At the beckoning of the government, Turkish police forces in major cities have staged brutal crackdowns on demonstrators advocating for LGBTQI rights. This blatant display of police brutality comes on the hills of a months-long escalation in attacks on the queer community in Turkey by top government officials, public servants, religious leaders and media figures who repeatedly label members of the community as “perverts,” “dirty,” “deviants” and spreaders of disease.
It appears that Turkey’s ruling party, AKP, is employing this assault on LGBTQI people as a tactic to rally its base of supporters around a common enemy that could be blamed for the country’s interlocking health and economic crises.
While homosexuality is not legally banned in the country, widespread conservative sentiments have nonetheless moulded a hostile socio-political landscape for queer people in Turkey. This is manifested in recurring violence directed at members of the community, mounting marginalisation, discrimination in access to healthcare and education, and a lack of recognition of basic human and civil rights. Marriage or civil unions by members of the same sex, for instance, aren’t recognised by the state.
In recent years, the situation for LGBTQI people in Turkey took a turn for the worse, as conservatives have been pushing back against the queer community’s demand for recognition and equality. This trend crescendoed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, and has been evident in increased anti-queer rhetoric spewed by the country’s elite—from the president, top ministers and senior religious leaders to public servants and media figures.
Back in April 2020, Ali Erbaş, President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, targeted LGBTQI people during a sermon, stating that “hundreds of thousands of people a year are exposed to the HIV virus caused by this great haram, which passes as adultery in the Islamic Literature.” He further stated that “homosexuality brings disease,” and blamed queer people for the spread of COVID-19.
Denouncing Erbaş, the Ankara Bar Association claimed that his statements amount to “public provocation to hatred and hostility.” In response, Ankara’s top prosecutor had launched an investigation into the Bar Association. Erbaş was then defended by some of Turkey’s most senior politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who stated that “An attack on Erbaş is an attack on the state,” and Turkey’s minister of justice who tweeted that the Bar Association is “revealing the fascist reflexes that remain in their minds.”
Attacks on the queer community continued in June 2020, when the chairman of Turkey’s Red Crescent Society, Kerem Kinik, stated that LGBTQI people are “imposing their pedophiliac dreams cloaked as modernity on young minds.” Following a rebuke of this statement by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, President Erdoğan rushed to defend Kinik, claiming that “[queer people] are insidiously attacking our national and spiritual values. Throughout the history of mankind, they have been trying to poison young minds by normalising cursed perversions.”
In July, Hamza Dağ, AKP’s İzmir Deputy, railed against the newly painted columns of a municipal building, claiming that they resemble the rainbow flag and saying that he wouldn’t “allow the legitimisation of such perversion.” Such statements by politicians as well as popular public and religious figures have emboldened police officers in Turkey to use excessive force against members of the queer community, which led to cases of torture, battering and even murder of LGBTQI people in police custody.
Anti-queer rhetoric has also spread beyond the organs of the state and exacerbated animosity towards the community among the general public. Over the past few years, verbal and physical attacks on queer people in Turkey have become more frequent, with trans people being disproportionately targeted.
Referencing statistics provided by Transgender Europe, Deniz Yuksel, the Turkey Advocacy Specialist for Amnesty International, stated in the Advocate that between 2015 and 2018, at least 51 people were victims of transphobic murders in Turkey. She added that the Istanbul-based rights group Social Policy Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD) indicated that “calls to their hotline for individuals subject to discrimination and violence based on their sexual identity and orientation doubled in the 45 days following Erbas’ comments.”
“What I have been observing is that the government’s discourse about LGBTI+ issues has been smoothly changing from ‘morality’ to ‘terrorism’,” Tuğkan Gündoğdu, a board member of SPoD, told Screen Shot. “They used to marginalise with references to the ‘public morality’, ‘public health’ and ‘religious values’, but now, they try to criminalise the rainbow flags and affiliations referencing to ‘terrorism’.”
All the while, online bullying of LGBTQI people in Turkey has been worsening, and a slew of queerphobic slurs have inundated Turkish social media channels.
The situation had reached a boiling point in early 2021 when President Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as Rector of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul (which is considered to be a bastion of liberalism). Bulu is a staunch supporter of Erdoğan’s, had occupied various positions at AKP and had endorsed anti-LGBTQ statements, according to ILGA Europe.
Bulu’s appointment—the first one imposed on the university from outside—had sparked a wave of protests by students and faculty members who view the move as both a blunt crackdown on academic freedom and an assault on LGBTQI rights.
The demonstrations, which over the last few weeks had spilt outside of Boğaziçi’s boundaries to other locations across Turkey, were met with brutal force by the police. Dozens of arrests were made in Ankara and over 250 were made in Istanbul. At Boğaziçi, the LGBTQI club was raided and subsequently shut down by Bulu.
The crackdown on demonstrators has been supported by the country’s top politicians who leveraged the crisis to ramp up anti-queer rhetoric. President Erdoğan accused the protesters of being terrorists who defy the country’s “national and spiritual values.” In a subsequent address to AKP youths, the president stated that “You are not the LGBT youth, not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts. We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation’s glorious past.”
In a series of tweets since the outbreak of the demonstrations, Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, had labelled protesters as “LGBT deviants” and “perverts,” and accused some of the detained demonstrators of having ties to terror groups.
“There was an art exhibition as a part of [the] protests in the campus,” said Gündoğdu, “and one of the artworks was reportedly depicted with LGBTI+ rainbow symbols alongside the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Masjid al-Haram—the Great Mosque—in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the most sacred site in Islam. There was also an image of the Shahmaran, a popular Middle Eastern mythical creature, half woman and half snake,” said Gündoğdu.
“This artwork went viral on social media and four students were taken into custody,” he continued, adding that “The Minister of Internal Affairs targeted LGBTI+ people [involved with the exhibition] on Twitter saying that ‘4 LGBT perverts who committed the disrespect to the Kaaba were detained at Boğaziçi University’.”
The crackdown on demonstrators and anti-queer hate speech spewed by Turkish government officials have drawn the “concern” of the US State Department and condemnation of the UN Human Rights Agency, which called for the “prompt release of students and protesters arrested for participating in peaceful demonstrations.”
Numerous LGBTQI and human rights organisations have also expressed solidarity with Turkey’s queer community and called for an immediate end to the incitement of violence by the government. “All Out condemns police violence, arrests and hate campaigns against LGBT+ people at Boğaziçi University, Turkey, and stands in solidarity with Turkish LGBT+ people,” Yuri Guaiana, Senior Campaigns Manager at All Out (an international LGBTQI rights NGO), told Screen Shot.
“These recent developments are the latest frontier in a culture war launched by President Erdoğan in an effort to rally his base ahead of elections scheduled for 2023,” wrote Amnesty International’s Yuksel in the Advocate, arguing that the president is wielding this anti-queer campaign as a political strategy to siphon national attention away from the mounting inflation and staggering unemployment rates.
So far, Turkish government officials rejected condemnations of the crackdown on protests and upwelling of hate speech, urging international elements to stop ‘meddling’ in Turkey’s internal affairs and accusing protesters of being agents of foreign interests (a tactic pulled straight out of the autocrat’s handbook).
But Turkey does not exist in a vacuum, especially during a pandemic that highlights interlacing global environmental, health and economic interests and emphasises the importance of international alliances. This gives the international community an opportunity to insist on shared values as a prerequisite for any type of collaboration between nations. The EU and US should therefore condition aid and support for the Turkish government to the latter’s respect of the queer community (as well as all minorities within its territory) and the immediate cessation of state-sponsored violence—both verbal and physical.