What it means to be part of the LGBTI community in Turkey

LGBTI in Istanbul

The uprisings in Turkey have had many repercussions, but one of the most impressive and potentially long lasting effects it may achieve is the creation of a feeling of solidarity among the marginalized social and political groups. Through a common line of discontent, groups and individuals who never stood in solidarity with each other, and thus were mutually antagonistic, had the chance to interact for the first time. This interaction between marginalized as well as more mainstream groups has profoundly affected the perceptions of those involved in the struggles, as they learnt to view those groups as other humans with something in common, rather than “others”. This has been largely the case for the Kurdish minorities, as well as the LGBTI population whose acceptance amongst the protesters (despite initial hesitations) is now almost unconditional.

 Despite this, the LGBTI movement in Turkey is far from being accepted in the mainstream social and political discourse and LGBTI persons still face enormous prejudice in society at large. In effect, by European standards, the movement is still in it infancy, having only officially begun in 1993 with the establishment of Lambda Istanbul, the first LGBTI organization in Turkey, and having only made baby steps until the past couple of years. Since then, there have been numerous small but fast-growing Pride parades – starting with a mere 30 people in the first parade in 2003, and eventually growing to 5,000 participants in 2010, tripling to 15,000 in both 2011 and 2012 supported by the BDP (Kurdish) and CHP (Kemalist republican) parties, and culminating with an estimated 100,000 attendees in 2013 as the pride parades were joined by the Gezi Park protesters.

The Forums that have been establisher across the country, however, are making enormous effort to educate the Turkish public at large about the struggle of LGBTI persons. I recently attended an expression of such effort in the public forum of Kadiköy in the form of a public forum and workshop. People of all ages and social and political denominations attended the event in Yogurtçu Park, attracting the attention of many heterosexual families and citizens nearby, who eagerly stopped to listen. I witnessed people with bags full of groceries stop and listen on they way back from their shopping, and ambulant vendor disinterestedly leave their stalls to pay attention to the workshop.

One of the most striking aspects of the workshop was how eager and open the attendees were to share their views, and yes, their fears and preconceptions, in public for them to be confronted and deconstructed. Even the event moderator was moved by the eagerness of all present to share their opinions and experiences, and at how open the meeting was. “This could not have happened a few months ago” she mentioned, alluding to the act of re-taking the public spaces by the public to engage in serious and seriously needed social and political commentary. “This should have happened ten years ago”, mentioned one of the older ambulant sellers in the park, who had abandoned his bread nearby to take part in the workshop.

Another striking aspect was however, from a European perspective, was how basic (however, incredibly honest) the conversations were. The workshop began with the moderator asking the attendees whether they believed that homosexuality was an illness or a psychological dysfunction, and addressing the responses. She made mention that the American Psychiatric Organization had declared homosexuality not to be a psychological dysfunction in the 70s, and the World Health Organization had followed suit in the 80s declaring that it was not an illness. The workshop proceeded with both heterosexuals and LGBTIs sharing their thoughts and experiences.

“I have no problems with homosexuals, but when I see a transgendered person, I am bothered and annoyed” one of the attendees honestly admitted, eager to be educated on the source of his prejudice and how to overcome it. Many people, in fact, stated that they had overcome their preconceptions thanks in large part to friends who had come out as homosexuals, but that when friends came out as transgendered, they didn’t know how to relate to them in their “new” gender. “The different attitudes towards the different genders, the dualistic gender perception and roles, as well as gender relations is indeed part of the problem”, was stated by one of the attendees. Furthermore, it was pointed out that transgendered suffer from disproportionate discrimination, even by homosexuals themselves, who see their sexual disposition as natural, but consider transgenderism as a non-natural perversion.

Finally, many of the homosexual people present spoke out about their decision to come out and the repercussions that they experienced. “I came out six months ago;” says a young woman, “and since then my father has been writing suicide letters”. Others also capitalized on both the negative and positive aspects of “coming out” publicly. Often, they insisted, it results in ostracism both by the community at large as well as the LGBT community which hasn’t “come out” yet, due to fear of being associated with that person. On the other hand, the act of coming out, especially to one’s parent and friends, proved to be an asset when being the victims of hate crimes. One attendee in particular capitalized on this: “I was once attacked by a man on a motorbike for being gay. When I went to the police station to report the crime, I realized that because I hadn’t come out I had nobody to help me and support me. I ended up not reporting the crime out of fear that, alone, doing so would have made the situation worse, and I could have suffered abuse by the police itself”.

The attendees were so eager to share their experiences, that the workshop went on much longer than expected, and prevented the timely screening of the film “My Child” by Turkish director Can Candan and intended to document the reactions and attitudes of parents of LGBTI persons in Turkey. Indeed this was prevalent topic also in the discussion – many of such parents, members of an organization for parents of LGBTIs in Istanbul, attended the workshop and spoke out. Many stated that they “came out” as parents of LGBTIs with their children, to support them in their choice, while others admitted that their process of acceptance had been much more tortuous. All of them however expressed the same sentiment: “You shouldn’t treat your child as a son, or as a daughter, but simply as your child, period. Don’t try to change your children, but accept them and support them for who they are.”

Ruben Rosenberg Colorni


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