LGBTI in Turkey: In the Aftermath of Gezi and the 2015 Elections
LGBTI in Turkey: In the Aftermath of Gezi and the 2015 Elections
This article is a review of the last thirteen years of the LGBTI movement in Turkey under the rule of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) and within the scope of the widespread public acknowledgement and recognition process that started in June 2013 with the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul. The review includes the writer’s commentary on the milestone events of the period that stretches from 2002 when the AKP first came to power, to the 2015 General Election from the perspective of the LGBTI Movement, such as the formation of the Sledgehammer Vice Squad in 2002, the 2011 New Constitution Making Process, the Gezi Protests of 2013, local elections of 2014. Lastly, an analysis of the campaigning process and party programs of the 2015 General Elections and a commentary on the crackdown on 2015 Istanbul Pride in aftermath of the elections are included in order to provide a view of the current state of the political and social atmosphere surrounding the movement.
Thirteen years ago Recep Tayyip Erdoğan –the then future Prime Minister of Turkey– said on a popular TV programme –Abbas Güçlü ile Genç Bakış– that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) community had to be granted social rights that would secure a dignified livelihood for them. He further elaborated that he did not approve of the kind of discriminatory and derogatory discourse employed in certain TV programs towards LGBTI individuals. In retrospect, of course, one cannot help but realise that this instant coincided with the eve of the 2002 general elections, which resulted in the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) triumph –winning a two-thirds majority of seats in the parliament. Erdoğan, back then, tended to draw a portrait of him as a leader who would embrace all citizens of the country regardless of their religious and ethnic background. To quote his much publicised and applauded ‘balcony speech,’ which he made upon the AKP’s 2002 victory, his claim was ‘to become the prime minister of all, not a selected few.’ Like many of his pledges regarding human rights, though, this too turned out to be nothing more than a mere election promise– albeit a very significant one for many in the country.
Since then, let alone being granted their fundamental human rights, hundreds (thousands counting those off-record) of LGBTI individuals have been killed in hate crimes and subjected to various forms of mistreatment, have lost their jobs, have been forced to work as sex workers, and have committed suicide due to the discrimination and mistreatment caused by the homophobia that is prevalent in Turkish society. According to Demet Demir –the trans activist who has been one of the pioneers of the movement since the late 1970s who was also the first trans candidate from the Özgürlük ve Demokrasi Partisi (Freedom and Democracy Party) (ÖDP) in the 1999 local elections –such homophobia has been further fostered by the AKP’s deeply religious and fundamentalist rule. Her argument has much merit since the words genel ahlak (public morals), aile (family) and namus (honour) had never been uttered so frequently and ardently prior to the last 13 years, all of which of course have targeted, and thus had a huge impact upon, those who lead lives that fall outside the AKP’s interpretation of these norms –namely the LGBTI.
During the 2000s, Turkey has moved, slowly but steadily, towards transforming into a police state that would gradually replace the unwavering presence and influence of the Turkish military on society and politics. Even though most citizens faced police violence for the first time in 2013 during the Gezi Park protests, for the LGBTI this was far from a novelty.
In the mid-1980s, following the 1980 military coup d’état, ‘trans ghettos,’ located mainly around Cihangir, a neighbourhood in Beyoğlu of Istanbul, which was populated almost exclusively by trans individuals, were being constantly raided by the police. Their doors were smashed open without any notice and they were arbitrarily detained. There are also stories of very severe interrogation sessions and instances of torture and rape. In 2002, a special police force called ‘Balyoz Ekibi’ (The Sledgehammer Task Force/Team) was formed, firstly in the capital city of Turkey, Ankara, then in other major cities, specifically for ‘regulating’ (wiping out) the ‘immoral’ acts of the transsexual sex workers in order to make streets ‘safe’ for the city dwellers. The Sledgehammer Team is considered the new face of the former ‘Laki,’ which was the vice squad of the 90s whose focus was to keep records of the acts of homosexuals and transsexuals. Armed with a new name and with the brand new “Law of Misdemeanours” of 2005, the team have not only harassed trans women, but they have also imposed fines for the grounds of “disrupting the traffic, invading the sidewalks and disturbing the environment.”
