BY VALENTINA PASQUALI
ISTANBUL – Mirroring Turkey’s difficult yet unyielding progress towards equality for all its citizens, Istanbul’s sixth annual gay pride parade took place successfully Sunday after policemen in combat gear initially threatened to prevent the participants from marching down Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s central pedestrian street.
After much quarreling and an hour’s delay, the marchers – numbering about 3000 – were finally allowed onto Istiklal. Colorful but definitely not as bold as fellow demonstrators in New York or San Francisco, they chanted political slogans and sang cheerful songs, while holding signs and the traditional rainbow flag. Tourists and curious spectators watched the parade making its way to Galatasaray Square. Heavy humidity leftover from the afternoon’s quick Mediterranean storm had everybody gasping for air, while the old-time tram that still whistles along Istiklal struggled to find a breach in the crowd.
Key to the resolution of the initial dispute with the police force was, perhaps, the intervention of two foreign guests attending the parade. The presence of Mechtild Rawert, Social Democrat (SPD) MP from Germany’s National Parliament, and Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk – the slain gay-rights leader from the ‘70s –and himself an internationally renowned gay rights activist, lent an international touch to the event and made sure that the police relented eventually.
Between Turkey’s bid to gain full European Union membership and its overall effort to present itself as the beacon of modernity in the greater Middle East, authorities here certainly did not want international headlines on the country’s controversial human rights record. “The fight for human rights in Turkey is a key issue towards EU membership. I have personally witnessed the progress achieved in the last few years, but there is more to be done,” said Rawert, the MP from Germany.
For Milk — who attended other events part of a weeklong series of panel discussions, award ceremonies, and film screenings culminating in Sunday’s parade — Turkey represents a great opportunity for the LGBT movement worldwide. “I think Turkey has a tremendous potential to act as a modern, civil and human rights bridge between west and east,” Mr. Milk said. “I came because I believe that success of the LGBT community here will resonate throughout the world,” he added.
While homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey — the country’s Ottoman rulers legalized it in 1858 — it remains a taboo in this conservative Muslim-majority society. Gay men and women who choose to come out of the closet risk being shunned by their families and friends, and fear discrimination. As a result, most Turkish homosexuals still choose not to disclose their true sexual preferences.
In 2005, a survey of the LGBT community in Istanbul conducted by LAMBDA – one of the two oldest gay rights organizations in Turkey — found that 83% of those interviewed preferred to hide their sexual orientation from all or some of their family members. 40% of interviewees also confessed to reluctantly forcing themselves into heterosexual relationships.
“There is discrimination everywhere, it’s hard to describe. It’s in the insults and the general unwelcoming atmosphere,” explained pride participant Zefer Çeler. A thirty-five years old professor of politics at Istanbul’s Yildiz University, Çeler has even seen friends lose their jobs due to their sexual preferences.
“When I walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand, or if I ever kiss her in public, people will always comment, sometime they can even try to hurt you,” said Burcu Ersoy, a twenty-nine years old activist who came from Ankara to attend the parade.
Turkey’s LGBT movement has achieved some success in the last couple of decades and they are now better able to organize. “I’d call the 1990s the decade of the movement’s foundation-building, when we created a platform for LGBT people to come together and discuss their experiences with one another,” explained Oner Ceylan. Ceylan, thirty-seven years old, is an interpreter by day and gay rights activist by night. The 2000s became, always according to him, “the years of visibility,” with gay rights organizations sprouting up in many Turkish cities and the community finally taking to the street with the gay pride parade, which began in 2004.
But there is little doubt that the movement is only at its inception. The LGBT community has achieved relatively little in terms of human and civil rights. There is no law on the books that protects homosexuals from discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, public accommodations or credit. Turkey’s family law does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnership. The Turkish Council of State has ruled that homosexuals should not have custody of children. And the military bars LGBT people from serving in its ranks.
Members of the LGBT community here also continue to suffer from various forms of persecution. For example, when the country’s vague ‘public order, obscenity and morality’ laws are used by the police force to harass transsexuals on the streets. And hate crimes, particularly stabbings of gays are still not officially recognized by Turkey’s legal system as a form of especially heinous crime. Rather, offenders often get reduced sentences for having harmed or killed a member of the LGBT community, with the courts open to accepting the defense’s claim of “provocation” under article 29 of the Turkish Criminal Code.
While coming out into the open was the key to Harvey Milk’s success — he relentlessly pushed all of California’s closeted gays to declare themselves to their relatives, friends and colleagues — his nephew Stuart thinks that this message might be premature here in Turkey, because of the particularly frightening consequences members of the LGBT community could face.
But there are other ideas that the Turkish gay movement can take from its American counterpart, for example active political engagement. “After the 1980 military coup, most progressive opposition groups in Turkey opted out of the system, giving up on elections and politics,” said Cihan Hüroglu, twenty-eight years old gay pride parade organizer. To this day, Hüroglu believes, the political left in Turkey does not encourage its youth to get involved. “The American tradition is different, more open to civil and political participation at the grassroots level,” Hüroglu continued, explaining that they invited Stuart Milk “to give us inspiration.”
The fact that three MPs from the National Parliament in Ankara attended a panel discussion held as a part of Gay Pride Week on Friday is testimony to the fact that Turkey’s LGBT movement is moving in the right direction. Two came from the left-leaning Kurdish-friendly Democratic Society Party (DTP) and one from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party. However, nobody was there to represent the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the moderate Islamist ruling party.
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See Related: ON SCENE WITH BILL WILSON
Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and Bay Area media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past five years. Email Bill Wilson at email@example.com.