Turkey Ambivalent on LGBTQI Population

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 29: People take part lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Pride march on Istiklal Street in
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 29: People take part lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Pride march on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu district of stanbul, Turkey on June 29, 2014. (Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey is a country conflicted when it comes to its LGBTQI population.

On the one hand, same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults in private have been legal in Turkey since 1858, and Turkey was the first country in the Muslim world to hold an LGBTQI pride march. Eleven years later, 2014 Istanbul Pride was the largest pride event in the country, with an attendance of nearly 100,000 revelers and onlookers, far surpassing the previous year's event.

Turkey is also the country to which LGBTQI people from other Muslim-majority countries tend to flee for safety.

And pro-gay measures like Turkey's Supreme Court acknowledging this past July that calling LGBTQI people "perverts" is hate speech, and its landmark 2013 ruling stating that selling DVDs depicting graphic or even pornographic LGBTQI group sex is legal because such sex is "natural" and that "an individual's sexual orientation should be respected," would suggest that Turkey is a country that embraces tolerance and acceptance.

But on the other hand, the rate of hate crimes against LGBTQI people in Turkey is the highest among European countries, with Turkey's trans population the hardest hit, and LGBTQI sexual orientations and gender identities are excluded from the country's legal civil-rights protections.

Michelle Demishevich has become the international face of the country's struggle with its transgender population. In September Michelle, Turkey's first and only openly trans reporter, was fired from her job at Turkey's IMC TV. The alleged reason for her termination? "I was getting warnings about my clothes and the color of my hair," she told Istanbul's Bianet. "Even my use of red lipstick started to be a problem."

According to the 2011 World Values Survey, 84 percent of Turkey's population doesn't want LGBTQI residents in their neighborhood. And those LGBTQI people who unfortunately live in those unwelcoming neighborhoods usually hide from their heterosexual neighbors.

"I can't send my picture or show you my face because as you know Turkey's an Islam country," gay activist Burçin Bordanacı wrote to me. "I live in an area where there are radical Islamists groups and I'm concerned about life safety issues. I'll send some of my friends' picture taken at Istanbul Pride 2014."

LGBTQI people in Turkey may face discrimination in housing, health care, education, public accommodations and employment, to name a few areas.

"If you're fired from work for your sexual orientation you can not receive compensation from the workplace," Bordanacı shared with me. "They can tell your family by phone."

In 2010 the Minister for Women and Family Affairs depicted homosexuality as "a biological disorder, a disease," and earlier this year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said homosexuality is "contrary" to Islam.

Because so many Muslims view homosexuality as Erdoğan does, it has unfortunately turned many LGBTQI Muslims away from their faith.

"I don't Salat, but I'm Muslim," Bordanacı said. "My family is Muslim, too. My family doesn't know about my sexual orientation. If they learn about my sexual orientation they will marry me off. I do pray to God everyday about LGBTI people, and also for me."

As Turkey's government flip-flops on LGBTQI civil rights -- like in 2013 promising to provide constitutional protection against discrimination only to then let the draft proposal die -- its LGBTQI population isn't standing idly by. As a matter of fact, Turkey's LGBTQI population is fighting back by organizing.

And Bordanacı is among them: "I'm doing activism via Internet. I speak on Skype at an underground Turk gay club."

Turkey LGBTQ Union is a new activist website, just months old, that Bordanacı is promoting. Based in the country's capitol of Ankara, Turkey LGBTQ Union is a new umbrella organization to combat both homophobia and transphobia by using the Internet. It aims to bring together all the country's LGBTQI groups and organizations.

"Because Turkey is an Islamic country, although not in the same league as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq in its vehemently anti-LGBTI stance, there is need for togetherness and solidarity among LGBTI groups to counter the homophobia and transphobia that exists in Turkey today, " Bordanacı told GayAsiaNews.com by email.

Turkey LGBTQ Union was founded by gay activist Nikopol, who, in 2006, also helped form the Turk Gay Club to create community, safety, and anonymity.

Anonymity via Internet has been the way Bordanacı and I have communicated. I have no idea what he looks like.

I applaud his activism, but I'm worried, especially considering the suspected anti-gay "honor killing" of college student Ahmet Yildiz, the first such killing in the country. In 2008 Yildiz represented Turkey at an international gay gathering in San Francisco. He was fatally shot outside a café near the Bosphorus strait. Yildiz's friends accused his father.

So with each email exchange I had with Bordanacı, I always ended by saying, "Be safe!"