I. Summary

Visibility and Violence

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey lead lives of fear, paralyzed by stigma. When singled out for harassment, violence, or other abuse—still an everyday occurrence for many—they also fear going to the authorities for assistance, and often for good reason: they have long experienced harassment and sadistic treatment by police and dismissive attitudes among judges and prosecutors. Despite reforms, new cases of such mistreatment continue to emerge, as this report demonstrates.

While the predicament faced by LGBT people in Turkey is similar to that faced by this community in many other countries, stringent norms for “masculinity” and “femininity” are particularly ingrained in both Turkish society and the state itself. The endurance of such norms, reflected in this report, perpetuate inequality and promote violence in many of the cases we document.

Every transgender person and many of the gay men Human Rights Watch spoke to report having been a victim of a violent crime—sometimes multiple crimes—based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Beatings in cruising areas, robberies by men or gangs who arranged to meet their victims over the internet, and attempted murder were among the documented abuses.

The lesbian or bisexual women Human Rights Watch spoke with reported pressure, often extreme, from their families. Some were constrained to undergo psychological or psychiatric “help” to “change” their sexual orientation. Many faced physical violence.

The picture is not unremittingly bleak; there have been positive developments in recent years. Turkey today is full of mixed signals. The situation was illustrated most pointedly by the process leading to the adoption of a revised version of the Criminal Code in mid-2005. A year before the new code was adopted, the Justice Commission of Turkey’s Parliament voted to include new language in the provision barring discrimination in a wide range of areas of public life: it would have included “sexual orientation” as a protected status. The move almost certainly came in response to Turkey’s pending application for admission to the European Union (EU).

The move galvanized Turkey’s small lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement, which rallied in support of including “sexual orientation” in the new law. Lambda Istanbul and the Ankara-based KAOS-GL, its two largest LGBT organizations, joined women’s groups in a 500-strong march on the Parliament on September 15, 2004—demanding the provision be kept, and that other articles used to harass minorities and restrict rights be changed.

Ultimately, the language mentioning sexual orientation was dropped and replaced with that found in Article 10 of Turkey’s Constitution—promising equality “irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, and sect, or any other reasons.” This defeat was perhaps predictable—since in late 2003, the prime minister’s spokesman said, “homosexuals cannot be members” of the ruling party: “They can establish their own.”1 However, activists were hopeful because Turkey had seen many positive legislative changes in preceding years, many in order to comply with the EU accession criteria.   

Conditions in Turkey are still in flux today, with greater freedom and invidious attitudes coexisting. On the positive side, civil society in Turkey is notably freer than it was a decade ago, and gays and lesbians feel it; so too do some in Turkey’s large communities of transgender people. Lambda Istanbul, KAOS-GL, and the Ankara-based transgender support group Pink Life (Pembe Hayat)—though small, hampered by legal difficulties and harassment—benefit from an environment in which censorship is relaxing, and civil society enjoying greater if still restricted space. In February 2005, a member of parliament from the ruling party and a representative of the Ministry of Health attended a conference in Ankara on the human rights of LGBT people—a significant symbolic step.  

Yet violence has followed visibility. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people’s greater exposure has led to greater danger for many ordinary people. This report provides evidence of those dangers in five areas: abuses against gay men, still too often abetted and at times perpetrated by the police themselves; continuing family strictures on lesbian women, with often violent repercussions, again with woefully inadequate police response, if not police complicity; the particularly severe stigmatization and violence faced by transgender individuals; discrimination in the military and medical profession; and continuing restrictions on LGBT groups’ freedom of association and expression.

Homophobic violence has come to the attention of Turkish authorities as an endemic problem, and the first uncertain steps are being taken to address it. In 2003 Dr. Şevki Sözen, professor of forensic medicine at Istanbul University, and a former doctor in the sexual-violence unit of the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Sciences Department, gave Human Rights Watch figures that he said came from a study launched by the ministry. Among gays and lesbians interviewed for the study, he said, 37% reported having undergone physical violence and 28% reported sexual violence. Among transvestites and transsexuals, 89% reported physical violence, and 52% sexual violence. Among all cases, Dr. Sözen told us, only 42% of victims sought help and only 26% turned to police. Less than one-sixth of the latter said that their cases had been adequately addressed by the criminal justice system.2

The study in question remains unpublished; Dr. Sözen could not tell Human Rights Watch the number of subjects, or the methodologies used to select and interview them. While these figures must therefore be treated as inconclusive, they are fully consistent with what we found in our interviews.

