4 min

Wrapping Turkey in rainbow flags

Recent anti-government protests have helped bring the country’s LGBT community out of the closet

LGBT activists played a prominent role in Turkey's recent anti-government protests. Credit: Courtesy of Joti Heir

Turkish LGBT activists recently removed their collective invisibility cloak to prevent the death of Istanbul’s Gezi Park — and with that move the country’s queer community has gained a notoriety that moved it from the fringes of society to centre stage.

On May 31, Turkish police entered Gezi to flush out a small group of peaceful protesters demonstrating against the uprooting of trees in the park. Tear gas and water-cannon deployment led to injuries and outrage, the Gezi Park movement was born, and the rainbow flag had a coming-out of sorts.

The police raid triggered a massive protest in Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square, which quickly snowballed into anti-government demonstrations across the country over what protesters say is the government’s increasingly “peeping tom” attitude. In Gezi Park, protesters set up a tent city and LGBT organizations went to work organizing food and first-aid stations. “[The] reason why LGBT people were in the protests from day one is that their lives have always been under threat by government,” says Omer Akpinar, spokesperson for Kaos GL, a Turkish LGBT rights organization founded in 1994.  

Attitudes toward LGBT people vary from region to region, but for the most part, Akpinar says, homosexuality is believed to be a curable disease. Although being gay is not a crime in Turkey, it is not widely accepted. A 2012 Turkish Armed Forces penalty regulation draft stated that gays will be discharged from the army as punishment for their "lifestyle choices.” Military service is mandatory in Turkey, and Akpinar explains the humiliating process gay men must endure to prove their homosexuality if they don't want to serve: “They must show a picture of themselves while they are having sexual intercourse with another man.” They must also be in the passive (bottom) position with their faces clearly showing signs of pleasure, he adds.

Meanwhile, a Diyarbakir man admitted to killing his son in May after finding out he was gay, and in July, a 24-year-old transgender woman was found stabbed to death.

Zeynep (who preferred not to give her full name) is a 19-year-old trans woman studying tourism at Balikesir University, in the Marmara region south of Istanbul. She says she’s faced with the reality of Turkey’s homophobic and transphobic society on a daily basis because her appearance doesn’t allow her to hide. “At school, many people do not want to publicly associate with me because of what others will think,” she says. “They may speak to me sometimes, but for example, if I am sitting alone in the cafeteria no one will dare to come and sit near me.”

She says that while she hasn’t been the victim of physical violence, the verbal abuse and stares are no better. To prove her point, in the midst of our interview a woman walks past and spits, saying “You people are marginal,” and continues on her way. Zeynep doesn’t blink an eye — she’s happy with her choices in life.

Gezi Park’s makeshift camp turned into a functioning community where LGBT people like Zeynep played a prominent role. For many, this community became the first place where they very publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. “Firstly, out LGBTs were in the frontlines of the protests” Akpinar says. “But there were many LGBT people as well, maybe even more than the classical ‘activists,’ who gave support to LGBTs in the protests and to the protest itself.”

Mert, an Istanbul kindergarten teacher, agreed to an interview as long as his surname would not be used. He says he could lose his job if the Ministry of Education found out he is gay. “I love my job and I love my country,” he says. “I don’t want to have to move anywhere else to be myself. I want to stay right here and live freely; I don’t know why I can’t do that.”

Mert says he attended the protests despite the possibility that someone, maybe the parent of a child in his class, would see him there.

This year’s gay pride parade, which took place on the last Sunday in June, was different from other years' — the parade participants were not just members of the LGBT community. The Gezi Park battle cry – “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş,” (Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance) – could be heard along the entire parade route as straight Gezi protesters turned up to support their LGBT fellow resisters.

The fear of a government that has overstepped its boundaries is bringing together — for now — the unlikeliest of allies. One example of this is the Anti-Capitalist Muslim, a conservative group, forging a new and previously undreamed of alliance with the queer community. Akpinar and others acknowledge this has much to do with the fact that although the Gezi protests began as a movement to save a park, they quickly snowballed into a call for the ousting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government over what many view as its increasing authoritarianism since the party’s third win at the ballot box in 2011. Many worry about an expanding government presence in private life and a move away from the country’s secular roots.

Gezi Park has been an unofficial meeting place for Istanbul’s LGBT community for decades. If the trees there could talk, they’d likely share stories of people who found freedom (or late-night hookups) in the park’s dark, quiet corners.

The attack on protesters trying to protect the park has mobilized many groups who say they’ve been silent about their government’s anti-democratic policies for too long. Strength in numbers, they say. These numbers seem to be multiplying and with them sightings of the rainbow flag, which is no longer just a symbol for Turkey’s LGBT community.

Joti Heir is a Canadian journalist currently living in Istanbul. Check out more photos from Istanbul Pride and the recent protests in the above slideshow.