Turkish officials bash gays to counter rising LGBT support

The trouble seemed to begin on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as Turkey’s top religious leader delivered his sermon during Friday prayers.

“Islam curses homosexuality,” said Ali Erbaş, the head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). “Homosexuality brings with it illness and genealogical decay. Let’s work together to protect people from such evil.”

The next day Turkey’s Human Rights Association (İHD) filed a criminal complaint against Erbaş for hate targeting the country’s LGBTI community. “The state is responsible for preventing hate crimes, prejudice and social gender-based inequality,” İHD said in a statement, calling on the government to remove Erbaş from his post.

The Ankara Bar Association said Erbaş’s comments came from the past and were against human dignity, while the Izmir Bar Association said it feared the statement could spur new hate crimes. Pro-LGBTI NGO’s and other bar associations offered similar condemnations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighed in on Monday, saying Erbaş’s words were correct and binding and that he had fulfilled the duties of his faith. The president added that any attack on Erbaş was an attack on Islam and the Turkish state.

Homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, a purportedly secular state with a 98 percent Muslim population. But under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is seen as Islamist and has been in power for 18 years, homosexuals have faced considerable hostility.

Istanbul’s gay pride parades, which attracted thousands of people from across the region, have been banned since 2014. But Turkish citizens have appeared to move away from Islam in recent years, a shift that some analysts blame on Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism.

While Erbaş’s statement seemed to come out of nowhere, the truth is it was a response to a wave of LGBTI support rippling across Turkey in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as activist-lawyer Güley Bor explained in a series of tweets.

In mid-April, Turkish school teachers began urging their students to draw rainbows and hang them on their windows, facing the street, to boost morale during the lockdown. The children, who posted photos of their rainbows on social media, were soon accused by pro-government news outlets of making LGBTI propaganda.

This spurred many members of Turkey’s LGBTI community to draw and post rainbows of their own, which led to a massive show of support on April 23, Turkey’s Children’s Day, as many tweeted their childhood photos.

“The hashtag ‘LGBTI children exist’ went viral,” Bor said in a tweet. “Despite online abuse and harassment, it was an unprecedented level of visibility of LGBTI+ children in Turkey.”

Erbaş delivered his sermon the very next day, desperate to counter the wave of pro-LGBT sentiment and to highlight the Islam advocated by Erdoğan and his government - despite the fact that in 2002, a year before he became Turkey’s leader, Erdoğan said that homosexuals had been treated unfairly and that their rights and freedoms must be protected.

Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın tweeted that the Diyanet head had voiced the divine judgment, while Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said he had expressed the voice of Islam.

“Ali Erbaş is not alone” became one of Turkey’s top-trending hashtags and prosecutors launched investigations into the Ankara and Diyarbakir bar associations for insulting religious values.

The debate soon spread far beyond Turkey.

“Turkey’s pro-Islamic president says it’s ‘totally right’ to say that homosexuality ‘brings illnesses’,” British human rights and LGBTI activist Peter Tatchell said on Twitter. “He's colluding with Islamist extremist ideology.”

Ömer Aydın, a Turkish-origin journalist in France, defended Erbaş’s stance, saying that accepting modern social and political concepts like homosexuality had been the downfall of Christianity.

“Protestants have already voluntarily surrendered to the gay lobby. Orthodox people are surrounded by a ‘human rights’ circle,” Aydın said in a Monday tweet, adding that Erbaş was following a good strategy for Islam.

A Turkish heart surgeon in Germany was fired on Tuesday after a Twitter post on Monday in which he described homosexuality and transsexuality as diseases. Originally from Istanbul, Metin Çakır had been working at the Helios Clinic in Karlsruhe for 20 years.

The discussion even reached the United States. Hours after Erbaş made his assertion, the actor Jeff Goldblum posed a question about Islam to an Iranian-American contestant on a popular U.S. reality show. "Is there something in this religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman?” he asked, while also suggesting the question might be ignorant.

Goldblum was soon attacked on social media, but Mustafa Akyol, a leading Turkish scholar of Islam and contributor to the New York Times, defended the actor’s query about Islam being anti-gay.

“While some slammed this as Islamophobic, let's be honest: Many conservative Muslims would say: Of course! Proudly so! (As they are saying in Turkey these days),” Akyol said in a tweet.

Erdoğan and his followers have certainly had their say in recent days, but many see a silver lining. For Bor, the hate speech episode has revealed increasing support for Turkey’s LGBTI community, particularly within some of the country’s most important institutions.

“This isn't the first time that LGBTI+s are the target during a crisis,” she said in tweets on Monday. “What's different this time I think is the rapid and strong involvement of bar associations ... The LGBTI+ movement in Turkey has been struggling with discrimination spread by these institutions for years. It's refreshing and motivating ... I truly hope that a principled stand can continue among bar associations when it comes to LGBTI+ rights.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.