Gay men

Gangs go to cruising areas and visit internet websites where gay men meet—looking for chances to inflict violence or robbery, and driven by prejudice against those who are not “masculine” enough. Police rarely respond adequately; sometimes they blame or further harass victims. Courts lower the sentences they impose on killers of gay men because they conclude the men’s gayness itself “provoked” the killers.

In several notable instances, perpetrators of violence first had sexual encounters with gay victims, leading former Istanbul deputy police chief Halil Yilmaz to conclude: “In our country, homosexual homicides do not result from discrimination. The violence is not against homosexuals, but between homosexuals.”3

The fact that people who experience homosexual desire may engage (along with people who do not) in homophobic assaults does not mean they do so as homosexuals—or that their violence can be dismissed as internecine to a shared identity between victim and assailant. Self-hatred reflects, and distills, a climate of hate. Bulut, a working-class, gay-identified man in Ankara, told Human Rights Watch that “homosexuals face the greatest violence from people who feel homosexual desires but don’t and can’t accept themselves.” The stigma that precludes self-acceptance—the intensity of prejudice against homosexual conduct, or against “feminized” males—drives such violence, not the desire itself. It is this stigma that police and other authorities must do much more to combat. Statements like that of Yilmaz quoted in the paragraph above show the distance yet to be traveled.

Lesbian and bisexual women and girls

Lesbian and bisexual women and girls suffer from familial, community, and social refusal to allow them to make autonomous sexual choices. The traditional dominant understanding of Turkish “femininity” means, as both feminist and lesbian activists told us, remaining under the control of a man.

Multiple cases detailed in this report demonstrate the virulent and too often violent rejection within the home that girls and women experience when they are identified as lesbian or bisexual. And just as courts are lenient when it comes to killers of gay men, in part “blaming the victim,” so too they continue to be lenient when it comes to violence against women and girls deemed to have tarnished the “honor” (namus) of their families through expressions of sexuality deemed unorthodox.

Once again, certain reforms notwithstanding, police and other authorities are not doing enough. In its 2005 concluding observations on Turkey, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recommended, “continuous training for public officials, especially law enforcement officials, the judiciary and health-care providers, so that they are fully sensitized to all forms of violence against women and can adequately respond to it.”

Many of the testimonies we collected show that authorities still have not addressed the problem; confrontations with police continue and can be fraught. Outed in the 1990s by a journalist, a woman named Ferda faced steady harassment from neighbors: “They would call police and say that because I was a lesbian I was a terrorist, or I was pimping other women.” She complained to the police. The policeman in charge of the investigation, she said, was the officer implicated in the death under torture of the journalist Metin Göktepe.

He came to my house. He didn’t find anything—he was actually very understanding about the case. But then he created a sexual threat over me for years. He said, “If you ever have a lover, I will come and make love to both of you.” That was his fantasy. He tormented me in this way for years. He came once a week; and because I never had a lover he took money—hundreds of millions of [Turkish] lira; all because I was a lesbian.

Transgender people

Turkey’s transgender people defy gendered norms in an unequivocal way: their looks and demeanor differ from the expectations for their birth sex. The military regime in the early 1980s severely repressed any form of social deviance—and flouting standards of gendered conduct, turning a “masculine” body into a “feminine” one, was particularly despised. Turkey banned the complex of cosmetic alternations and hormone therapies known as “sex-reassignment surgery”; when Bülent Ersoy, a celebrated singer, obtained the procedures abroad, her music was also prohibited.

After a long legal struggle, in 1988 the Turkish Civil Code was finally amended, to state that “[i]n cases where there has been a change of sex after birth, documented by a report from a committee of medical experts, the necessary amendments are made to the birth certificate.” Male-to-female postoperative transgender people could obtain the “pink card” certifying their new gender.

Yet many transgender people do not want the surgery; others cannot afford it. Those whose state IDs do not correspond to their apparent gender—and such IDs are required for entry to all manner of institutions and access to all manner of services—remain in a legal limbo, facing enormous prejudice. Denied employment, many transgender people practice sex work—which redoubles the prejudice against them.

