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Turkey: Pride and Violence

In 2006, Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Turkey "We Need a Law for Liberation".

This week, researcher Juliana Cano Nieto is back in Turkey, witnessing the successes and challenges of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender human rights movement three years later.  Activists have achieved ever-increasing visibility; at the same time violence, particularly against Turkey's transgender communities, remains a fact of life.

Turkish Pride Week is being held in Istanbul between June 22 - 28, and features seminars, workshops, films, and forums. Activists say that the first Pride march in 2003 had only a few dozen participants.  In 2008, however, around 1500 people marched to the streets in the name of diversity. Pride week will end on June 28 with a demonstration on Istiklal street, in the heart of Taksim, a popular area in the city that lies on the verge of what used to be a thriving transgender community on Ulker Street, driven out brutally by police as part of a social cleansing campaign in the 1990s.

Such old stories of violence remain real for many people in Turkey, where at least seven transgender people have been murdered in recent years. This week, Cano Nieto will be reporting on Pride and violence in a changing Turkey.

Day 3 - June 24, 2009

Fourth Entry: Threats to Civil Society

Laws on the books are also used to harass LGBT organizations in Turkey. Though changes in the Law on Associations have made it formally easier for associations to acquire legal recognition by the government, other laws curtail this right in practice. A big question also remains around the right of youth to participate in civil society, since under the Law on Associations only people over 18 may organize in this way.

There have been government attempts to censor or close down most of the LGBT groups in Turkey--Lambda Istanbul, and in Ankara KAOS-GL and Pink Life--  using Article 56 of the Civil Code, which ostensibly protects "morality" or "decency." The article reads: "No association may be founded for purposes against law and morality."

Now it's the turn of Pink and Black Triangle, an LGBT group in the coastal city of Izmir.  Human Rights Watch spoke to Elif Ceylan Öszoy, attorney for the organization,  about their situation. Ceylan Öszoy said:

The department of associations in Izmir challenged article 2 of our charter, arguing it goes against public morals. The article sets forth the objectives of the organization and is word by word and comma by comma like Lambda and Kaos GL's objectives. They asked us to change the article, but we refused. We later got a communication saying they [ the department of associations in Izmir] had sent the charter to Ankara to be reviewed; and we are waiting for a response.

Today in Ankara, we spoke to Sentürk Uzun, the Head of the national Department of Associations. This department belongs to the Ministry of Interior and was created in 2003 as part of reforms to the Law on Associations. It is in charge of receiving and deciding on requests from associations wanting to organize. It is also in charge of auditing the associations.

I was surprised to hear from Uzun that he was not aware of Pink and Black Triangle's situation, in particular after the conversation with the organization's lawyer. I told him what Ceylan Öszoy had explained to me.

Uzun first assured me that the government did not have any problem with LGBT people forming organizations. He said he recognized that the reference to "public morals" found in the Civil Code was too broad and could mean anything. "General Turkish moral values, what are they?" he said. Uzun added that it was not up to the department of associations to decide what is against "public morals," but that it was up to the courts. I asked him to explain this a bit further, since the Department of Associations is in fact the entity in charge of receiving and approving the applications of all organizations in Turkey.

Uzun explained that the department could not refuse any application outright, but that if the department felt that approving the application might violate the law for any reason it would ask the courts to decide. He said that the law obligates the government to treat groups that work on LGBT issues as against "public morals." He reiterated:

The government is in favor of setting up [LGBT organizations], but we send it to the courts to decide. Even if a person wants to set up a terrorist association [the law on associations prohibits forming terrorist organizations], we will take the application and we will send them to the court.

Deciding to send them [LGBT organizations] to the courts is political. The government has to follow the interpretation that LGBT associations go against public morals, it is also in the law. But we don't make a decision about this, the government does not make this decision, we send it to the courts. The government does not want to make any concrete decisions on this. 

I asked once again, why does the department interpret LGBT organizations as going against public morals? He replied, "This side is political, but we don't decide, the courts do."

Despite this buck-passing, it is clear that not all organizations are taken to court. According to Uzun Turkey has approximately 82,000 organizations, and not all of them have been sent through the judiciary for a decision on their applications.

So I asked Uzun if he knew about the recent decision by the Supreme Court on Lambda Istanbul's case, in which the court determined-after years of litigation-- that the group's objectives did not go against public morals. He said he did, but added that that decision was for other courts to take into account. He reiterated that his office is not a court.

