LGBTI rights: Turkey escalates campaign against community

Paul CrickThursday 22 September 2022

In mid-September, thousands of people marched in Istanbul to demand that the Turkish government legislate to ban what the protestors term LGBTI ‘propaganda’, for example in the arts.

The event – which organisers named the ‘Big Family Gathering’ and which sought to promote, in the words of attendees, ‘family values’ – comes at an especially difficult time for LGBTI people in Turkey.

In late June there was unrest after the Istanbul Pride march was barred for the seventh successive year by local authorities.

When LGBTI activists tried to protest, riot police intervened and arrested hundreds. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the number of arrests was three times the total during the previous seven Istanbul Pride marches combined and that 34 of those arrested were under 18.

Various human rights organisations reported on social media that many of those detained were handcuffed, and kept in hot vehicles without food, water or air conditioning for long periods of time. Detainees’ access to lawyers in a timely fashion was generally prevented, and one lawyer reported being met with violence when she spoke to police about her client.

Ten LGBTI-related events have been banned and over 530 people detained in just 37 days by the Turkish government so far this year, according to Kaos GL, a Turkish LGBTI rights group.

Such action by the Turkish authorities is far from new. According to HRW this crackdown is the latest in a brutal government campaign against LGBTI rights activism and freedom of expression, which has included the breaking up of LGBTI rights events – and detaining journalists who report upon them – and pursuing action against activists and organisations supporting LBGTI rights.

The Turkish authorities have a positive obligation to protect the LGBTQI community itself […] Recent crackdowns on Pride events have run roughshod over this duty

Melinda Taylor
Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

Melinda Taylor, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and counsel in international criminal law, says that ‘the Turkish authorities have a positive obligation to protect the LGBTQI community itself, while ensuring that individual members can fully and freely exercise their right to express their identity and to peacefully assemble to advocate for their rights. Recent crackdowns on Pride events have run roughshod over this duty.’

‘Attacks on lawyers that advocate for the LGBTQI community also appear to be part of a systemic attempt to prevent members from exercising these rights or enjoying the equal protection of the law in Turkey’, she adds.

The government campaign against the LGBTI community is being carried out under the guise of upholding public morality and protecting Turkish citizens from immorality and perversion. Statements by government officials have portrayed the LGBTI community as being contrary to Turkish social values and a threat to families and children.

In March 2021, having announced its withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the ‘Istanbul Convention’) and following widespread criticism of its actions, the Turkish government released a statement in which it said: ‘The […] Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with [Turkey’s] social and family values.’

It further stated that other European countries had similar concerns and that Poland ‘has taken steps to withdraw from the Convention, citing an attempt by the LGBTI community to impose their ideas about gender on the entire society’.

At celebrations on Women’s Day in March, participants were reportedly prevented from bringing LGBTI flags or supportive banners and there were detentions of trans women. On the same day, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Communications Director, Fahrettin Altun, made a speech in which he described homosexuality as an ‘ugliness’ and said that presenting it ‘as something “normal”, especially to young people, is an attack against our social order and our nation’s noble character.’

In response the EU stated that it ‘cannot but regret deeply and express incomprehension towards the decision of the Turkish government to withdraw from [the Istanbul] convention’.

It’s no surprise therefore that in the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) European branch’s Rainbow Map, its annual survey that ranks 49 countries in Europe on their LGBTI equality laws and policies and which was published in May, Turkey came 48th with a rating of just four per cent.

The Turkish government insists on couching their actions as ‘cultural’, that is, protecting Turkish families and children. But observers are concerned that this hides the fact that the government’s measures are part of a much wider aim: to silence opposition, using ‘outsiders’ as scapegoats, as Turkey becomes more authoritarian.

In its Rainbow Map, ILGA-Europe makes three recommendations that would improve the legal situation of LGBTI people in Turkey. Firstly, giving LGBTI people protection under the constitution, by expressly referring to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. Secondly, removing obstacles to the effective exercise of freedom of assembly and association rights defenders. And finally, explicitly including all SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics) grounds in an equality action plan, accompanied by specific mechanisms to measure progress.

Melinda Taylor says the Turkish authorities should ‘immediately cease such [anti-LGBTI] actions and ensure that any abuses against the community are investigated and fully and independently prosecuted, with a view to sending a strong and unequivocal message that anti-LGBTQI sentiments and actions will not be tolerated by the State’.

The Turkish authorities, she adds, should also consult and cooperate with LGBTI defenders with a view to devising internal policies and responses that ensure effective protection for the community.

However, without concerted pressure from countries and organisations around the world, such action surely remains no more than a wish, and the LGBTI community in Turkey remains in great danger.

Image credit: Rainbow color umbrellas on old trade street in Istanbul. Oleksandr/AdobeStock.com