Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, Biphobia, and any other hostilities towards sexual and gender diversities (IDAHOBIT). It marks the day in 1990 that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. But in Turkey, this negative perception still exists. Although homosexuality has been technically legal since the conception of the Republic, the conservative country has long seen discrimination and abuse against the LGBTI community. In recent years, as other countries around the world have decriminalised homosexuality, apologised for historical discrimination, and even legalised same-sex marriage, Turkey appears to be slipping further backwards. This is largely due to the attitudes of authorities.
Back in 2013, the Pew Research Centre worldwide survey on homosexuality found that 78% of Turkish people think that it should not be accepted in society, an increase from the previous 2007 survey. The hostile atmosphere has grown even worse in recent years. For instance, when 49 people and the perpetrator were killed in the Orlando gay nightclub in 2016, the far-right Yeni Akit paper read “50 perverts killed in bar”. In 2017, rainbow lights on the Bosphorus Bridge led to a flurry of complaints from people who thought it was in regard to LGBTI rights. The Turkish transport ministry had to turn them off, and one person remarked on Twitter: “may Allah punish whoever engaged in this perverted propaganda on the 15 July martyrs Bridge”. And harassment and discrimination towards the LGBTI community is not constrained to these large events.
In one high profile incident, Turkish Football Federation referee Halil İbrahim Dinçdağ was suspended when it was found he was barred from military service due to a ‘psychosexual disorder’, aka homosexuality. Another referee claimed Dinçdağ could not be impartial as “he’d give more free kicks to a good-looking player”. He faced harassment, and was disavowed by some family and friends. The military conscription process in itself is problematic, with the effects felt by many LGBTI labelled as having a medical disorder. Even in 2018, the Turkish constitutional court upheld that those who do serve but are later found to be homosexual can be stripped of their rank and expelled for ‘unnatural intimacy’. Indeed, sexual orientation and gender identity can impact employment prospects in other Turkish sectors; a survey has shown 33% of respondents had not been hired due to this.
Moreover, this homophobia, transphobia, and other hostilities has led to attacks, even killings, against the LGBTI community. Between 2010 and 2014, at least 41 hate murders were undertaken individuals identifying as LGBTI. And they continue to occur. Sometimes they are undertaken by family members in so-called honor killings. In 2015, there were at least five hate murders, on top of 32 hate attacks, two cyber-attacks, and three suicide cases of LGBTI. In July 2016, a gay Syrian refugee was raped then decapitated in Istanbul. Just weeks later, Hande Kader, a trans and prominent activist, was raped and burnt alive in a nearby location. Her attacker has yet to be found. These crimes against LGBTIs are rarely investigated thoroughly. When attackers are convicted, courts will reduce or suspend the sentences.
A prime example is that of Kemal Ordek, a trans whose gender is non-binary. In 2015, whilst working in the sex industry – one of the only jobs available to trans – two men posing as customers beat and raped Kemal. Another man, a relative of the former two, entered and demanded money. They dragged Kemal to a street ATM. Spotting a police car, Kemal ran over and told the officers what was happening; the attackers followed and denied the claims. Kemal’s version of events was dismissed. It was only when Kemal later filed a civil complaint that police launched a criminal investigation. But the following year saw Kemal the target of threats and intimidation, including pressure by the police to drop the case. Eventually, the attackers were convicted for looting, but the aggravated sexual assault charge was successfully appealed by their lawyer.
It isn’t just police who treat LGBTI individuals with hostility. Politicians often voice such views, including President Erdogan. Despite stating that “homosexuals must also be given legal protection for their rights and freedoms” to garner support back in 2002, his tune quickly changed. Two years later, the AKP under Erdogan removed LGBTI protection from discrimination from a draft of the Turkish Penal Code. In 2013, Erdogan described homosexuality as a “sexual preference” that was incompatible with the “culture of Islam”. The former State Minister for Family Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf called homosexuality “a biological disorder, a disease … something that needs to be treated”. The Telecommunications Communication Presidency regulatory body has included ‘gay’ on a list of terms that cannot be used on websites. Similar censorship has occurred with television programmes.
These increasingly hostile views by authorities are reflected in attitudes towards LGBTI events. From 2003 to 2014, annual Pride Marches have peacefully taken place in Turkey. But since 2015, the Pride March has been banned. Those who defied have been met with excessive force by police – teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets – with dozens arrested. Kürşat Mican, the Istanbul branch head of ultra-nationalist group Alperen Ocakları, an offshoot of the notorious Grey Wolves, has threatened violence against the Pride March several times. Turkish nationalists have also burnt rainbow flags during them. Other LGBTI events have too been supressed. In 2016, a Trans Pride march was met with teargas. Afterwards, when event organisers attempted to hold a press conference, authorities denied them permission. In November 2017, state of emergency powers were used to ban a German LGBTI film festival in Ankara. Just days later, Ankara then announced an indefinite ban on all events by LGBTI organisations, citing “public safety and morality”.
Yet Turkey’s LGBTI community will continue to fight. The 2018 Pride March, although banned, went ahead without incident last week. Slogans included “ban the bans”. Kemal Ordek, the sex worker subjected to horrendous crimes back in 2015, has since founded the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association. Other organisations like the Istanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association, the Pink Life LGBTI Solidarity Association, and the Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association are also pushing for LGBTI rights in an increasingly oppressive society. The Turkish authorities must take note and assume immediate action against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. They must stop derogatory remarks and practices, and ensure hate crimes are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. Let’s hope that this is the last International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia that an article like this needs to be written.
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