And so the future of Pink and Black Triangle remains uncertain. It appears their application will be sent to court. If the judge considers Lambda Istanbul and Kaos GL precedents, Pink and Black Triangle will continue with their work. If the judge decides to ignore the precedents, the organization will be shut down.

The time frame for this whole process remains unclear, but support for this organization will be needed from inside and outside Turkey, with a government that appears set on skirting the issue as much as possible.

Third Entry: Not all is "pride" for Turkish authorities

LGBT organizations in Turkey have registered eleven killings of transgender people since July 2008 ( Most have taken place in Ankara and Istanbul, but other major cities, Eskışehir, Bursa, and Gebze have not been free from such crimes.

I hear weary voices and the use of the word "hate crimes" when talking to people from organizations such as Lambda, Kaos, and Pembe Hayat (Pink Lıfe) about these crimes. At the same time I listen to Turkish authorities who affirm that they are aware of the situation of LGBT people and who reassure me that the situation is not that bad. The optimism and level of confidence by these authorities that they are protecting LGBT people contrasts with the feelings in the LGBT community. When I spoke to the lawyer who handles the cases of murdered transgender people in Ankara, she said: "I have been really depressed. Just watching your friends die. I buried Dilek; I buried Melek and Çağla. Who will be next."

Yesterday, Mustafa Köse, deputy of the head of the police in Istanbul explained to me that there were an average of 500 murders in Istanbul in a year, and only three or four were of transgender people. He said, "Many times transgender people are killed by lovers or by clients, but I haven't seen any cases of transgender people being killed for their sexuality." Later in our interview he reiterated, "A person is not killed because they are homosexual, it is because of other things." His affirmation is at odds with the information collected by the Turkish LGBT organizations. According to the Human Rights Platform, which includes all of the LGBT organizations in Turkey, a man stabbed Ebru Soykan over forty times. The platform also reported that a transgender person in Eskışehir was repeatedly stabbed by three men. Repeated stabbings and other extreme violence have been deemed at times to show an element of hate in an act of violence against someone whose sexuality might be a "problem" for another. Although an element of hate may not be provable in every case, neither should authorities affirm that there are no hate crimes in any of these situations.

The response by Zafer Üskül, head of the Human Rights Commission in Ankara, to the murders against transgender people was moresubtle. He said it was up to the judiciary to investigate them and he was in no position to question the investigations. When discussing further possible protections to avoid such crimes he reiterated that the protections in the Constitution were enough to protect LGBT people, but accepted that there were problems in the implementation of these rights. When we asked if he thought that specifically including protections for LGBT people in laws would protect them further, he began to make a distinction between "social protections" and "constitutional protections." He insisted that the existing protections are enough, but are they?

The killings that took place in Ankara and Istanbul are under investigation. The suspected killers of at least half of these murders were caught. Yet, as lawyers point out, the main problems arise during the investigation and trial. In most cases there is a well established possibility that the judge will decide on a lower sentence arguing "provocation," under article 29 of the Turkish Criminal Code. If this happens Turkey will be in breach of its obligation to fully respect the rights of LGBT people.

The upcoming trials in Ankara will take place at the beginning of July. On July 8th, Çağla's suspected murderer will appear before the fifth Assize court. A day after, on July 9th, it will be Melek's suspected killer who will stand trial in the sixth Assize Court. How these trials will affect the transgender community is yet to be seen. Last week Pembe Hayat received a leaflet being distributed among transgender people in Ankara, a picture of Çağla's body after her murder. We spoke to several of them and they are scared.

The police have yet to respond to the request of greater protection for transgender people. It is their duty under international law to protect all from violence to the greatest extent possible, without any form of discrimination. Given the level of risk to the transgender community at the moment, it appears that if further protections are not taken, the state would be responsible for its lack of due diligence.

Day 1 - June 22, 2009

Second Entry: Pride, a nonviolent action

It's hot. Istanbul is humid too. After the sun rises there is no way to avoid getting sweaty as you walk up and down the streets. That is what I did this morning for over forty minutes looking for the workshop on "Non-violent Action Training." And if you have ever been to Istanbul, you will agree that walking up and down Istiklal Street and its confusing warren of cross streets can leave you lost as well as exhausted. 

The studio where the workshop was being held is in an alley next to Firuzaga Hamam (a Turkish bath, a relative of the sauna). When I saw it, I thought it would be kind of cool to go to one....

