By Markus Kowalski
Against all odds, queer activists are continuing their struggle for rights and recognition in Turkey, with a new generation emerging in the face renewed state repression.
The violent police intervention against participants of last year’s annual LGBTI pride march in Istanbul, which saw dozens of activists arrested after tear-gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were used against demonstrators, had cast doubt on the future of the national tradition.
The fear of becoming invisible
But in the face of adversity, Turkey’s LGBTI community remains unbowed; determined to continue their activism and this year’s pride marches. In Ankara, the Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (KaosGL) has been battling government suppression since its foundation, with a court banning its magazine banned for breaching ‘obscenity laws’ in 2006.
Ten years later, despite heavy censorship, the organisation is still going about the vital work of trying to represent the interests of the LGBTI community. Yıldız Tar, a journalist for the magazine, argues that, with the very existence of the LGBTI community now at risk, they have no other choice, “if we don’t publish this magazine, no-one will ever hear about LGBTI issues.”
With the on-going state of emergency, which has seen a further erosion of human rights and evermore suppression of independent voices in the media, the magazine’s work is important now more than ever. “Turkey has a really high rate of hate crime against LGBTI people, but the government doesn’t publish any statistics about it,” Tar explains.
“If the police don’t tell the story of these people, then it’s our duty to do so. If a trans person gets attacked, we write about it. If a gay person faces discrimination, we write about it.” By collecting these accounts, the magazine has become an archive of Turkey’s LGBTI history. “Heterosexism and Homophobia are very successful in stealing our confidence,” Tar says, “but by writing about these stories, we say: ‘I’m here, I’m a human being as well.’”
The mass purge of universities, home to many of Turkey’s LGBTI activists, has worked to further silence the community’s voice and left hundreds without work. This includes academics like Aylime Asli Demir, one of the organizers of the Feminist Forum, an annual assembly of women’s rights activists.
In March, the forum facilitated a meeting of dismissed academics. “No official reason was given” Demir explains, “but we know why they were dismissed. They had a critical approach towards the government in their lectures.”
Demir argues that academics involved in the LGBTI movement have been targeted in an attempt to limit their activities and restrict the already tenuous visibility of LGBTI people in the country. For example, Ankara University’s ‘Queer Theory’ course, one of the few of its kind in the country, was discontinued this year after all the staff teaching it had been removed from their posts.
The struggle continues
With academics from the LGBTI community being dismissed, it is students that are continuing the struggle on university campuses. Kuir, an LGBTI club at Koç university in Istanbul, is just one of many groups of young people that are taking an increasingly direct approach to their activism.
In one recent campaign, Kuir changed the symbols on the university’s toilets. Within an hour, every toilet door on campus bore either a male symbol with breasts or a female symbol with a penis. As Nehir Arya Taş, a member of the group, explains: “we wanted to raise awareness and say that there are also trans students in our university.”
“Our whole life is based on the notion that there are only two sexes”, Taş says. “But this is so unfair, because we all have different identities, and it doesn’t allow you to do what you want. Even a heterosexual man doesn’t coincide with this binary system.” For Taş, such activism is not about LGBTI people, “it’s about all the people in the world.”
Their Trans awareness campaign was subsequently banned by the university administration, but Kuir has continued unperturbed. “If we look at the ban of the pride march last year, things look like they’re getting worse politically”, Taş explains. But in her eyes, the bans have changed things too.
“I feel that [the repression] is making people more aware of the situation of LGBTI community now,” Taş says. For this reason, against all the odds, Taş and her classmates will continue to defy the authorities with acts of solidarity and resistance.
As will Yıldız Tar from KaosGL, who believes that the government will again step up attempts to ban the organisation soon, with the LGBTI civil society groups likely to be the next target of the government’s ever-widening crackdown. But he remains defiant, “the government can try to oppress us, but this won’t be the end. The movement had always found ways to survive.”
This article is a preview of a documentary about the young generation of LGBTI activists, which will be released in October 2017. The project is co-funded by Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation.