The Dynamics of the Queer Movement in Turkey

Gay Pride in Istanbul 2013
Teaser Image Caption
Gay Pride in Istanbul 2013

The Gezi protests have given new, sustainable boost the LGBTIQ movement in Turkey1. The history of the movement, however, the begins at the latest in the beginning of the last century.

The struggle for the rights of people with non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity has gained new momentum in Turkey since the Gezi protests, which saw lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex people (queers) fighting side by side on the barricades with other protesters. Although homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, repression is the order of the day. In June of this year the police used water cannons to break up the pride parade in Istanbul. Queers have nonetheless become increasingly visible in Turkey since the neoconservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power. But how has it been possible for the queer community to improve its visibility, to put forward political demands and to intervene, both nationally and locally, at the parliamentary level? A look at the history of the queer movement in Turkey will shed some light on these matters.

Turkish queer groups have been fighting for visibility and legal equality within all aspects of society at least since Turkey began from its founding in 1923 to go through a Europeanization process and to take on “Western” values and norms. Before this process got under way, Istanbul was a city of “sexual freedom,” a magnet for many homosexuals and trans people in the Ottoman Empire. It was also home to gays who had fled other countries, mainly Germany, France and England, where, at the beginning of the 1900s, homosexual relations were a punishable offense. In those days in Istanbul, in the European Urninge colony (Urninge was an earlier term for gay people) of Constantinople, as Magnus Hirschfeld referred to it, there existed “historical sites of homosexual pleasures” characterized by voluntary participation. There was also a famous male brothel here, the so-called Ottoman Bank. It was ironically called this by homosexual sex workers because they would accompany men there in exchange for money2.  Among those frequenting the establishment were European gay people who did not need to fear being reported, persecuted or sent to prison. The beginning of the Europeanization process at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century in the Ottoman Empire and in the founding period of the Turkish Republic was also the beginning of the condemnation of homosexuality and transsexuality. Although the Ottoman Empire and modern-day Turkey have never had any anti-homosexual laws, discrimination against the queer community there became noticeable through factors such as the negative influence of European societies.

Queers have defended themselves against the increasing repression and hostility in various phases of the Turkish Republic. These struggles have made them aware that they have been – and still are –dependent upon the solidarity of non-queer civil society organizations, political parties and activist groups.

The first phase – the 1970s

The Turkish Republic pursued the goal of Europeanizing all areas of society from its inception, with the overall aim of establishing a “modern” and secular Turkish national society. It was of paramount importance for Turkey to build a new era of gender politics based on equal rights for men and women. Women were to be emancipated and to become visible in society. Deviations to the heteronormative gender system took a backseat to this ambitious project and were completely ignored. Thus, in contrast to several European countries, Turkey did not make homosexuality a criminal offense, but instead paid practically no attention to queers up into the 1960s. They could, for example, perform openly in theaters, music venues and night clubs up until this time.  

However, this situation changed for the worse after a new government came to power in 1974. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) won that year’s parliamentary elections, but had to enter into a coalition with the pro-Islamic National Salvation Party (MSP) in order to form a government. The MSP was given control of the Interior Ministry, which had jurisdiction over queer issues, and queers now became the target of repressive policies.

Although the coalition lasted only ten months, it was long enough to destroy the various queer scenes. For example, massive police repression was brought to bear against trans sex workers. The authorities embarked on a systematic campaign of persecution, which led to Istanbul’s queers being driven away not only from their workplaces but also from their residential districts. As a result of the police repression, some parts of the Turkish queer community forged a collective political identity. Queers fought for their livelihoods and their emancipation not just in Istanbul, but in Izmir and Ankara as well. Attempts at queer self-organization, such as that of the activist İbrahim Eren in Izmir, came to an end with the military coup on September 12, 1980. 

The second phase – the 1980s

In the wake of the military coup, the army took over the government and instituted measures that restricted the activities of numerous organizations. It also banned all political parties and severely curtailed the freedom of demonstration and association as well as the freedom of speech and the press. Arbitrary detentions, the widespread practice of torture and the deprivation of citizenship were the order of the day. Schools and universities underwent an extensive process of militarization. The military regime mainly cracked down on left- and right-wing groups. The repression caused many left-wing activists to flee to Europe and the United States, where they joined anti-military, ecological and feminist groups, thus allowing them to gain insights into the new social movements. This acquired experience later had a formative influence on the new social movements in Turkey, including the queer movement.

