Following the third consecutive banning of the Istanbul Pride Parade, and the subsequent use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse those who defied the ban and continued to march, we decided to speak to Ritsa, a young LGBTQI+ activist living in Istanbul, who is only too aware of the challenges faced by the LGBTQI+ community in Turkey, 2017.
Q: The Istanbul Pride parade took place peacefully for 12 years. Why do you think it is now being met with violence?
A lot has changed in the country in the last 3 years. The most crowded pride march was held in the same year the Gezi Park protests happened but the year following Gezi, the pride march was met with police violence and oppression. Perhaps the Gezi protests made it clear to the government that there was a building tension between the state and those who opposed it, and this irritated them. The following year the ban on the march was legitimized saying that it was Ramadan and there was sensitivity within the country. However this year, the ban was legitimized by saying that there were certain groups in the country to whom the lifestyle and values of the LGBTI+ community were offensive. It might also be said that the government is becoming more and more conservative and oppressive.
Q: Do you think that the government is using threats from ultra-nationalist groups as an excuse to cancel Pride, as they have for the past 3 years running?
I would say they do but they do it to varying degrees. For example, last year they said the ban was for our “safety”. However this year it was clear that they banned the march only because we irritated certain groups and they found it problematic that we march and show our identity so visibly.
Q: Do you think that the government’s opposition to pride comes from their general opposition to dissent or it a more focused attack on LGBTQI+ rights?
I would say it is a mixture of both. Also their attack on LGBTI+ rights is tied to their political stance—they are, after all, from the right-conservative wing.
Q: Turkey used to be a haven for gay rights in the Middle East. Do you think this has changed? Why?
I don’t think Turkey has ever been a haven for gay rights. It is just that homosexuality is not illegal and that LGBTI+ people cannot be killed by death penalty nor can they receive corporal punishment from the state. I would say that Turkey might be relatively better than other countries in the Middle East, but that does not mean it is a haven. There are LGBTI+ people in Turkey who are murdered and attacked daily just because of their identity.
Q: Have you noticed increased discrimination against LGBTQI+ people in recent years? If so, why do you think this is?
I think people’s tendency towards violence has increased in general. Not just towards LGBTI+ people but towards women and other minority groups. People’s tolerance towards those who are different from them is decreasing across Turkish society as a whole. I think this is because we are exposed to so much violence, from so many sources, whether they be TV shows, news, or speeches from the government that encourage violence. In fact, it is not just the government that incites violence, but people in places of power in general.
More specifically, violence towards LGBTI+ people has always existed in Turkish society, however, LGBTI+ people have become more visible in recent years with the help of LGBTI+ organizations. Thus, they have become one of the groups that “threaten” Turkish society and this is what has led to the public hate speeches and bans on the pride marches. In other words, violence and hate crimes against individual LGBTI+ people have become more visible due to the work of LGBTI+ organizations around the country; however these cases always existed.
Q: Do you think that growing Islamisation presents a threat to LGBTQI+ rights in Turkey?
I can’t say that I solely blame Islam for the increasing threat to LGBTQI+ rights. Dissent against LGBTIQI+ can be said to exist in every religion, at least the organized ones. The problem is the fact that the government is pushing for just one kind of religion and one kind of living, which erases all other aspects of community. The Islam of the governing bodies in Turkey is not the only kind of Islam there is.
Q: Do you think that the fact that Pride coincided with Eid led to increased opposition?
I think that its coincidence with Eid was just used as an excuse by the opposition.
Q: Would you say life is better for the LGBT community in Istanbul than it is in rural areas of Turkey?
I don’t think that the prejudices and oppression faced by LGBTI+ people magically disappears when you move from a small city to a big one. However, in a small city more people know you and more people witness your daily practices. Thus you are more exposed. It is also true, however, that in Istanbul you can find a community, a big community of LGBTI+ people that can offer you support.
Q: I’ve heard that people attending the Istanbul Pride learn techniques to protect themselves from tear gas. Is this true? Can you tell me more about those techniques?
Those techniques actually started developing in the Gezi Park protests; people used milk, lemon and a kind of stomach medicine in order to stop the burning of the tear gas. People were prepared against the gas back then because it became a part of daily life. However now, especially for the pride march, not as much preparation is needed, because opposition is not as intense.
About The Activist
Ritsa is a 21 years old university student living in Istanbul. She has been involved in feminist and LGBTI+ activism for a couple of years, and has volunteered with several NGOs at various workshops and trainings. Her main areas for activism are gender and LGBTI+ rights.