With an annual gay pride march planned for this weekend and a vibrant gay nightlife, Istanbul, in many ways, is an oasis for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in the Muslim world. But instances of hate crimes, along with sluggish police responses, emphasize that Turkey remains divided on the matter of equal rights for LGBT individuals, a new report from Amnesty International suggests.
Based on over 70 interviews from across Turkey, Amnesty’s June 21 "Not an Illness, Nor a Crime" report documents 16 suspected hate-related murders committed in 2010, as well as widespread discrimination against LGBT people.
Recollections of the 2008 murder of 26-year-old Istanbul resident Ahmet Yildiz provide graphic illustration of intolerance. "He left our apartment to buy some ice cream,” recounted Yildiz’s boyfriend, Ibrahim Can. “He got into his car and I heard gunshots. I looked down from the window. I saw him being ambushed. I ran outside, screaming ‘Please do not die!’ When I got to him, his eyes were closed, but when I shouted ‘Don’t die!’ he opened them for a second, he looked at me and then closed his eyes."
Turkish prosecutors have charged Yildiz’s father with the murder. He is believed to have fled the country, and faces prosecution in absentia. According to Can, Yildiz repeatedly filed complaints at the local prosecutor's office about receiving death threats from his family because of his homosexuality, but received no protection. A police investigation into the threats was ordered only this March.
Turkey's armed forces came in for particular criticism by Amnesty for its alleged abuse of gay soldiers. Under the term “curuk,” or “rotten,” the army deems homosexuality an illness and reason for discharge. One soldier who revealed his homosexuality to his commanding officer told Amnesty that he was “sworn at, harassed and beaten, as well as other unbearable things by the other soldiers” before being placed in solitary confinement for a week.
The report also highlighted economic discrimination, suffered in particular by the country's transgender community (often working as prostitutes), and the “systematic harassment” of transgender women by police.
The report criticized Turkey’s governing, Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) for abetting prejudice. A 2010 statement by State Minister for Family and Women’s Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf that homosexuality is a biological disorder that needs a cure “increases the discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on the ground and there is really no place for it,” commented the report’s author, Andrew Gardner.
Amnesty called on the AKP to include protection against discrimination based on sexuality among its planned constitutional reforms. Neither the government nor the AKP has responded to Amnesty’s report. Other than the outgoing head of the parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, all other public officials refused to meet with Amnesty representatives.
Residents of large urban areas, including Istanbul, often demonstrate public tolerance of the queer community. On June 19, hundreds of transgender people paraded down Istanbul's main thoroughfare, Istikal Street, in a celebration of their identity. There were no clashes and many onlookers clapped. Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim country to allow such open displays by queer people, but such events would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
"I can notice that society is in a different state of mind than in the past,” commented Aykan Safoglu, a board member of KAOS GL, one of Turkey’s growing number of LGBT rights organizations. “People's intentions toward us are improving all the time and society is continuing to move very fast forward."
While nearly all LGBT organizations have faced legal cases calling for them to be shut down, most have ended in defeat for prosecutors. At the same time, the number of reported cases of physical abuse of LGBT people by Turkish police has decreased significantly. Interviewees identified two reasons for that change, Gardner said. “One because, in general, there has been a fall in such cases due to European-Union-inspired reforms, and the other is the growing assertiveness and activism by [the] LGBT movement to highlight such abuse,” he said.
The fact that Turkey allows gay-pride parades to take place in the center of Istanbul compares favorably with some European Union countries, like Hungary, where the Budapest chief of police banished a February gay pride parade to the city’s outskirts, commented Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia Director Nicola Duckworth. “In this regard, the European Union also needs to look to the practice within its own borders, where things certainly aren’t as they all should be,” Duckworth said.
Within Turkey, the KAOS GL’s Safoglu is optimistic about the future. "[O]ur movement is getting stronger and stronger,” he said. “All we want is to just live in harmony and people increasingly understand this."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.