How does the Covid-19 pandemic affect LGBTI+ community in Turkey?

Article

For many LGBTI+ people, staying home raises domestic violence concerns. Already among the most vulnerable groups regarding access to employment, LGBTI+ individuals are now facing job and income losses. Moreover, the risk of discrimination in healthcare is higher for LGBTI+ individuals. To make matters worse, hate speech targeting the LGBTI+ community in the pretext of Covid-19 is on the rise.  

Introduction:

The Covid-19 pandemic has become the global crisis of our time. Turkey announced its first confirmed case on March 11, 2020. From this date onwards, the government implemented a set of measures in an effort to curb the outbreak, all primarily led by the Health and Interior Ministries. Confinement orders were imposed for certain age groups, people were banned from leaving their homes without face masks, travel restrictions were imposed on provinces with metropolitan status, and partial curfews were among these measures. While the Ministry of Health is still calling on the public to follow stay-at-home measures, many workers in different sectors have to continue to travel for work.

In other words, Turkey’s Covid-19 pandemic story can be summarized as authorities simply urging people to “declare their own state of emergency rule”. Yet, this approach has serious implications for LGBTI+ people who are among the most vulnerable groups in the country and who had already been struggling with challenges in accessing rights and facing systematic rights violations, including those related to the right to life. In addition to inequalities in enjoying the right to health and the right to employment, as well as soaring reports of domestic violence under isolation, the LGBTI+ community has been targeted by a recent wave of hate-motivated campaigns.

1. The Right to Health

“Whenever I made an attempt to receive psychological support, I encountered homophobia. For this reason, I lost hope in overcoming my traumas. It feels like this will always be the case.”

This quote is taken from Kaos GL’s 2018 report on “Hate Crimes on Grounds of Homophobic and Transphobic Incidents in Turkey” [1]. The report documents certain forms of hate crimes have more serious psychological effects for LGBTI+ individuals than other crimes. Compared to other groups, persons reporting negative incidents triggered by their sexual orientation or gender identity show increased signs of depression, traumatic stress, anxiety and anger. Psychological support seeking to cope with such distressing events is, on the other hand, either mostly inadequate or perpetuates the existing discrimination, as reported in the above-cited quote.

There is, however, no direct legal provision in Turkey safeguarding LGBTI+ individuals’ rights to access to healthcare on an equal basis and without discrimination.  

In 2018, a medical doctor blatantly discriminated against a patient, sharing the patient’s private data on social media, and posting the following: “Fag…ts know no boundaries” and “I guess h/she is promoting his/her buttocks”. In 2020, this doctor faced prosecution.[2] Yet, this case is among the few where a survivor of such discriminatory acts found the courage and power to seek a legal remedy.

In a climate where the right to access to healthcare services is riddled with discriminatory barriers; inadequate services, stigmatization and discrimination may easily turn into life-threatening factors for LGBTI+ community amid public health emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Regarding the impact of the current situation on transgender persons who are in the process of gender reassignment, Efruz Kaya from the Pink Life Association (Pembe Hayat Derneği), whom we consulted for this article, said they advised their beneficiaries against hospital visits due to the high risk of infection. Adding, while this situation has created prolonged disruptions and legitimate concerns among the community, Kaya said, “As all hospitals are declared pandemic hospitals, some setbacks have indeed been reported.” While some individuals had to delay routine tests associated with the gender reassignment process, others fear access to hormones may become more difficult in the coming days. Kaya emphasized, “statements seeking to allay fear in virtually all aspects of life should also address concerns that might have a vital impact on the transgender community. Because the prevailing uncertainty has the potential to contribute to greater mistakes.”    

In his recent article[3] for Kaos GL, Koray Başar, associate professor of Psychiatry at Hacettepe University, stated, “hardships experienced by the LGBTI+ community are very often compounded by such epidemics, disasters and mass traumas." Recalling that LGBTI+ individuals have already been struggling with higher rates of mental and psychological illnesses due to chronically persistent levels of stress, Prof. Başar explained obstacles encountered in accessing to healthcare services might also present themselves in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as is the case with other periods, there is certainly a high risk of discrimination against the community in the diagnosis and treatment as well as with in/out patient monitoring.

Moreover, this risk is far greater for LGBTI+ living with HIV. Yasin Erkaymaz, of Pozitif-iz Association (Pozitif-iz Derneği), whom we have consulted for this article, said people on regular treatment regimens can still obtain medicines from pharmacies, but there are reported difficulties in accessing follow-up monitoring tests. Erkaymaz also told us the Association provides this information to their beneficiaries and advises them to “postpone standard tests.” Erkaymaz added lags are also reported in receiving the results of confirmatory tests.

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2. Employment

Research findings jointly carried out by Kaos GL and Kadir Has University on the state of LGBTI+ individuals working in public[4] and private[5] sectors, suggest people felt the need to hide their identities in both sectors, discrimination often begins at the job interviews, and that hate speech is particularly prevalent in the public sector.

