The 25-year-old translator by day and trans drag performer by night felt overwhelming panic and anxiety as several thousand protesters gathered and marched in Turkey on Sunday to demand a ban on what they see as gay propaganda and to ban LGBTQ organizations.
The Great Family Gathering march in the conservative heartland of Istanbul drew parents with children, nationalists, hardline Islamists and conspiracy theorists. Turkey’s media watchdog gave the event the government’s blessing by including a promotional video calling LGBTQ people a “virus” in its list of public service announcements for broadcasters.
“We must do all our defense against this LGBT. We have to get rid of it,” said Mehmet Yalcin, 21, a construction worker, who attended the event wearing a black headband printed with Islam’s testimony of faith. .”
Seeing footage of the rally terrified Willie Ray, the drag performer who identifies as non-binary, and Willie Ray’s mother, who was in tears after speaking to her child. The fear was not misplaced. The European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Turkey second to last, ahead of only Azerbaijan, in its latest legal equality index of 49 countries, saying LGBTQ people have endured “countless hate crimes”.
“I feel like I can be publicly lynched,” said Willie Ray, describing the daily sense of dread that accompanies life in Istanbul. The performer recalls leaving a nightclub still in make-up on New Year’s Eve and rushing to get a cab as strangers on the street shouted insults and “tried to chase me away, basically.”
Sunday’s march was the largest anti-LGBTQ demonstration of its kind in Turkey, where the civil rights of a community more commonly referred to here as LGBTI+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other gender identities and sexual orientations – have been attacked since around 100,000 people celebrated Pride in Istanbul in 2014.
A visible sign of change, the anti-LGBTQ march took place without any police interference. Conversely, LGBTQ groups have had their freedom to assemble severely curtailed since 2015, with officials citing both security and morality grounds.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the planned Pride march that year. Government officials have since banned the event. Activists still tried to rally, and more than 370 people were arrested in Istanbul in June.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s views have also become more anti-LGBTQ over time. Before the 2002 elections that brought to power the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which he co-founded, a young Erdogan said at a television campaign event that he found the mistreatment of homosexuals inhumane and that legal protections for them in Turkey were a “must”.
“And now, 20 years later, you have a totally different president who seems to be mobilizing based on these dehumanizing and criminal approaches to the LGBTQ movement itself,” said Mine Eder, professor of political science at Bogazici University. from Istanbul.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu called LGBTQ people “evil”. In 2020, Erdogan defended the head of religious affairs after claiming that homosexuality “brings sickness and causes the decay of the generation”. While defending his long-held belief that women’s identity is rooted in motherhood and family, the Turkish leader last year urged people to reject what “Schmesbian lesbians” say.
Turkey has also withdrawn from a European treaty protecting women against violence, after lobbying conservative groups who claimed the treaty promoted homosexuality.
The country could become less welcoming to the LGBTQ community. The Unity in Ideas and Struggle platform, the organizer of Sunday’s event, said it plans to push for a law banning so-called LGBTQ “propaganda” which the group says is ubiquitous on Netflix and social networks, as well as in the arts and sports. .
The platform’s website says it also supports a ban on LGBTQ organizations.
“We are a Muslim country and we say no to that. Our statesmen and other parties should all support this,” said Betul Colak, who attended Sunday’s rally wearing a scarf with the Turkish flag.
Haunted by “the feeling that you can be attacked at any time”, Willie Ray thinks it would be a “total disaster” if a ban on LGBTQ organizations that provide visibility, psychological support and safe spaces were enacted.
Eder, the professor, said it would be “simply illegal” to shut down LGBTQ civil society based on ideological, Islamic and conservative norms – even though Turkish norms have indeed shifted to “using a violent language, violent strategies and their legalization”.
The Association for Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies, a non-governmental LGBTQ advocacy and awareness-raising organization in Istanbul, commonly referred to as SPoD, is among the LGBTQ groups that have stopped publishing their addresses online after receiving threatening calls.
“It’s easy for a maniac to try to hurt us after all the hate speech from state officials,” said SPoD lobbyist Ogulcan Yediveren, 27. “But these security issues, this atmosphere of fear, don’t stop us from working and rather remind us every time how much we need to work.
Gay activist Umut Rojda Yildirim, who works as a SPoD lawyer, thinks the anti-LGBTQ sentiments on display on Sunday are not mainstream in Turkish society, but the minority expressing them seem ‘stronger when they have funds public, when backed by the government watchdog.
“You can just close an office, but I’m not going to disappear. My other colleagues are not going away. We will be there no matter what,” Yildirim said.
This story has been corrected to show that the name of the non-governmental organization is the Association for Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies, not the Association for Policy Studies social status, gender identity and sexual orientation.
This story was originally published September 23, 2022 12:06 a.m.