Activists set sights on Turkey’s economy in this year’s Istanbul Pride March
Times have changed since the legally repressed gay community fought for their rights in the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, and today the LGBTI+ Pride movement that developed over the decades since has gained wide acceptance in many countries around the since.
Turkey’s LGBTI+ movement has fought as hard as any, making its first demand for permission to hold a Pride Week in 1993, and finally holding its first officially sanctioned Pride March in 2003, the year after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.
The event in Istanbul grew in popularity to become a highlight of the year for the country’s LGBTI+ community, and was joined by thousands who peacefully marched in the city centre of Taksim and Istiklal Avenue each year.
But after 2013, when the governing party turned its back on the liberal reforms that accompanied its first decade in power, Pride became a casualty of the increasingly authoritarian environment and has been barred in Istanbul’s centre since 2015. This year the city’s governor also rejected an application to hold the march in Bakırköy, an outlying district of the city.
Bans have also been reported from cities around the country, including the southern provinces of Antalya and Mersin, with the authorities cited risks to security and “public morals”.
That the decision lies in the jurisdiction of central government-appointed governors, and not local administrations, means that marches have been banned even in relatively liberal cities like the western Turkish secularist haven of Izmir.
“We want to hold our march on Istiklal Avenue, and we made a legal application to do so”, said activist Oğulcan Yediveren, who has been involved in organising this year’s events in Istanbul. “The governorate rejected our application over the weekend so we wouldn’t have the chance to appeal.”
Yediveren said despite support from the opposition municipalities in Istanbul’s Şişli and Kadıköy districts, “political parties are yet to overcome homophobia” in Turkey.
Nevertheless, the activist is expecting support from political parties, as well as unions and democratic citizens, he said.
And this year the theme of Pride Week is both highly political and topical for the entire country: Turkey’s struggling economy.
“It affects everyone in Turkey from seven-years-old to 70, and the biggest impact is felt by the LGBTI+ community”, the committee said in a statement on this year’s events.
“In the jobs and schools that are barred to us, the homes we can’t live in, and the lack of security in our lives, we feel this crisis constantly,” the statement said, referring to prejudices that have presented a common obstacle for LGBTI+ people in Turkey and the physical dangers those prejudices can represent for them.
Twenty-four-year-old Yediveren said the number of workplaces that would employ openly gay or non-binary workers was limited in Turkey, and that these employees were often the first to face the sack if business goes south. For Yediveren, this kind of workplace discrimination is one of the biggest obstacles preventing LGBTI+ people from participating in broader society.
“In Turkey around 7 million people are gay. They’re in the bureaucracy, in the army, they’re everywhere. We can’t discriminate by profession,” Turkish fashion designer and LGBTI+ rights activist Barbaros Şansal commented told Ahval.
Yet there is pressure to conform in Turkey that combines with a widespread ignorance about gender issues to leave people like Yediveren facing a dilemma about whether or not to come out to colleagues.
“Everyone is assumed to be heterosexual, but I’m gay. It’s nonsense that people should think I’m heterosexual when they talk to me. It leaves me in a dilemma on whether or not to explain my sexuality to them or not”, Yediveren said.
“Despite everything I feel the need to. How can I live here without being clear about my identity? If you form a relationship with someone by lying to them, you can’t really get attached to them. Being open about one’s identity is freeing, but it’s a double-edged sword,” he said.
A current danger for Turkey’s LGBTI+ community, the Pride Week Committee said is that politicians will exploit the prejudices Yediveren described through populism that frequently reaches a peak during periods of economic crisis.
“In periods when an economic crisis rears its head, in Turkey and many other countries we’ve seen for years how politicians try to exploit the crisis for votes using populist rhetoric,” the Pride statement said.
These politicians make scapegoats of othered segments like the LGBTI+ community and try to ghettoise and cut them off from society, it continued.
But the committee rejected the idea that solving economic problems would also solve homophobia and other related prejudices or the day-to-day problems and hate faced by the LGBTI+ community, and slammed the response to these problems of by what it called shallow politicians.
What the LGBTI+ community wants is nothing less than the rights afforded people all over the world, rights like the right to marry and have children that have been won by activists in many countries in recent years.
“We’re in diverse sections of society. People who aren’t LGBTI+ should also advocate LGBTI+ rights”, said Şansal.
This is what the Pride March is about, and the bans are not likely to stop the movement’s momentum, said Turkish academic Volkan Yılmaz.
“The Pride Week activists reacted to bans in previous years with confetti, glitter, rainbow flags and press statements not just in Istaklal Avenue but in every corner of Istanbul”, said Yılmaz.
“As we’ve seen, they’ll continue to respond to every obstacle and every problem affecting their lives with ever more different and creative answers. They’ve shown that they won’t give up the streets and the avenues.”