Sunday’s Pride Walk in Istanbul has been officially banned by the municipality: not only that, an application to hold a press announcement on Istiklal was denied Thursday night by the governor’s office. That decision is being challenged by Pride Week organisers.
Whatever the result, Pride Week has seen more direct opposition from government in the last two years than in the entire period of AKP rule. Part of the reason is that since the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, Pride has become not just a movement for LGBTI+ rights, but the site of a much wider struggle for a more pluralistic society. It thus presents a threat to a government that brooks no dissent.
While the city has cited security reasons for the ban, activists are certain that the movement is being suppressed because it represents a challenge to AKP dominance. What is more, reports of police violence coupled with attacks by homophobic and transphobic civilian groups at last week’s Trans Pride Walk suggest that anti-Pride groups are being tolerated, if not actively encouraged.
Here it’s worth noting that the official statement banning the march and the press announcement on Sunday, June 26, cites not only potential terrorist attacks but also claims “provocative acts and events may take place when the sensitivities that have emerged in society are taken into account.” Given the violent reactions by police and right-wing groups at the Trans Pride Walk last Sunday (also banned), it seems clear that the city’s administrators consider LGBTI+ activities to be “provocative acts,” and are coming down in favour of those parts of society that do not want to see the Pride Walk take place.
Previously under AKP leadership, Pride Walk had been allowed to proceed, with around 80,000 people taking part in 2013: though no direct legislative gains were made for LGBTI+ rights, the event was not hounded as it is today. Activists argue that this is a sign of the party using its near-total dominance to secure far more conservative social policies than those it advocated in the early 2000s.
Pride has formally existed in Turkey since the early 1990s, and the first Pride Walk happened in 2003. From the start, LGBTI+ Pride has been closely intertwined with feminist, environmentalist, and leftist groups, as well as labour unions. According to Elif Avcı, a member of the LGBTI+ Pride Week Committee, “People started finding each other in the 1980s. They had house meetings, gatherings. And then it started with Lambda Istanbul, and Kaos GL in Ankara.” Lambda was formed after the first Christopher Street Day was banned in Istanbul in 1993. The movement has been at odds with government ever since.
However, Avcı also believes that in the last two years things have gotten considerably worse. “Until last year we were not that worried about our future, because Gezi gave hope to lots of groups. Also, over the last five years the peace negotiations were continuing. But then, it was just cut down, and [police repression] started,” she said.
Avcı sees this as the direct implemetation of AKP policy, lead by President Erdoğan. “They want to separate the public into two groups – their supporters and those who don’t support them.”
Metehan Özkan, an LGBTI+ activist with Families of LGBTI in Istanbul (LISTAG) and the co-producer of the film Benim Çocuğum, According to Özkan, the Gezi Park protests of 2013 brought the movement into contact with groups it had not reached before, including soccer fans, Kemalist associations, and Islamist organisations such as the Anti-Capitalist Muslims.
“Then people had a chance, both the LGBTI groups and others, to experience being in solidarity, arm to arm, and resist together against police oppression,” he told Independent Turkey.
So why the shift in recent years? Özkan believes it has to do with the AKP government’s desire to prevent any and all kinds of opposition. “Last year we could not march,” he said. “After the June 2015 elections, they didn’t want to see any kind of opposition on the street. And LGBTI Pride March, of course for LGBTI groups but also for many other groups too, is a platform for people to express themselves. And they couldn’t take it.”
Last year, there was no officially stated reason for the ban on the march, says Avcı – though there had been public opposition to the walk as it was to take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The call from the governor’s office to say the 2015 march was banned came one hour before it was meant to start. This year, after a series of bomb attacks in both Istanbul and Ankara, “security reasons” and concerns about “sensitivities” – widely interpreted by activists to mean the concerns of conservative anti-Pride groups – have been used to prevent the march from going ahead. As a report compiled by LGBTI+ groups this week notes, the right to protest and gather without permission is enshrined in the Turkish constitution. However, in a climate of polarisation and violence, the municipality has claimed that it would be unable to protect LGBTI+ activists should they decide to walk.
“[The Istanbul governor’s office] told us, ‘If we give permission to march, we can protect you. If not, good luck!’” reported Avcı. She lifted her hands up in the characteristic shrug of, Well, what will be, will be. Thus Pride groups are presented with a dilemma: events approved by the municipality, such as the Genetically Modified Tomato Awards for homophobic and transphobic statements, held last night in Şişli, are protected by police. Events not approved are not only not protected – they are actively targeted by the police.
This is also not simply a question of police repression. Hate speech against LGBTI+ people has been on the uptick and is met with little public condemnation by the government. The result is that gatherings of LGBTI+ groups are increasingly at risk of violent attack by right-wing groups such as the Alperen Ocakları, or Alperen Hearths, who claimed last week that they would prevent the walk from going ahead, calling it a “perversion.”
In the report compiled by Kaos GL – whose full name is Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association – together with a number of other LGBTI+ solidarity and research groups, Trans Pride Walk participants told of acts of violence from both police and civilians. The incidents recorded suggest that though the police did prevent some homophobic and transphobic groups in Taksim from getting to the main group gathered for the Trans Pride Walk, they did allow some acts of violence to go on unhindered. Famously, a man was seen burning the rainbow flag in front of police – who did nothing. The police also used plastic bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds, even those gathered in bars and cafes off the main Istiklal Avenue. A press announcement approved by the municipality and police was also disrupted by police – a suggestion that legal protocols matter less in this case than preventing LGBTI+ groups from gathering.
What this weekend will bring for Pride in Istanbul and the LGBTI+ community remains to be seen, but it is already clear that the LGBTI+ movement is under threat from both the state and from grassroots anti-LGBTI+ groups. The movement embodies a pluralistic yet cohesive anti-authoritarian Turkey that the AKP is no longer pretending to tolerate. However, the Pride movement in Turkey also has its own grassroots support: the solidarity of previously unconnected or even antagonistic groups during Gezi is evidence of that. This suggests that while reform in countries like South Africa and the UK has been top-down, there is room in Turkey for the homegrown LGBTI+ movement to continue its work despite government opposition.