Memories of repression run long. In the months before the 1996 United Nations Human Settlements Program (Habitat) conference was to be held in Istanbul, authorities evidently decided on further steps to clean up the city. A community of dozens of transgender people had grown up on Ülker Street, in the Cihangir district of the city. One police officer, Süleyman Ulusoy, chief of Beyoğlu's police force at the time, determined to drive them from the area.4 Over months, police arrested transvestites on the street and tortured them. Even after the community was broken up, persecution of transvestites in central Istanbul continued unabated. One victim told Human Rights Watch about the time:

The police would pick us up constantly. They used to cut our hair, electroshock our bodies, leave us nude in ice-cold water. They would throw us naked in a cell with broken windows, in the winter; we were splashed with water and thrown in the room.  I would offer sex to the police so they wouldn’t torture me.

In Turkey, the Penal Code criminalizes encouraging or facilitating sex work; however, prostitution in licensed brothels is legal. As we will see below, transgender people are commonly compelled to do sex work, but only women (by birth) have the right to work in the licensed brothels—and few if any post-operative transgender people, even with the pink card, have gained that right due to discrimination. Hence transgender sex workers are driven onto the street, at the mercy of the police. There, they are subject to arbitrary arrest, prohibitive fines, and repressive regimes of medical testing: a steady round of humiliations, where revulsion at their not conforming to “maleness” or “femaleness” adds to the intensity of abuse.

The medical profession and the military

Medical mythologies—the belief, discredited in most medical systems, that homosexuality is an illness—are an insidious way that expectations about gender and sexuality persist. The powerful Turkish military, in flagrant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), still bans gay men from serving, claiming that homosexuality is a disease. In an ironic state of affairs, many men feel obliged to acknowledge themselves as “sick” in the eyes of the Turkish state (in the absence of any recognition of conscientious objection), in order to be banned from serving in the military. For many gay men, military service would bring harassment and violence because of their sexual orientation. But the humiliation does not end with their obligatory admission that they are “ill.”  The military inflicts humiliating and degrading examinations on men who inform it of their homosexuality, sometimes involving intrusive anal tests to “prove” their sexuality.  Applicants can be forced to produce photographs of themselves engaged in gay sex—for perusal by the Turkish state’s representatives.

Freedom of expression and association

Authorities themselves harass human rights defenders. Lambda Istanbul, KAOS-GL, and Pink Life have faced state attempts, using national laws protecting “morality” or “decency,” to censor them or close them down. The Law on Associations, basis for the creation of these NGOs, has no express restrictions to the formation of LGBT organizations. Nonetheless, the vague definition of “public morals” is a major obstacle for these groups. KAOS-GL, and more recently, Lambda Istanbul were raided under the belief that they engage in or facilitate illegal activities, despite their objectives being clearly defined in their constituency documents, mainly, to provide support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Turkey. As will be shown below, such actions by the Turkish authorities constitute clear violations of international law.

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“Government doesn’t like you. Society doesn’t like you. And you don’t like yourself,” one gay man said of his situation in Turkey.5 The interlocked fears and prejudices must be loosened and lifted. This is true because the lives and well-being of Turkey lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are at stake. It is true because of Turkey’s desire to join the EU; the latter has made clear its commitment to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in acceding states. And it is true because international human rights law—and the principles of respect for human dignity and equality on which the human rights system is founded—demand Turkey to eliminate “[p]rejudices and customary and other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”6

Many Turkish lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists have spent years working with other oppressed groups, trying to shake the grip of a repressive state upon society. Now they feel the possibility of a different state, defined by the rule of law and defending the individual. One told Human Rights Watch: “We need a law for liberation.”

Key Recommendations

Turkey should establish unequivocal constitutional and legislative guarantees of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Since its re-election in July 2007, the Justice and Development Party government has vowed that it will introduce a new constitution. (At this writing the draft had not appeared). The government is also in ongoing dialogue with the European Union about the conditions for Turkey’s possible accession, a dialogue which in turn has contributed to a process of legislative reform. These are prime opportunities to enshrine formal equality for sexual minorities in Turkey, a change that would provide victims new avenues of redress and have tremendous symbolic importance. After decades of legalized discrimination, it would be an affirmation of the essential human dignity and equality of all people in Turkey. 