Queers were also a target of the military’s repression. In 1981, for example, some 60 trans sex workers were “evacuated” from Istanbul’s urban districts to the city’s outskirts. As in the second half of the 1970s, the police arrested these people at their places of work in the red-light areas or in their apartments. They were detained for several days and subjected to psychological and physical torture.

On March 19, 1981, the Interior Ministry prohibited men dressed in drag from working as performers on nightclub stages. To circumvent the ban, Bülent Ersoy, Turkey’s best-known trans singer, underwent sex reassignment surgery in London on April 14, 1981, before filing a petition to have her civil status changed. She wanted to be legally recognized as a woman and not a transvestite. Her petition was rejected at the time, and she continued to be treated as a “man in drag.” While Ersoy fought for her individual rights, other trans people defended themselves collectively, because police action directly threatened their livelihoods and put them at risk of losing their jobs and homes. Protests that emerged in response to this situation led to the organizing of trans, lesbian and gay people, who sought out support from feminist and left-wing groups as well as human rights organizations. They assembled in public space, organized demonstrations against the police, staged protests outside the employment office to demand jobs for trans people and collected signatures for a petition calling for the legalization of sex reassignment surgeries.   

Police raids in 1987 triggered a collective protest that arose among trans sex workers and lesbian and gay circles. On April 29, 1987, 37 trans, lesbian and gay people launched a hunger strike in Gezi Park to protest against the repression. Neighboring citizens as well as a number of artists and intellectuals lent their support to the protesters. This ten-day hunger strike is viewed as a watershed event by today’s queer movement.

The third phase – the 1990s

The 1990s were marked by gay-dominated activism that strove to institutionalize the movement. It was also a period during which the Turkish queer community strengthened its ties with Western NGOs. A queer group was founded under the name Rainbow ’92 (Gökkuşağı ’92). Financial reasons, among other factors, caused it to disband shortly thereafter, but several of the former members still developed contacts with international queer initiatives. At the suggestion of the German group Schwule International, they tried to initiate a pride event in Istanbul in 1993 to celebrate Christopher Street Day. This attempt failed, however, because Istanbul’s governor banned the pride event, claiming that it would run counter to society’s customs and values. This ban prompted various queer groups to come together to form a new initiative called LambdaIstanbul. In 1994, a year after the launch of LambdaIstanbul, the initiative KaosGL was established in Ankara, kicking off its political work with a queer newspaper.

In the second half of the 1990s, these groups concentrated their efforts on institutionalizing themselves as associations and thus as legal persons. Public visibility served as the movement’s guiding theme. Because the newly formed initiatives were led mainly by gay activists, and neither lesbian nor trans people felt adequately represented in these, queers debated the issue of representational politics within the community. This led to the founding of Turkey’s first lesbian initiative, Daughters of Venus (Venüs´ün Kızları), in 1995.     

The differentiation within the movement did not prevent the various groups from carrying out joint actions. For example, groups such as KaosGL, Sappho’nun Kızları (Daughters of Sappho) and Bursa Spartaküs worked together between 1998 and 2004 to organize the lesbian-gay celebrations in Istanbul and Ankara, which were held regularly twice a year. 

In 1996, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements convened in Istanbul. As part of the preparations, the authorities conducted “cleansing operations” in Istanbul that targeted socially disadvantaged groups, people with non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity, and people considered to be a threat or dangerous because of their ethnic origin. City officials were keen to present Istanbul as a metropolis inhabited by Turkish middle-class nuclear families and featuring “appropriate” residential areas and modern shopping centers. Along with street vendors, homeless people and drug addicts, trans sex workers and other sex industry staff were driven out of the city’s central districts. Ülker Street and its immediate vicinity were affected the most. Although protests against the police violence were unable to prevent the forced removal, they drew international attention once again to the situation of the affected communities.

The fourth phase – the 2000s

After Turkey was officially recognized as an EU candidate country at the EU summit in Helsinki in 1999, international expectations rose with regard to reforms aimed at improving the rule of law, the conditions of minorities and civil society. This also had some positive consequences for the queer movement.

