Over the Rainbow in Turkey

Sep 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM ET

Just a few months ago, it almost seemed as if Turkey was on the brink of a gay rights revolution. Protests against the conservative government were raging, and LGBT groups, accustomed to fighting lonely battles on the sidelines, were suddenly thrust to the forefront of the demonstrations. By sheer luck, Istanbul’s Pride Week took place on the heels of the unrest, giving the gay rights movement a surge of activist support and front-page international attention.

At one Pride Week event, A., an LGBT activist who wished to remain anonymous, still marveled over the acts of tolerance he witnessed at protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square: soccer thugs agreeing to stop screaming “faggot” at police, socialists and anti-capitalist Muslims applauding the rainbow flag. “They’re seeing us and they’re accepting us,” he says.

His optimism was widely shared among other activists and observers, who saw the LGBT movement’s prominent role in the protests as a sign that Turkey’s pervasive homophobia was finally starting to ebb. Yet as the summer dragged on and the protests lost steam, this initial surge of hope among gay rights groups began to seem misplaced.

There were early signs, in fact, that even this summer’s broadest calls for greater human rights and freedoms were neither mainstream nor prompted by a shift in the public’s mood. At the height of the protests, in response to the new political threat, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a rally of his own, which drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to a neighborhood on Istanbul’s coast. Polls are sometimes unreliable in Turkey, but according to one  often cited survey released in July, nearly 60 percent of Turks not only opposed the protests but viewed them as an attempted coup.

“It was clear from the get-go that the bigger society did not sympathize with the movement,” says Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “The protesters’ demands generated a lot of sympathy in the West, but I don’t know how much that resonates with the average person in Anatolia.”

Murat Çekiç, the executive director of Amnesty International Turkey, even wonders whether the liberal groups that rallied around the LGBT flag during the protests had the interests of the gay community in mind. “It came from sharing the same front, being on the same side,” not a real sympathy for the LGBT cause, he says.

One of the first post-Gezi tests for gay rights groups came last month, when lawmakers debated an addition to the country’s draft Constitution that would protect LGBT people from discrimination. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed back against the addition, spreading fear among activists that LGBT protections would never make it into the final draft. But these concerns received little attention beyond human rights circles.

More direct affronts to the LGBT community—like the government’s recent blocking of Grindr, a gay dating app—also failed to generate buzz. The relative quiet in the face of these setbacks, even among LGBT activists themselves, underlined their sudden reluctance to take to the streets.

Many activists cited fears of police brutality and arrest as their reasons for staying home.

A., the activist who was elated during Pride Week and spent much of June battling tear gas in Taksim Square, has distanced himself from the protest scene. “There are less people out there now than there were, and there’s a much higher risk to get injured by police,” he says. “I don’t have the courage anymore.”

Instead, activists are searching for safer, symbolic opportunities to express their frustrations. One presented itself few weeks ago when a retiree decided to give a concrete staircase in Istanbul a rainbow-colored paint job. In interviews with local papers, he insisted that he had no agenda but beautifying his neighborhood. Yet gay rights groups, sensing a window, encouraged the rainbow-bombing of steps around Turkey. The Istanbul municipality responded with a retaliatory coat of gray over the colorfully painted stairs, before eventually giving in to the retiree’s efforts.

Despite the apparent challenges, some LGBT Turks are pressing ahead to test the Gezi effect for themselves. Can Cavusoglu, a writer, painter and activist decided to run for office in a local election next March as Istanbul’s first openly gay mayoral candidate. “I was thinking [for] quite some time whether Turkey would be ready for such a brave move or not,” he wrote in an email to Vocativ. “Freedom of speech and choice, justice and equality for all, these topics are ‘hot’ in Turkey,” he added, citing the continuing protests in the country.

But he ticked off the steep challenges facing the LGBT community that persist: humiliation, family rejection, employment discrimination, even violent homophobic attacks.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey—it was actually decriminalized by the Ottomans in 1858—but it is widely rejected. A 2005 survey found that 70 percent of Turks did not believe that “gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish.” Police in Turkey routinely harass transgender women, and media watchdogs pounce on any positive portrayal of homosexuality in the press. Authorities also have a history of targeting LGBT rights groups by accusing them of violating “Turkish moral and family structure.”

This sense of hostility can still be palpable even in liberal pockets of Istanbul. One recent afternoon on a buzzing street peppered with gay-friendly haunts, a transgender activist who had been popular at Gezi events was still a magnet for unfriendly stares. Shop clerks and tourists openly gawked at her as she skittered by in purple tights and a poncho, en route to the supermarket to buy snacks.

Back in the safety of a bright, if rundown, LGBT community center, the activist, Eylam Çağdaş, shared her snack of grapes and tea with other transgender women and tried to stay upbeat about the cause. “It’s a process,” she says. “But we have hope.”


The following opinion(s) were not solicited by the author and aren’t the views of Vocativ, but we love hearing from our readers. So please send us your points of view at MyPOV@vocativ.com. Maybe we’ll make it a part of the piece.

Former reporter Chris MacNeil harkens back to America’s civil rights movement to emphasize the importance of the Turkey LGBT community’s fight against oppression. Here is Chris’ point of view:

Having once made a living from writing words, I’ve learned to appreciate which words pack the most power. For me, this is and always has been a human rights issue, not constrained by sexual orientation any more than the U.S. civil rights movement was confined to African-Americans. From that movement, we learned of the POWER of a collective people in ONE voice, non-violent but passive in resistance to government policies that supported institutional bias.

The Turkish people, along with their supporters around the globe, have demonstrated to the Turkish government that equality for all people is independent of sexual orientation or preference, creed, religion and gender. The beauty of Turkey, as of any nation, will be scarred by inequality and justice for the privileged few.

Chris MacNeil is a former newspaper reporter in small-town America and a U.S. citizen. Follow him at @cmmacneil