Since Occupy Gezi launched popular protests against the rule of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2013, Turkey witnessed a crackdown on dissent that has alarmed international freedom of speech activists. After his government resisted a military coup in July 2016, Erdoğan has become increasingly autocratic, ruling Turkey in an ongoing state of emergency. Last year, he declared himself President after a constitutional referendum with 1.5 million unstamped votes. During that time, academics, authors, and journalists were imprisoned or exiled.
In consolidating his power, Erdoğan has relied on fundamental Islamic support, and nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. No laws have yet been passed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or intersex citizens, but cultural expression has been curtailed, with Pride bans in Ankara and Istanbul. In 2016, LGBTQI activist and sex worker Hande Kader was raped, tortured and killed by a gang.
This suppression has intensified since the socialist, pro-Kurdish Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) [People’s Democratic Party] passed the 10% threshold to enter government in the General Election of 2015. Trans activist Diren Coşkun, imprisoned in Tekirdağ prison on the charge of ‘membership to terror organisation’, recently ended her hunger strike, held to demand access for trans-specific healthcare in Tekirdağ prison.
I recently visited Istanbul to co-judge the ‘Love and Change’ political documentary strand of the !F Film Festival (which hosts an annual Rainbow party in support of the LGBT community) and met Esmeray, a transsexual journalist, feminist and LGBT activist.
Juliet: How would you describe the situation for trans people in Turkey at present? I understand that the situation has worsened in the last five years.
Esmeray: It has always been tough for LGBTQI individuals. In the 1990s, I was a sex worker – there were no regulations. Now, before any interrogation, the police must ask for an ID; back then, they would just drag sex workers around by their hair. Thanks to the solidarity of LGBTQI organisations, there was greater public visibility before the Gezi protests of 2013. After that, we’ve had approximately 100,000 people marching on Istiklal Street [the main street] for Pride, several times. Since the coup attempt in July 2016 [when a faction within the Turkish armed forced attempted to seize control of key locations in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere, but were defeated], there has been repression of the LGBTQI movement. They didn’t directly target organisations, but in Ankara, the mayor has outlawed Pride and all activities with an LGBTQI theme.
Juliet: What resistance do you think is possible?
Esmeray: When the Pride march in Istanbul was banned, the committee decided to disperse across all the streets, rather than proceeding through Istiklal, so people walked everywhere in the Beyoğlu district. The city authorities only banned the march: all other events, like seminars and film screenings, went ahead. The official reason for the Pride ban was that it overlapped with Ramadan. All active LGBTQI organisations are still trying to resist.
Juliet: What are those organisations doing?
Esmeray: There are emergency phone lines for LGBTQI individuals, and there is still a support network and therapy for trans people in transition. I am not involved in any organisations, but they are still organising panels and seminars with academics and the public. Personally, I work to increase the visibility of LGBTQI people in art.
Juliet: Do you feel that art and culture are a useful way to mindshare LGBTQI experiences and educate people about the issues?
Esmeray: My play, Cadının Bohçası (The Rag Bag of the Witch) deals with the experience of a trans woman, not just as a one-person story, but with how wider social factors shape it. I reached out to people who might form an audience – not just the usual targets. Now, it feels like a social responsibility to perform it. It’s often hard for people to put on one-person plays, they often burn out after one or two years, but I’ve been going for 11 now.
Juliet: Are there any other artists or performers working on LGBTQI issues in Turkey who interest you?
Esmeray: The most remarkable is Huysuz Virjin (‘Grumpy Virgin’), a transvestite or drag queen who prefers ‘he’. He has been active in showbusiness for the last fifty years, but there is a crucial difference between this and art, because he is not critical of the situation for LGBTQI people, capitalising instead on the public representation of a specific gay culture. In some ways, the drag acts damage the cause by misrepresenting trans people, by giving the impression that our identities are performances rather than lived experiences – this allows them to opt out of the politics around those experiences. Bülent Ersoy [the popular actor and singer who began her career as a male singer before finishing gender reassignment in 1981] identifies as a woman rather than a trans woman and isn’t advancing any cause either. She might be friends with Erdoğan, but that doesn’t do anything for the wider community.
Most feminist and LGBTQI movements have had little choice but to support the left. We have been oppressed because of our visibility, but left-wing groups have been stigmatised because of their support for us. The main opposition party, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi [the social democrat Republican People’s Party], have supported some activities like the International Women’s Day marches in Beşiktaş, and other LGBTQI events, but haven’t changed their constitution much. When asked, the CHP said they had no LGBTQI agenda – they were more interested in the war in Syria [in which Erdoğan launched a major offensive in Afrin in January 2018].
There is another party that is an offshoot of the far-right Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP) [Nationalist Action Party] group in parliament. They were looking for delegates near where I live, and invited me to join, even though they know I am a trans woman and support the HDP. They said they wanted me because I supported labour and human rights! The guy who offered me a place lives in a rich district in Anatolia – I didn’t understand why he claimed to be on the side of the workers. I challenged the war and said I couldn’t exist within his organisation.
The AKP has an LGBTQI organisation, albeit a terrible one. It’s for apolitical LGBTQI people, of which there are many – I’d guess that 70% of the population votes for the AKP. If you check the Facebook profile pictures of many trans sex workers, you’ll find a picture of Erdoğan, or the leaders of the July 2016 coup attempt.
Juliet: Those with pictures of Erdoğan – is that because they support him, or to keep themselves safe?
Esmeray: They are not conscious about politics, and on the side of power and money. Our conservative movement, unlike Britain’s, does not permit gay marriage.
Juliet: The British press gives the impression that it’s now impossible for the LGBTQI community to organise in Turkey, and that it’s being destroyed.
Esmeray: Because of the Orientalism in Europe, they like to see countries like ours as the most improbable places for LGBTQI people to exist. When I took my play to the West, people thought it was impossible for me to be Kurdish, Turkish, trans and involved in art.
Juliet: What can people from the West do to help?
Esmeray: It’s not as if Western Europe has been completely free from homophobia. I think we should eliminate artificial borders, form solidarity between organisations in Turkey and elsewhere, and then look at how we can work together. We will never be free for as long as the heterosexual men from the United States rule the world.
Juliet: How can we form an international solidarity that transcends elitist, racist and classist power structures?
Esmeray: I don’t have an easy answer. Many LGBTQI organisations here have ‘Turkey’ in front of them, and vocally support Turkish military operations in Syria, so we have a similar problem – there are huge numbers of trans sex workers being murdered here but they’re not focusing on that. We should fight transphobia, homophobia, racism and imperialism together.
Juliet: What support (if any) are trans sex workers getting?
Esmeray: LGBTQI organisations provide support for those in transition (as mentioned) and provide legal help for people who are being harassed, but their main focus is visibility. They want the parliament to recognise that sex workers are workers and provide rights accordingly.
Juliet: Do you have any cause for optimism? What do you think might change?
Esmeray: Of course, things could be much better, but we have succeeded in making LGBTQI communities visible in public, and this is a huge accomplishment. Families are becoming more supportive of LGBTQI people and that’s important too.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London.