LGBTI+ individuals who are already among the most vulnerable groups destined to work in precarious work arrangements are now at risk of becoming the first ones to be tossed out. As reported by interviewees quoted in these reports, emotions such as “feeling obliged to work harder and avoid making a mistake at all costs” intensify during pandemics and this situation heightens the risk of exploitation for those who have successfully managed to keep their jobs. 

“Our friends who don’t have any social security or regular employment are now facing a period of uncertainty that could last months. Since they haven’t received any form of advance payment, they need our support.”[6]

“Unfortunately, this situation - which has perhaps become a kind of warning to the world - means a shutdown for the music and entertainment sector and thus, poses an economic challenge for our friends working in these sectors.”[7]

“The economy in which we could organize shows and collect tips over the last 2 years has now collapsed. Perhaps, and even from the earliest days of this crisis, our friends who are still students, or unemployed, or who were fending for themselves without receiving any support from their assigned-at-birth families are now more insecure than ever. Many of those who don’t have social security, savings or any other livelihood opportunity are struggling to meet their basic needs, including healthcare and housing.”[8]

These quotes are taken from three separate solidarity campaigns initiated to support queer nightlife workers. Clobbered by shutdowns, the service and entertainment sectors have become among hardest hit by job losses and this situation has inevitably taken a heavy toll on workers and performance artists working in queer nightlife, a sector which was an emerging source of employment for many. Thus, these solidarity campaigns aiming to support queer nightlife workers who have lost their jobs over the pandemic are clear indicators of how unemployment affects LGBTI+ workers.

LGBTI+ individuals engaged in sex work are, on the other hand, torn between two choices: indigence or continuing to work despite the associated risks. Among these individuals, those lacking social security coverage as well as those who were compelled to adopt an informal mode of self-employment are among the highest risk groups. Efruz Kaya, from Pink Life Association (Pembe Hayat Derneği), stated, “sex workers are among high risk groups simply because they work with other people. There is a direct physical contact. We advise them to move online. Many stopped working; yet surviving without social security coverage or state support is a formidable challenge. Many will have to return to work in the not too distant future”.

3. Is the home really safe?

LGBTI+ individuals are among the most targeted victim groups in hate crimes and discrimination reported in Turkey. According to the “Hate Crimes in Turkey” report[9], almost all persons who were targeted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity continuously experience similar attacks during their lifespan virtually in every part of life, including those faced in their own dwellings. The majority of hate crimes occurred in or around schools and homes, on public transport or at stops/stations, in cafés and bars, on streets or in other public spaces. The report finds hate crimes perpetrated in homes further suggest isolation could pose serious security threats to many LGBTI+ people. In addition to these findings, the killings of Roşin Çiçek[10] and Ahmet Yıldız[11] clearly demonstrate that in many cases, family members could be the perpetrators of hate motivated crimes or murders. LGBTI+ individuals who don’t have a home or who had to return to family homes due to the closure of student dormitories or the lack of sufficient financial resources are now facing the risk of domestic violence.

The same report further suggests the majority of LGBTI+ people, hate crimes victims fear their own families and law enforcement officials, and that lack of trust in courts or other state bodies hinder the reporting of such incidents. Thus, we can argue LGBTI+ persons who are subjected to violent abuses at home might be more reluctant to report these incidents at a time where travel restrictions are imposed as part of the measures against the pandemic. 

Moreover, while measures related to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in restrictions in virtually all spheres of life, such measures also limit the intervention capacity of LGBTI+ civil society organizations, which were also compelled to switch to remote working modes in reported cases of violence. 

Another consequence of this isolation is increased feelings of loneliness among the LGBTI+ community, which had already been denied equal access to social life. Factors such as LGBTI+ civil society actors moving their activities online and the unprecedented shutdown of nightlife further compound this feeling. Still, it is important to acknowledge activities and events, including the daily live streams of the Pink Life Association (Pembe Hayat Derneği) on Instagram[12], SPOD’s pro bono psychological counselling program[13], online parties organized by various performance collectives such as Queerwaves[14], the daily internet-based journalism of Kaos GL, and Kaos GL’s special issue on Covid-19[15] are all important steps aiming to address loneliness, yet these events still can’t fully meet the need for socialization and peer support.

4. LGBTI+ refugees 

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One of the major issues hitting national headlines before the announcement of the first Covid-19 case in Turkey was the situation of refugees stranded at the border region between Turkey and Greece. Following Turkey’s unilateral statement in which the country opened its borders, refugees who went to this region had to spend many days under harsh conditions. While these individuals were still at the border region in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, they were later escorted to quarantine centers in various provinces by the police. Many rights violations were reported over the course of the waiting period in the border region. For instance, according to a recent report published by Amnesty International, at least 2 individuals were killed on 2 and 4 March 2020 at the Turkey-Greece land border.[16] LGBTI+ individuals were also among these persons waiting in the region. Those interviewed by Kaos GL stated, “we also want to live normal lives” and shared their challenges. [17] In other words, LGBTI+ refugees are among those hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemics. 