Needless to say, in no time at all the force’s actions turned very violent. In Selin Berghan’s, who is a sociologist and unyielding activist for LGBTI rights based in Ankara, book Lubunya (2007), which consists of interviews with eleven trans individuals, one of the interviewees recounts the incident where she was put into a police car by the Sledgehammer Team and taken to a remote area of the city. There, the police officers beat her up and made her undress, and then left the scene –with her clothes, which, unfortunately, is just one of many instances where the Turkish state actually engaged in ‘trans bashing’ via the hands of its police.
Many in Turkey heard about and met the LGBTI movement in 2013 during the Gezi Park Protests since, individuals from various LGBTI NGOs were present in the park and throughout the resistance month of June, but in fact, the movement has a history that goes back 25 years. Since Gezi, people have begun to recognise and support the movement via the social media and by attending the Pride week that is held annually in the major cities of the country. In fact, the Istanbul Pride of 2013 –held in the aftermath of Gezi at the end of June, gathered the greatest number of demonstrators and supporters in its history. As Bade Okçuoğlu remarked during her panel speech at Talk Turkey Conference: Rethinking Life since Gezi: “due to the communitarian structure of Gezi, LGBTQ individuals were ‘recognised’ as active founding subjects of the space, instead of as the abject members of society.” Their presence in the park, and the fact that such diverse groups of people –from the macho football fans to conservative republicans– had the chance to interact with the LGBTI community paved the way for a new dialogue; a dialogue of solidarity which started when people who do not identify themselves as LGBTI individuals employed a language that was in ‘a manner of apology.’ This was ever present day during the protests as demonstrators all over Turkey were urging everyone to avoid sexist and discriminatory language in the slogans. They sought to remove words like ‘ibne’ (faggot) and ‘orospu’ (whore) from the chants and graffiti. It was a time of genuine solidarity, and people’s awareness of the LGBTI community was growing. Their visibility has never been supported to such a great extent. Society’s attitude was encouraging and promising.
However, despite the apparent increase in the number of supporters, there is still a long struggle ahead for us in Turkey fighting against homophobia and transphobia. During a conversation with Şevval Kılıç, one of the most prominent figures of the LGBTI movement in Turkey, I came to realise that from the perspective of LGBTI individuals, the outcome of Gezi was far from optimistic. She put forward that Gezi indeed gave people hope, but “it also brought about a significant polarisation in society. Yes, we have gained supporters that would have never thought of attending a Pride Parade, chanting slogans like “Faşizme karşı bacak omuza” (“Legs on shoulders against fascism” –the slogan “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism” appropriated by the LGBTI activists chanted during Pride Parades), but on the other hand, there are now people who had once been neutral towards the LGBTI, but are now full of hatred and are more dangerous than ever before.” What she said became increasingly visible as while the park itself as a space of resistance was filled with people in solidarity; recognition and support; and a ‘belated embrace,’ simultaneously, they were receiving the news of many LGBTI individuals being assaulted verbally as well as physically –which indicated that the kickback was in fact prompt and austere.
The months following Gezi witnessed a noticeable rise in the number of news reports of hate crimes towards the LGBTI community. However, it was difficult to perceive whether this was due to the visibility they procured thanks to Gezi, as finally they were getting some (though still not enough) news coverage, or whether there was in fact an increase in the number of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. In February 2015, Kaos GL Association, LGBTI News Turkey, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission published their report “Human Rights Violations of LGBT Individuals in Turkey” which was submitted to United Nations Human Rights Council, and the figures indeed signal an increase in hate crimes in 2013:
“Between 2010 and June 2014, there were at least 41 reported hate murders of individuals known to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. According to the European Commission’s 2013 Turkey Progress Report, advocacy of hatred amounting to incitement of violence and physical attacks against gay and lesbian individuals increased from 2012 to 2013. The Report cites 12 murders of LGBT people in 2013 alone, as well as a number of attempted acts of lynching, and instances of torture, rape, ill-treatment, domestic violence, and harassment of LGBT persons. The European Commission’s concern with inadequate police investigations and prosecutions of LGBT attacks also grew from 2012 to 2013.”
