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'Illegal, Discriminatory, and Arbitrary'

Six months after Ankara banned all public LGBTI events, not much has changed – including the determination of the community to fight back. Here's the view from a young Turkish LGBTI activist and journalist.

by Yildiz Tar 14 May 2018

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.


Gozde Demirbilek, 22, was stunned when she first heard about the decision to ban all public activities of the LGBTI community in Turkey’s capital Ankara.


“I had a lump in my throat and felt paralyzed,” said the activist and editor, who works at my website, the online LGBTI newspaper


The ban, announced on 18 November last year, applies to all public LGBTI events, including film screenings, theater plays, exhibitions, and roundtable discussions. Demirbilek described widespread fears that it was only the first step of a wider campaign of discrimination.


“What will come next? Will I be prevented from walking down the street, or going to the store to buy something?” she said.


Most worrying was that the prohibition was indefinite. Indeed, six months on, there are no signs of it being lifted.


The Ankara governor, Mehmet Kiliclar – whose administration is led by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party – justified the ban by saying that events organized by the LGBTI community could cause animosity between different groups and endanger the rights and freedoms of other people.


“Security Concerns”


Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, and numerous LGBTI associations are registered with the state.


But critics believe the move was the latest in a series of attempts to curtail LGBTI rights in Turkey and to impose the AK party’s conservative view of public morality.


The Istanbul gay pride campaign has already been banned for the last three years running, due to what the authorities have called “security concerns.” Just days before the Ankara interdiction was announced, city authorities cancelled a German-language, LGBTI film festival citing the same reasons.


Derin, the 19-year-old president of Ankara-based transgender rights organization Pink Life, said that the ban was “horrifying,” particularly because of its ambiguity.


“If I want to celebrate my friend’s birthday [in a public place], will that celebration be banned as well?” she asked, adding that “getting together and organizing ourselves is the only answer.” 




Rights groups across the globe and at home condemned the ban, with the European Union, in a resolution adopted on 8 February this year, calling on the Turkish authorities to revoke it.   


Kaos GL and another Ankara-based LGBTI organization, Pembe Hayat, labelled the prohibition “illegal, discriminatory, and arbitrary.”


“There can be no legitimate or legal grounds for such a wholesale ban that touches the core of rights,” they said in a statement. The situation created by this decision was “vague, [and] open to interpretation and rights violations,” and was even “criminalizing LGBTI existence.”


Umut Guner, the Kaos GL coordinator and a veteran LGBTI activist, said that discrimination against the community was widespread, and that the ban would only deepen a culture of impunity.


A LGBT March in Ankara that took place before the November 2017 ban.


“This decision may actually encourage some groups to target the LGBTI community,” he said.


According to Kaos GL’s annual hate crime monitoring report, 169 incidents were reported in 2016. Figures are likely to be far higher, as many LGBTI people are afraid of going to the police.


The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) country found that “Turkey does not collect data on racist and homo/transphobic violence,” although many LGBTI, “in particular transgender persons … have been killed in recent years.”


The response from the authorities has been inadequate, and “disciplinary measures and verdicts against law enforcement officers remain limited,” ECRI concluded.


Creeping Impact


Even though the ban has been imposed only in Ankara, human rights defenders say it affects the entire country.  


Mert Guzel, a 22-year-old LGBTI activist from the city of Bursa in the Marmara region, said the effects could already be felt in this city, too.


Only a day after the measure was announced, a film screening to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance was banned by the Bursa authorities without any official explanation.


“As an openly LGBTI activist, I am constantly afraid of hate attacks,” said Guzel. “Bursa was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire and very often conservatives use this as justification for their assaults against us. They use phrases such as ‘No fags on Ottoman soil’ and ‘We don’t want any LGBTI in the city of saints,’ ” Guzel added.


Activists said they are determined to fight the ban, and Pink Life has partnered with Kaos GL to file a lawsuit against the governor’s decision.


Kerem Dikmen, a lawyer representing Kaos GL, said that the prohibition was a deliberate attack on the community.


“The governor’s office is telling LGBT associations that they can continue to exist and that the ban does not affect their status as legal entities,” Dikmen said. “However, it also says that members of these associations should not step out of their buildings and should not reach out to people, other than their members and activists.”


Kaos GL’s Demirbilek said that having fought so hard for their rights, the LGBTI community is determined to protect what they have achieved so far.


She said that the governor’s move would ultimately fail, adding, “I believe with my whole heart that we will always find a way to get together, regardless of the ban.”

Based in Ankara, Yildiz Tar is the editor in chief of the online LGBTI publication, writing mainly about issues regarding LGBTI rights and freedom of expression. All photos by Yildiz Tar. 

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