The 2002 parliamentary elections brought the AKP into power for the first time. The AKP made fulfilling the political criteria of Copenhagen part of its program, which earned it respect among broad segments of society. In addition to the main opposition party, the CHP, the private sector, universities and civil society, as well as the majority of the population, also supported Turkey joining the EU. This phase was significant for the situation of queers. They were heretofore dependent on already established organizations, requiring them to either form student initiatives or organize themselves under the umbrella of left-wing parties (like the Freedom and Solidarity Party, or ÖDP), human rights organizations, feminist groups and trade unions, for up until this point they were not allowed to start their own organizations and associations. After the Turkish Parliament passed the new Law on Associations in 2004, queer associations were quickly founded as legal persons. In 2005, the hitherto unofficial lesbian and gay initiative KaosGL was established as an official organization; LamdaIstanbul followed suit in 2006. Both organizations had actively fought discrimination against queers since the 1990s. This development was only attributable to the EU accession process and did not indicate that the AKP had taken a tolerant policy toward queers. This became evident in the party’s position in the 2004 debate on the new penal code, which was passed as part of the EU accession negotiations. At the time, queer initiatives had made contact with Parliament members and pointed out the need for reforms to the Constitution and penal code, specifying that the laws should be expanded to include “sexual orientation and sexual identity.” Their proposal found a sympathetic ear in Parliament’s Judiciary Committee and was incorporated into the draft law. But the AKP’s then-Justice Minister Cemil Çiçek refused to support such a provision.

Another example that highlights the AKP’s anti-queer policy is the legal action taken against LambdaIstanbul in 2006. Muammer Güler, the AKP-installed governor of Istanbul, had had the association banned on grounds that it “violated public morals and contravened Turkish family structures” and “breached the Law on Associations.” In April 2009 the judgment was reversed in favor the association. The legal proceedings played a significant role in increasing the visibility of queers and in raising solidarity with their plight.   

The AKP’s first term in government was thus marked by developments that had both positive and negative implications for the queer movement. The movement made tangible gains in society in terms of mobilization, empowerment and acceptance. While the AKP’s level of electoral support continued to rise, queers became increasingly visible in public life and more and more vocal in their demands for equality. In defiance of the AKP’s conservatism, queer groups organized themselves at universities and in the health, labor and education sectors.   

Starting in 2007, during the AKP’s second term, conflicts between the AKP and queers heated up. In response to the AKP’s discriminatory policy and its impact on the judiciary, on the healthcare system and on public life, a coalition of several queer associations and organizations was formed in 2007 under the name Platform for LGBTI Rights (LGBTT Hakları Platformu). It compiles, publishes and disseminates information annually on cases of discrimination and organizes related events. In 2008 the platform called for fundamental equality before the law, demanding that amendments be made to Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution, which stipulates that everyone is equal before the law regardless of membership in a particular classification. It advocated adding “sexual orientation and sexual identity” to the classifications protected by the Constitution.  

The fifth phase – post-Gezi

The year 2013 was not only a turning point for queer groups but also for other social movements and for broad segments of society. The Gezi protests developed into one of the largest political demonstrations in Turkish history, bringing together diverse groups from different movements. Queers played a particularly active role in resisting neoliberal urban policies. During the protests they formed an LGBTI section that organized demonstrations, rallies and discussions. The climax of the section’s activities was a demonstration marking Christopher Street Day that, owing to the influence of the Gezi protests, brought around 100,000 people together to jointly protest against the AKP.

Queers increasingly staged political interventions in the course of discussions on constitutional reform and during and after the Gezi protests; they also strengthened their collaboration with feminist, anti-military, ecological and Kurdish organizations, while engaging more intensively with political parties.  

This political work aims mainly to achieve equality before the law. To this end, queers informed and mobilized several CHP members of parliament. An important result of these efforts is the minor interpellation submitted by CHP MP Mahmut Tanal. He advocated for the inclusion of queer issues in discussions on legislative amendments. In some parties, namely the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), queer groups were formed. Progress has also been made at the municipal level, such as the establishment of a new polyclinic for queers and sex workers in the Şişli district of Istanbul.  

During and after the Gezi protests, a host of new queer organizations were created. Today in Turkey there are around 50 queer organizations, but the majority of these lack the status of a legal person.
In the more than 13 years that the AKP, as the sole ruling party, dictated legislative policy, the queer community went through a dynamic phase that saw it organize itself in associations, become more vocal in its political demands and build larger networks with national and international organizations. Several political parties have put LGBTI rights into their programs and have pledged to support queer issues at the parliamentary level.

Despite state repression, which became more intense during the AKP’s rule, the Turkish queer movement has, in different phases, succeeded in forging new alliances with various groups, associations and parties and in winning their support for efforts to raise awareness in society and government institutions. In its struggle against discrimination and for emancipation, the movement has also demonstrated the need for cooperation among the various groups discriminated against. The representatives of the queer movement are thus fighting not only against homophobia, but also against sexism, racism, prejudice toward disabled people and class and social milieu bias.

Translation: Todd Brown

[1] This article is based on a study that Zülfukar Ҫetin conducted as part of the IPC-Mercator Fellowship Program. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs will publish the study.

[2] See Magnus Hirschfeld, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914).