A pretty face overcome with grief has quickly become the symbol of a brutal wave of violence hitting the LGBT community in Turkey.
That face belongs to Hande Kader, a transwoman and LGBT rights activist whose burnt body was found in an Istanbul neighbourhood Aug 12, 2016. Reports indicate Kader was raped before being set on fire; authorities have not determined whether she was killed before being set alight.
Kader, who supported herself through sex work, was last seen getting into a client’s car before her charred remains were discovered in the northern district of Sariyer. Her death has touched an especially sensitive nerve in the LGBT community. Kader was vocal and often seen on the front lines defending LGBT rights.
On Aug 21, the queer community organized a rally to protest increasing violence targeting its members. It came as a surprise to many that authorities allowed the rally to go ahead. Two months prior, LGBT activists protesting the cancellation of Istanbul Pride were teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets.
That the rally was permitted is a sign — a sign officials realize there is a problem, and one that needs attention before another body turns up. Just two weeks prior to Kader’s murder, police made a gruesome discovery: the body of a young gay Syrian man decapitated and mutilated near Istanbul’s Golden Horn.
Muhammad Wisam Sankari went missing on July 25. His roommates say Sankari received a call from a Syrian man and, despite their warnings, went to meet him. They say that was the last time they saw him before his body was discovered, two days later, flanked by colourful houses in a hillside neighbourhood.
Sankari had sought help from Canada’s refugee agency after being harassed, raped and receiving numerous threats from ISIS. His messages received no reply. Sankari’s roommates say since his death they have received calls and messages indicating one of them could be next. This wouldn’t be the first time ISIS has threatened gay Syrians in Turkey.
A Syrian man was forced to flee to Greece after an ISIS agent broke into his apartment and threatened to kill him. Thanks to the EU-Turkey migration deal designed to keep asylum-seekers out of the EU, the man’s asylum appeal was denied. Officially, Turkey is considered safe for gay Syrians.
ISIS involvement in Turkey and the group’s specific interest in the LGBT community is not new. One of the oldest LGBT organizations in the country closed its doors in the Spring after its name was found on an ISIS hit list.
Close to two years ago Istanbul hosted the largest Pride parade in the Islamic world. That progress has all but vanished with threats now coming from two fronts: ISIS and local extremists.
Prior to his murder Sankari was kidnapped twice, raped and beaten by a group of Turkish-speaking men. Kader had also been attacked and raped a number of times before her death. Numerous other cases of rapes and beatings have been reported.
Kemal Ordek of the Ankara-based Red Umbrella organization, which fights for the rights of sex workers, says violence against transgender people across the country has significantly increased in the past decade.
“When we first started recording incidents, there were 25 to 30 in a year. Now the number is more than 300,” Ordek says. Homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, but sexual orientation is not protected under the Turkish Constitution; therefore, hate crimes against LGBT people can’t be reported as such.
Istanbul city councillor Sedef Cakmak says violence against LGBT people may be on the upswing because people know they won’t get punished.
“The negative statements and the attitudes of the ruling party towards LGBT is also encouraging people to attack. People are aware that they won’t be punished for their crimes against LGBT,” she says.
The increased visibility of the LGBT population coupled with an improved ability to monitor violence may also lead to the apparent rise in violence against LGBT people, Ordek says. However, another major problem is that many LGBT people are forced to do sex work to support themselves, she says, which leads to “security issues because they interact with many people they don’t know.”
With sex work comes regular beatings and rapes as well as daily threats of violence. It all proves too much for too many; LGBT suicide is all too common. Ordek says the number of trans suicides in particular has jumped. The latest suicide was that of Azize Ömrüm, a young trans woman, in mid August.
Since a coup attempt in mid-July, Turkey has been in a state of emergency as officials arrest hundreds of people they believe are connected with the plot. Prior to the coup an ISIS suicide attack at Istanbul’s main airport killed 45 people and injured more than 200.
Given the country’s long list of emergencies, LGBT issues barely make it onto the radar. Violence against LGBT people is not a new problem, but the barbaric nature of the recent attacks has created an atmosphere of fear that could send many back into the closet.