By Matze Kasper
The release of Istanbul-based rock group Athena’s latest music video “Ses Etme” has sent waves through social media in Turkey.
Seen by many as drawing attention to violence against transgender people, while simultaneously celebrating drag-culture, the video has been viewed almost two million times on YouTube since it’s release last week, demonstrating that LGBT+ activism has created a more open space within which the Turkish mainstream for LGBT+ visibility and rights.
Athena’s music is rooted in Istanbul’s underground ska and punk scenes. Founded in 1987 by brothers Gökhan and Hakan Özoğuz, the music video to their song “Ses Etme” (Don’t Shout) reached over 1.8 million views in less than a week, sparking a national conversation.
Directed by Gönenç Uyanık, the video puts one of Istanbul’s most famous drag queens, Onur Gökhan Gökçek, at centre stage. It opens with Gökçek preparing with two friends for a night out, before the trio are visited by his mother carrying snacks. The friends then hit the streets of Istanbul, where men in passing cars oggle and flirt with them, before they head to a LGBT+ club, dancing late into the night.
On the way home, Gökçek’s character is attacked by a group of thugs, and beaten in the middle of the street. It is then that her biscuit-carrying mother from earlier returns, chasing the men away and saving our protagonist. Turkish media has perceived the message of the video as a criticism of recent trans murders.
Trans attacks and LGBT+ rights
Turkey has the highest trans murder rate in Europe, and the attack in the video mirrors what is a frighteningly common experience for transgender people in the country.
While there are some public trans figures established within society, this is a rarity. Commonly held and accepted societal prejudices often lead to discrimination in employment and housing. This forces many to live in low-quality accommodation and make their living through sex work, which is normalised albeit illegal. This relatively normalised public visibility is countered by rising violence and marginalisation from society at large however.
Faced with these challenges, the trans community and its allies have long fought to strengthen their rights and raise awareness of the violence they face. But many obstacles remain, not least a media whose indifference renders the problems of trans community largely invisible to the rest of society.
It was the brutal murder of trans activist Hande Kader, in Istanbul earlier this year that finally drew larger attention to this issue, especially from LGBT+ communities and supporters. Repeatedly raped and tortured by a gang, her body was found burnt and mutilated.
Much like Özgecan Aslan, the young woman viciously murdered in 2015, it seems that only the most heinous gender crimes make it into the papers, and even then, public interest seems to dissipate all too quickly. In Hande’s case, the focus was more limited: coming primarily from LGBT+ activists and LGBT+-friendly media.
But “Ses Etme” has challenged this, receiving a hugely positive reaction on social media, which has since been reflected in many press outlets. Although the music video is not being televised, a quick glance at the YouTube video shows that the ‘likes’ tremendously outweigh the ‘dislikes’. In a week where the word “gay” was censured on a popular television show, Athena’s clip has been heralded as “courageous.”
For in what is perceived as an increasingly conservative public-sphere, LGBT+ visibility remains limited, making a serious debate on LGBT+ rights in mainstream media a rare find. “Ses Etme” has shown that the internet is the medium for engaging people over controversial issues such as LGBT+ rights, and that there is a substantial number of people in Turkey open to such a discussion.
The video taps into this powerfully. With the celebration of drag queen culture, and the intimate, tender portrayal of the main character and their friends throughout the video, a bond is created with the viewer that is potentially more powerful than statistics or news reports on violence against the LGBT+ community.
Further, that the person who saves the main character is their mother, challenging the stereotype that she would judge and reject the protagonist, as is common for many within the LGBT+ community in Turkey. In this way, the mother character comes to represent the potential within both family members and the everyday person to take a stand against the senseless violence experienced by transgender people and others members of the LGBT+ community.
The clip’s positive reception on social media demonstrates that LGBT+ activism in Turkey has reached a turning point. A point where heterosexual male musicians can release a mainstream music video thrusting LGBT+ characters into the spotlight, igniting a discussion on LGBT+ rights, specifically on trans murders in Turkey.
Groups such as LİSTAG, an association made up of family members of LGBT+ people that fosters change and acceptance on the ground, and KAOS GL – one of the largest LGBT+ rights organisations in Turkey – have been promoting such visibility and rights for years. Athena’s “Ses Etme” can be read as a success for the LGBT+ community, but just one part of this growing movement. Social media reactions have shown that many in Turkey support LGBT+ visibility, indicating that it may not be long before such videos are being made not only by those in mainstream society, but by openly LGBT+ artists themselves.
Note: This article was written by a white, heterosexual, privileged male who identifies himself as an LGBT+ ally. In writing this article, his intention is not to overtake the discussion from members of the LGBT+ community, but to, like Athena, promote further LGBT+ visibility in the mainstream.