An LGBTI+ refugee told Kaos GL “It was already very difficult for us to find a job. With the pandemic, we became the first ones who were laid-off and lost jobs.”

According to the information provided by Defne Işık, a social worker affiliated with Kaos GL’s Refugee Rights Program and who was consulted for this article, LGBTI+ refugees experience significant challenges in accessing food and sanitization. Many lost their jobs and face income losses. Işık said there are some individuals who can only afford one meal per day and others who can no longer pay their utility bills. The majority of aid organizations, on the other hand, gave priority to citizens and refugees experiencing challenges in accessing aid. Another critical problem for refugees under international protection is the recent loss of healthcare coverage. Notwithstanding exceptional cases such as pregnancy or a “serious chronic illness”, these individuals’ healthcare insurance of remains inactive. Although all refugees face similar problems, LGBTI+ refugees experience these problems at a far greater extent, and they have become the first ones banished in a group which has already been cast out ...

5. Covid-19 as a pretext for hatred! 

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“Don’t let our kids become a part of this project. Let’s not lend support to LGBT perverts.”[18]

These statements were sent to Whatsapp groups by school principals. The LGBTI+ community was systematically targeted when children, who were also stuck at home, put up pictures of rainbows in their windows in a bid to stop feeling lonely. This highly positive global action, however, first came to Yeni Akit newspaper’s attention and was met with hatred.[19] Later and upon receiving instructions from the Heads of Provincial Directorates of Education, school principals sent messages targeting LGBTI+ individuals in WhatsApp groups, which were originally created to support online education during the lockdown period. Even in the face of Covid-19 pandemic - a medical and social condition affecting the entirety of humanity - hatred towards the LGBTI+ community is far from diminishing. While individuals were calling on each other to stay at home with #StayHome hashtags and the government imposing confinement orders for certain age groups, we have also witnessed the emergence of the “YallahHollandaya” (“Go to the Netherlands”) [20], a homophobic slur campaign on social media. This was later followed by #netflixadamol and #adamolnetflix (“#netflix Be a Man! or #behave netflix!)[21], both hate-motivated campaigns initiated after a hint that one of the characters in the Netflix’s original Turkish series “Love101” will be gay. Commenting on this campaign, Ebubekir Şahin, the Chair of the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), stated, “We gave them a warning. We shall keep an eye on them. All our redlines are clear. We are determined not to provide a free pass to immorality” and singled out the LGBTI+ community as a target.[22]

All of these above-summarized discriminatory campaigns indicate LGBTI+ individuals have once again, and this time perhaps even more, become the subjects of hatred. When it is about hate and mobilization of hatred towards LGBTI+ community, the assumption that the Covid-19 pandemic prevailed over all other agenda items had simply lost its validity. Particularly, messages posted to Whatsapp groups and hate speech on social media contributed to an increased isolation of LGBTI+ individuals, who are already stranded in potentially insecure homes, and paves the way for possible lynching attempts.

In conclusion

While calls for self-isolation and lockdown are sound and reasonable, they have a potential to create new problems for LGBTI+ individuals who either can’t afford staying home or are at the risk of facing domestic violence. However, neither the government nor relevant ministries have any action plans to address these concerns. In addition to violence risks, discrimination in accessing healthcare services is now more pressing. This has also resulted in various problems including the inability of transgender persons undergoing gender reassignment procedures visiting hospitals or carrying the burden of delayed steps, the impeded access of LGBTI+ individuals living with HIV to routine testing and follow-up treatments, and the lack of access of LGBTI+ refugees’ even to isolation and other healthcare services. The LGBTI+ community was already facing the most severe forms of discrimination regarding employment. They now fear losing jobs, unemployment and loss of income. LGBTI+ sex workers lacking social security are the hardest hit as they are caught in the vicious cycle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Similarly, LGBTI+ individuals were among the hardest hit due to the almost total lockdown in the service and entertainment sectors. Meanwhile, reports of hate-motivated campaigns targeting the LGBTI+ community are soaring.

 

In tailoring measures against the spread of Covid-19, it is imperative to address the needs of LGBTI+ persons who were already experiencing serious challenges in accessing rights. Prevention of deepening rights abuses is equally critical. Yet, neither the government nor relevant ministries have developed a plan in this regard. Pressed by the grinding discrimination and the Covid-19 pandemic, the LGBTI+ community is struggling to survive in the face of marginalization, stigmatization and violence. Although networks of solidarity and online events initiated by LGBTI+ organizations and collectives are important, the lack of any meaningful steps that should have been taken by relevant state institutions and the fact these very institutions were, and still are, among perpetrators of rights violations clearly indicate that “not everyone is actually on the same boat”…