But this morning I went into the studio, where two Greenpeace volunteers moderated the session. We sat barefoot on the floor discussing what we considered violent and what we did not. We then broke into groups: to come up with a campaign around a particular issue.

There is a long tradition among Turkish civil society of imagining sometimes anarchistic alternatives to the state, envisioning a world in which social cooperation provided a feasible option to escape the reach of a highly militarized society and government.

The workshop brought together people from Greece, Spain, Turkey, and me, from Colombia. We had different concepts of non-violence that seemed to reflect different political traditions. Forcibly occupying a public place to hold a demonstration did not seem violent to some of us, although it did to others. A few participants said that using violent images was not necessarily violent in itself. Yet there was something that we all agreed on: the importance of public actions to counteract specific legislation, policies or social attitudes.

People's suggestions were wide-ranging: from a demonstration in Istiklal Street, to making printed material. Our group set as our goal giving visibility to lesbian and bisexual women, while contesting deep-rooted patriarchy and the idea that women should experience sexuality only for reproduction.  

Lenka Kukurova, from the Czech Republic, said some tactics used there included writing "stop sexism" in letters made up of formations of people in a public square, or hiring a balloon to carry a banner against animal abuse through the city skies. A representative from Lambda Istanbul explained how they make use of press releases and vigils when a member of the community is attacked.

The group came up with new ideas for actions to press the Turkish Parliament to include sexual orientation as a protected category in the Constitution. Proposals for a march included carrying umbrellas with a message against discrimination, and staging a mock pillow fight between the old constitution without protections and a new one that would include them. The march would end with delivering a statement to the members of parliament.

After a six-hour workshop we were all pretty much ready to go, but you could see that people were satisfied with the exchange of ideas. Perhaps I will find time to go to the hamam-inshallah, as they say.

First Entry: Stereotypes and Hormoned Tomatoes

I was in Turkey roughly a year ago, traveling to Ankara in May 2008 to launch a report on violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, an endemic problem in Turkey that has been met by silence from most state officials.  This time I am in Istanbul for Pride week.

Starting today and until next June 28, 2009, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists will organize multiple exhibitions, performances, movies, and discussion panels in Istanbul around the theme of sexuality. I will attend as many as I can, and use the rest of my time to meet government officials to talk about the latest attacks against the LGBT community. Since my last visit, at least seven transgender women have been murdered.

Pride week opened with the "Fifth Annual Hormoned Tomatoes Homophobia-Biphobia-Transphobia Awards": a tradition that began in 2005 when Erman Toroğlu, an ex soccer referee and sports commentator, said on a TV show, "Those who eat hormoned chickens will turn gay."

Since then, LGBT organizations in Turkey give tomatoes-which they claim are, appropriately, hormone-treated--to institutions and people who indulge in negative representations of LGBT people. People voted online to choose a winner in 10 categories, including, printed media, TV shows, national and international institutions, politicians, writers, and even celebrities. Needless to say, the winners do not attend the award ceremony.

The event took place in one of the most popular gay clubs in Istanbul, which used to be a theater, Exlarge. It was hosted by two activists, Sanem Öge and Esmeray.

The winners were:



Reason for Nomination

National Institutions

National Religious Institution (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığıhandles), which supervises regulations related to religion- for instance, assigning imams to mosques.

Advocating against legislation and policies that would protect the rights LGBT people


Burhan Cuzu, Head of the Constitutional Commission

For saying, skeptically, "Gays want equality, are we going to give it?"


Comedy Show Çok Güzel Hareketler Bunlar

For comment by one of the hosts, who said, when two men kissed in a sketch, that such actions go against morality.

Printed Press

Vakit, a newspaper owned by a religious group.

For constantly representing LGBT people in a negative way


Nevzat Tarhan

For stating that homosexuality is unnatural and LGBT people can be cured.


Ali Bula from Zaman newspaper

For an article suggesting that there is a direct relationship between an increase in homosexuality and the number of killings in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.


The movie Recep Ive Mc 1-2

For negative stereotypes of LGBT people in the film.

TV Celebrities

Fikret Kuşkan

For saying, while discussing a Turkish  that HIV was a "gay disease."



For his statement comparing global warming and homosexuality, describing both as global disasters.

Monday brings a conference on non-violence and the opening of an exhibition to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the US Stonewall riots, which many point to as the beginning of the modern North American LGBT movement.. The day will end with a presentation by dancer Mehmet Sander.

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