The final blow came on 28th June this year, on the day of Istanbul Pride Parade, which has been held since 2003 with joy and has always been uneventful. People hit the streets on the last day of the Pride Week, expecting to see similar peaceful and lively sights while walking down Istiklal Avenue. Instead, what they encountered when they arrived at Taksim was hundreds of riot police waiting for them with their water cannons and teargas. They used water cannon to disperse the crowd and when the protestors refused to leave, they fired rubber bullets and teargas. Taksim, which has hosted the Parade promoting peace and love for the past 12 years, was filled with smoke, anti-government slogans, and anger. An official statement was made afterwards claiming that the demonstrators have been denied permission because of Ramadan –the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. The crackdown was indicative of the fact that Erdoğan and his AKP are now extremely scared of people coming together in solidarity, marching for their rights. Since June 2013, there had not been one public meeting or demonstration –regardless of their scale or the cause– which the police have not violently dispersed, except for the Istanbul Pride.
Pride of 2013 was held immediately after the Gezi protests and coincided with Ramadan month; and, Pride of 2014 also coincided with Ramadan; however, though the riot police were present in both, there was no intervention. So what has changed? The answer is a lot.
In addition to the long-time solidarity between the Kurdish Political Movement and LGBTI Movement, a dialogue between the LGBTI Movement and the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party) (CHP) had begun during the New Constitution making process in 2011 when various LGBTI NGOs voiced their demands for changes regarding primarily the equality article. The demand was that the equality article of the New Constitution “should include the phrases ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity.” The CHP joined the Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (Peace and Democracy Party) (BDP) –the former Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party) (HDP)– in supporting the LGBTI’s constitutional recognition demands in the Parliament. Such support by the CHP brought about a steady political solidarity between the party and the movement that has been fostered by the efforts of the activists from various LGBTI NGOs and party members. The cooperation between the movement and the two opposition parties has continued and been further bolstered with the 2014 local elections where LGBTI candidates for municipal councils were presented by both the HDP and CHP. Sezen Yalçın and Volkan Yılmaz note in their article “Gezi Protestolarından Yerel Seçimlere LGBTİ Hakları Hareketi ve Yerel Siyaset” (Turkey’s LGBTI Rights Movement and Local Politics: From the Gezi Protests to the Local Elections) that the fact that in the 2014 local elections there were nominated LGBTI candidates from the HDP and CHP is not only due to the visibility and recognised political legitimacy of the LGBTI movement achieved during the Gezi protests; the nomination candidacy of various LGBTI individuals is largely the result of the persistence and the work of these activists within the aforementioned parties.
On 7th June, 2015, the AKP got its first defeat in 13 years, when the HDP smashed the election threshold with 13 per cent of vote in last general elections and the AKP lost the majority of the seats in the Parliament, which meant that they also lost the power to form a single-party government and change the constitution. Consequently, the AKP’s unchecked tyranny is no more; however, this is only one of the many long anticipated positive effects of the HDP’s triumph. The HDP raised the bar with their party program, candidates, and electioneering due to their strong emphasis on diversity, peace, and equality. It is the only political party in the history of Turkey that declared that they would employ a 10 per cent quota for the LGBTI and a 50 per cent quota for women. Along with their Kurdish candidates, they presented Armenian, Alevi, and LGBTI candidates, which pushed the CHP, for the very first time in its long history, to deploy a similar discourse and present a diverse group of candidates in the general elections as well.
Interestingly, the LGBTI community were recognised as a potential voter base not only by the CHP, but also by the AKP –though not officially– in that a group called the AK LGBT emerged, all of a sudden just a year before the general election, identifying themselves as Muslim LGBTI individuals who support the AKP and Erdoğan. Melih Meşeli, one of the founders of the group, expressed their surprise at the fact that they were not “lynched” by the AKP supporters during the rally they attended where they unfurled rainbow flags. The fact that party members from the AKP neither publicly acknowledged nor vilified the group hints at the conclusion that Erdoğan and his party have been very well aware of the magnitude of the potential LGBTI votes.
Even though Barış Sulu, the LGBTI activist who has campaigned for the movement for 17 years and is the first openly gay parliamentary candidate in the country’s history, could not get a seat in the parliament, he remarked that “we [the HDP] now have 80 seats in the parliament; 80 people who will fight for our rights as determinedly as I would. And I will of course continue backing them from outside” –just as he has been doing for the past 17 years.
