I don’t know what I expected to find at the KuirFest film festival in Turkey. Cops writing down the names of besieged queers, maybe. Or mobs of angry fundamentalists outside the degenerate theaters. But while I can see the tall white minarets of the local mosque from my hotel window and hear the call to prayer a couple times a day, religion, at least in Ankara, the capital, still has a much smaller impact than in a place like, say, Egypt. In fact, I’ve seen more headscarves in certain Parisian neighborhoods than around here, where men on the street seem largely indifferent to women passing with their liberated hair.
As for LGBT folks, they’re here, they’re queer, and they’ve been organizing in earnest since the early 1990s. The human rights organization Lambda Istanbul was founded in ‘93. The largest national organization, Kaos GL, was formed the year afterwards, in Ankara, and became the first LGBT organization with legal status in 2005. Despite periodic efforts by the increasingly authoritarian Islamist government to get rid of them, the judiciary of this secular republic has repeatedly upheld their right to exist.
Civil society offers some support. Some newspapers cover LGBT issues and events. The main opposition party supported a 2012 attempt to address questions of sexual orientation and gender identity in the new constitution. Nevertheless, acceptance is not widespread, and while student groups and other organizations are sprouting up every year, it’s hard to imagine how most of these LGBT projects would survive without major foreign support.
When I went to lunch with Ömer Akpinar and Aylime Aslı Demir of Kaos GL, they unapologetically explained most of their funding came from a range of foreign embassies as well as human rights funds. There is a lot to do, and the money has to come from somewhere. The 13-member staff of Kaos GL is spread thin with a variety of projects from Pride marches that get bigger every year to queer publications and projects helping LGBT people survive. They also try to offer assistance to smaller groups.
One of their biggest efforts is directed toward supporting LGBT refugees fleeing Iraq, Iran, and now Syria. Turkey is a transit point, and many will end up in Canada or the UK. In the meantime, the government places them in small cities and towns where they not only have to grapple with the difficulties of having fled their homes and being foreign, but with the homophobia of conservative regions.
Kaos GL also has a campaign directed toward teachers and school counselors, in co-ordination with the teachers’ union. Up until recently, if a struggling queer kid looked for help at school, they’d get ratted out to their parents and often yanked from the school. Nobody ever knew if they were living or dead. Kaos GL provides information and encourages school staff to help the children without putting them in danger.
The groups also holds cultural events. Last year, they teamed up with a human rights center at Ankara University to show Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” banned by Turkish authorities for its extensive nude and sex scenes. The screening was denounced in the religious press, but Kaos GL didn’t mind much because 500 people turned up to watch the movie and support them, instead of the expected 100.
According to Ömer and Aylime, the religious press is the main opponent of the LGBT movement. They aren’t very good at it. Not yet, anyway. Most of their anti-gay articles are just cribbed verbatim from queer Turkish publications with the word “pervert”" added on every time an L, G, B, or T is mentioned. As a consequence, the content and language are actually quite progressive if you ignore all the “perverts” sprinkled throughout.
While there aren’t any specifically anti-gay groups, violence is a big problem for LGBT people, especially trans women who are murdered in epidemic proportions. One of the films in the festival, “Trans X Istanbul,” showed two middle-aged trans women thumbing through a photo album in which they were among the only survivors.
In recent years, some of the violence in Istanbul has been inspired by more than transphobia. Property speculators have been using anti-trans campaigns to force them from desirable redevelopment areas. These hate campaigns are often followed by attacks and murders.
They’re not suffering in silence. Trans women are some of the most visible, and radical, organizers in Turkey. In Ankara, they were the founders of the Pink Life Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Solidarity Association, which supports trans people, especially sex workers, and organizes the KuirFest film festival, among other things.
Queer activists of all kinds got a boost from the huge anti-government demos of 2013 sparked when cops squashed peaceful demonstrators trying to prevent Istanbul’s Gezi Park from being replaced with a shopping mall and luxury housing. The resulting protests became a kind of referendum on Turkey’s democracy, raising issues of freedom of speech and assembly and protesting attacks on secularism. For most of the population, it was the first time they’d dared to take to the streets.
Mobilized and empowered, LGBT people started to create small groups all over the country, even in conservative towns. Which is essential. Faced with an eroding secularism and a creaky democracy, queers need every hand on deck. And after the Gezi protests, where they were often in the forefront, they may even have more allies. As lesbian activist Sedef Çakmak told one newspaper, “Gezi did in three weeks what would have otherwise taken us three years.”