Sexual orientation and gender identity should explicitly be prohibited as grounds for discrimination in any new constitution. Turkey should also enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that specifically prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Such steps should be accompanied by repeal or reform of conflicting legislation, including vague and sweeping laws against “offenses against public morality” that are consistently used by police to harass, arrest, and persecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and rights defenders.

End discrimination in the Turkish military.

Turkish authorities should take immediate action to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces by amending the Turkish Armed Forces Health Requirement Regulation to exclude sexual orientation from the List of Illnesses and Disabilities. Turkey is the only European member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to ban gay men from military service, and its ban persists nine years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a similar ban in the UK. In addition, the medical community should bar the participation of any medical professional in the humiliating and scientifically discredited examinations the military uses to prove homosexuality. It should also fully disavow the notion of homosexuality as a mental or physical pathology.

If obligatory military service is deemed to be obligatory, Human Rights Watch urges Turkish authorities to recognize the right to conscientious objection for all men in Turkey.

The EU should make Turkey’s record on sexual orientation and gender-identity-based discrimination integral to its review of human rights progress in Turkey.

The EU continues to be an important partner of Turkey, a role highlighted by Turkey’s continuing EU candidacy. It is in the interests of both parties that the EU work with Turkey on the adaptation of its laws and policies to bring them into compliance with European standards. Turkey’s employment practices, for instance, should be brought into compliance with European Union Directive 2000/78/ED, “establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation,” including through guarantees of nondiscrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers.

A more detailed and complete set of recommendations is set forth at the end of this report.


This report is based on research conducted in a five-week field visit to Turkey in October and November 2003 and a four-week field visit to Turkey in October and November 2007, as well as prior and subsequent research. Overall, Human Rights Watch staff members conducted detailed interviews in 2003 with 56 people who furnished testimonies of discrimination or abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and with 39 people in 2007. In 2003 we interviewed people in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir; in 2007, in Ankara, Istanbul, and Van. However, the majority of the people to whom Human Rights Watch researchers spoke had migrated from other regions in Turkey.

As noted in relevant citations throughout the report, the identities of some of these persons and certain identifying information have been withheld to protect their privacy and safety.

Interviewees were identified largely with the assistance of the Turkish non-governmental organizations Lambda Istanbul and the Ankara based, KAOS-GL, both of which provide information and services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Turkey. These interviewees may have had greater access to information and services to protect against abuses based on sexual orientation than those without comparable connections in other regions in Turkey where no LGBT organizations exist or people are yet to organize.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven officials from seven different Turkish government agencies, United Nations officials, human rights NGO leaders and activists; academics; and members of the health profession. Questions were sent to local authorities and to the head of the police. Human Rights Watch has yet to receive responses to these letters, copies of which are found in the appendices to this report. All documents cited in this report are either publicly available or on file with Human Rights Watch.

1 Hüseyin Özalp,“May homosexuals be members of AKP?” Sabah, April 15, 2003.

2 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Şevki Sözen, Istanbul, October 9, 2003.

3 Quoted in Janoff, “Tales from the Turkish Crypt,” Xtra Magazine, July 1, 2004 (emphasis added), (accessed April 21, 2008).

4 Ulusoy himself became widely known as “Hortum Süleyman” (Süleyman the Hosepipe) after one of his allegedly favored instruments for beatings. Demet Demir, a leader of the transgender community on Ülker Street, was subjected to repeated arrest and torture. After years, she managed to bring Ulusoy for trial on charges of repeatedly torturing her. The case suffered repeated postponements; finally, in 2003, Demir received a verdict. Ulusoy received a 21-year sentence—which was immediately suspended under the terms of Turkey’s amnesty law. Human Rights Watch interview with Demet Demir, Istanbul, October 7, 2003. See also “Chief Commissar Ulusoy Got Amnesty and Is Released,” Hürriyet newspaper, February 19, 2003.

5 Human Rights Watch interview with Kenan (name changed), Istanbul, October 22, 2003.

6 CEDAW, article 5(a).