGBT community, both labelling them as “perverts,’’ and negating their existence as a whole.

This is all in sharp contrast with the way President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) used to behave towards the LGBT community, which has a long and prominent history within Turkish culture. Erdoğan now proclaims that the LGBT people have no place in Turkey’s future, even going so far as saying, “there is no such thing as LGBT.”

Really? Perhaps he is forgetting his Ottoman history? Maybe he was never taught about Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror’s love for a particularly attractive Romanian prince called Radu the Fair, or his penchant for adding young men to his harem of concubines. Wikipedia has a good chronological history of LGBT in Turkey, from the 1858 repeal of laws criminalising homosexuality (significantly earlier than pretty much everywhere in Europe), to the recent banning of pride parades which had attracted over 100,000 people in Istanbul in 2014. 

Before the Turkish government became as bigoted and conservative as it is now, the AKP had, in fact, courted the LGBT community. In Istanbul in 2014, I met gay AKP supporters, who insisted that Erdoğan had been good for gay people. I wonder what they think now. 

There is no shortage of evidence that Erdoğan was not always so prejudiced about the LGBT community. In 2016, he was pictured having dinner with trans singer and AKP supporter Bülent Ersoy, who famously had gender reassignment surgery in the 80s and has since continued to enjoy a successful musical career in Turkey. Turkish popular music has always been spectacularly camp, though this too has become a victim of the patriarchal culture of the current government, and pop stars like Tarkan now present a more traditionally masculine image than they did 20 years ago.

When his ruling AKP came into power in 2002, Erdoğan promised to LGBT people that he would protect their rights. When he was mayor of Istanbul, in 1996, he also sent a wreath of flowers to an LGBT party.

Now of course, Erdoğan doesn’t care about appealing to a more liberal audience, as he does not require to convince anybody he is a moderate conservative. He has been in power for almost 20 years now, and perhaps power has changed him, or perhaps his tolerance was always only a performance enacted to win power and trust from Turkey’s more secular, old elites.

Just like what happened with the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the government this week is ramping up the extreme rhetoric against their opponents, accusing them of being terrorists, perverts, looters, foreign agents, or whatever they think will work with their base.

The history of the AKP’s treatment of Turkey’s LGBT community is a microcosm of their political and moral trajectory in general. They worked hard to cultivate an inclusive image in the 90s, which offered traditionally marginalised groups like Kurds and gay people the possibility of progress. But they have thrown these groups under the bus over the past decade as they have retreated towards the traditional nationalism and authoritarianism, which Turkey’s old secular elites used to keep power.

Which is the real Erdoğan? The tolerant moderate or the bigoted homophobe? Perhaps none of them are real. Power believes in nothing but itself, and those who chase after it are liable to end up believing in nothing but whatever they think will help them get it and keep it.

French philosopher Albert Camus wrote in "The Rebel’’ that “the slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown”. Turkey is building President Erdoğan two new palaces this year, but where is the justice for Turkey’s LGBT community as they are demonised by the country’s leader and his party?