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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After Erdogan’s attacks, fear spreads among LGBTQ people in Turkey


Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrating his victory in Istanbul on Sunday.

By Ben Hubbard, Elif Ince and Safak Timur


When Yasemin Oz, a lesbian lawyer in Istanbul, heard President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming victory after a runoff election Sunday, she said she feared for the future. In his speech, he declared “family is sacred for us” and insisted that LGBTQ people would never “infiltrate” his governing party.


They were familiar themes, heard often throughout Erdogan’s campaign for reelection: He frequently attacked LGBTQ people, referring to them as “deviants” and saying they were “spreading like the plague.” But Oz said she had hoped it was just electioneering to rally the president’s conservative base.


“I was already worried about what was to come for us,” said Oz, 49. But after the speech, she thought, “it will get harsher.”


The rights and freedoms of LGBTQ citizens became a lightning-rod issue during this year’s election campaign. Erdogan, facing the greatest political threat of his two decades as the country’s dominant leader and seeking to woo conservatives, repeatedly attacked his opponents for supposedly supporting gay rights. The anti-Erdogan opposition mostly avoided the topic for fear of alienating some of its own voters.


That left many LGBTQ people fearing that the discrimination they have long faced by the government and conservative parts of society could worsen — and feeling that no one in the country had their backs.


“People are scared and having dystopian thoughts like, ‘Are we going to be slashed or violently attacked in the middle of the street?’” said Ogulcan Yediveren, a coordinator at SPoD, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Istanbul. “What will happen is that people will hide their identities, and that is bad enough.”


Turkey, a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state, does not criminalize homosexuality and has laws against discrimination. But in recent conversations, more than a dozen LGBTQ people said they often struggled to find jobs, secure housing and get quality health care as well as to be accepted by their friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.


In recent years, they said, they have encountered new restrictions on their visibility in society. Universities have shut down LGBTQ student clubs. And since 2014, authorities have banned Pride parades in major cities, including in Istanbul, where crowds in the tens of thousands used to participate.


That tracks with Erdogan’s vision for Turkey.


Since the start of his national political career in 2003, he has increased his own power while promoting a conservative Muslim view of society. He insists that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and encourages women to have three children to build the nation.


Rights advocates say that as Erdogan has gained power, his conservative outlook has filtered down, encouraging local authorities to restrict LGBTQ activities and pushing security forces to crack down on gay rights activism.


Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric was more prominent during this election than in past cycles, even though there are no looming legal changes that would expand or limit rights. No political party is trying to legalize same-sex marriage or adoption, for example, or expand medical care for transgender youth.


Instead, Erdogan and his allies use the issue to galvanize conservatives.


“What they want to impose on society in terms of other values is full of hatred and violence toward us,” said Nazlican Dogan, 26, who is facing legal charges related to participation in pro-LGBTQ protests at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It was really ugly, and it made us feel that we can’t exist in this country, like I should just leave.”


During his campaign, Erdogan characterized LGBTQ people as a threat to society.


“If the concept of family is not strong, the destruction of the nation happens quickly,” he told young people during a televised meeting in early May. “LGBT is a poison injected into the institution of the family. It is not possible for us to accept that poison as a country whose people are 99% Muslim.”


In April, his interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, went even further, falsely claiming that gay rights would allow humans to marry animals.


SPoD, the advocacy group, asked parliamentary candidates during the campaign to sign a contract to protect LGBTQ rights. Fifty-eight candidates signed, and 11 of them won seats in the 600-member legislature, said Yediveren, the coordinator.


His group has also tried to expand legal protections for LGBTQ people.


While certain laws prohibit discrimination, they do not specifically mention sexual identity or orientation, he said. At the same time, authorities often cite vague concepts like “general morals” and “public order” to act against activities they don’t like, such as Pride week events.


“This week is very important because we don’t have physical locations we can come together as a community to support each other,” said Bambi Ceren, 34, a member of a committee planning events for this year’s Pride week, which begins June 19.


Last year, police prevented Pride events and arrested people who gathered to take part, committee members said.


SPoD runs a national hotline to field queries about sexual orientation, legal protections or how to access medical care or other services. The group can solve most issues related to services, Yediveren said, but most callers’ problems are social and emotional.


“People are feeling very lonely and isolated,” he said.


And the threat of violence is real.


Some LGBTQ people said they had been beaten by the security forces during protests or met with indifference from police while being harassed on the street.


A survey last year by ILGA-Europe, a rights organization, ranked Turkey second-to-last out of 49 European countries on LGBTQ rights. Another group, Transgender Europe, said that 62 transgender people had been killed in Turkey between 2008 and 2022.


Many LGBTQ people fear that the demonization during the campaign will make that threat more acute.


A queer university student from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who grew up in a smaller city with no significant LGBTQ presence, said she feared that bad days were ahead.


People who would not normally commit violence might feel empowered to do so because the government had spread hatred for people like her, she said, claiming they were sick, dangerous or a threat to the family. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being attacked.


Despite the increased danger, many LGBTQ people vowed to keep fighting for their rights and maintaining their visibility in society. To deal with the fear of random attacks, they plan to look out for one another more to ensure they are safe.


In Istanbul, a 25-year-old drag performer who goes by the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight and uses gender-neutral pronouns, called the new attention unsettling.


“In the whole history of queer life in Turkey, we could never be that visible,” they said in an interview. “But because of the election, everyone was talking about us.”


They described growing up in Turkey as “full of abuse, full of denial, full of teachers ignoring your existence and what happened to you, like your pals bullying you.”


At age 16, Florence accepted their sexual identity, attended a Pride parade and set up a Facebook account with a fake name to contact LGBTQ organizations and make friends, eventually stumbling upon someone at the same high school.


They later moved to Istanbul, where they perform weekly at a rare LGBTQ-friendly bar.


Erdogan’s win Sunday caused Florence despair.


“I stared into space for a while,” they said.



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