Thus, the LGBTI movement in Turkey now has steadfast political allies and, more significantly, representation in the parliament with MPs like Filiz Kerestecioğlu of the HDP, who is a devoted women’s and LGBTI rights activist. The struggle, which has its roots in the resistance in Ülker Street in Cihangir and the meetings in the parks of Ankara and Istanbul, continues, with a gradual increase in the number of its supporters. Such support, solidarity, and empowerment is the reason why the crackdown on this year’s Pride was so swift and severe; the AKP have realised that the LGBTI of Turkey are one of the most organised and populous civil opposition groups –which has persistently backed the Kurdish, women’s rights and environmentalist movements– that they need to tackle; and they cannot and will not settle for hollow election promises like the one made in 2002. Despite the crackdowns and upsurge in hate crimes, the movement is now stronger than ever before with millions of LGBTI and their straight allies, tens of NGOs and opposition parties in the Parliament with members that are determined to fight for their rights.
Billur Kaya, Graduate, Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara
Please cite this publication as follows:
Kaya, B. (August, 2015), “LGBTI in Turkey: In the Aftermath of Gezi and the 2015 Elections”, Vol. IV, Issue 8, pp.56-65, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9662)
Berghan, S. (2007) Lubunya. İstanbul: Metis.
Demishevich, M. Interview with Demet Demir, 2015. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Durgun, A., 2014. “Interview with AK LGBT Members.” Milliyet. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Güner, U., 2012. “Balyoz Dağılsın, Kabahatler Silinsin” KaosGL.com. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Kaos GL, IGLHRC and LGBTI News Turkey. (2014) Human Rights Violations of LGBT Individuals in Turkey. November, 2014. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Kılıç, Ş. (2014) Personal Interview, 27th October 2014.
Okçuoğlu, B., 2013. “Rethinking Gezi Through Feminist and LGBT Perspectives.” New School University. 5 October 2013. By Jadaliyya Reports. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD), 2012. Demands of LGBT Citizens From The New Constitution in Turkey. Translated by LGBTI News Turkey. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Tar, Y., 2015. “Barış Sulu: AKP Nefret Kampanyasıyla Hedefine Ulaşamadı” KaosGL.org. [Accessed on 9th June 2015], Available at:
Vardar, N., and Karaca, E., 2013. “HDP Bileşenlerinden Eleştirilere Yanıt.” Bianet.org. . [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Yalçın, S. and Yılmaz, V. (2013) “Gezi Protestolarından Yerel Seçimlere LGBTİ Hakları Hareketi ve Yerel Siyaset,” (Turkey’s LGBTI Rights Movement and Local Politics: From the Gezi Protests to the Local Elections) İktisat Dergisi, 525, ss.84-94. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Demishevich, M. Demet Demir ile röportaj. LGBTİ derneklerinde fon icat oldu, aktivizm bozuldu; LGBTİ mücadelesi şirketleşti, 2015. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Güner, Umut. “Balyoz Dağılsın, Kabahatler Silinsin” KaosGL.com. 23 February 2012. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Berghan, Selin. Lubunya. Istanbul: Metis, 2007. Print.
By Jadaliyya Reports. “Rethinking Gezi Through Feminist and LGBT Perspectives” Jadaliyya.com. 11th November 2013. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Kılıç, Şevval. Personal interview. 27 October 2014.
By Kaos GL, IGLHRC and LGBTI News Turkey. “Human Rights Violations of LGBT Individuals in Turkey” November, 2014.
SPoD. “Demands of LGBT Citizens From The New Constitution in Turkey.” April 2012. Translated by LGBTI News Turkey.
Yalçın, S. and V. Yılmaz. (2013), “Gezi Protestolarından Yerel Seçimlere LGBTİ Hakları Hareketi ve Yerel Siyaset,” İktisat Dergisi, 525, pp.84-94.
Vardar, Nilay. Karaca, Ekin. “HDP Bileşenlerinden Eleştirilere Yanıt.” Bianet.org. 25th October, 2013. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Durgun, Aydil. “Interview with AK LGBT Members.” Milliyet. 10th August, 2014. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at:
Tar, Yıldız. “Barış Sulu: AKP Nefret Kampanyasıyla Hedefine Ulaşamadı” KaosGL.org. [Accessed on 8th June 2015], Available at: