What It’s Like To Be Queer And Self-Exiled From Erdogan’s Turkey

With this week’s referendum on the horizon, more is at stake for people like me.

I was in Lisbon for a short weekend trip when I heard the news: There was a crisis escalating between the Netherlands, the country I have been trying to call home for the past two and a half years, and Turkey, my country of origin. I was trying to escape my reality, but when you are from Turkey, it’s hard to be a carefree tourist. As I boarded my plane to Amsterdam, I already felt in the thick of it.

The so-called Dutch-Turkish crisis of last month came about because of a rally that Turkish officials wanted to organize in Rotterdam to get more “yes” votes in the upcoming Turkish referendum. There are about 250,000 Dutch citizens in the Netherlands who carry Turkish passports, and have the right to vote (but they don’t have to suffer the consequences of the vote they cast, as they live and work in cities like Rotterdam.) The referendum in question, suggested by President Erdogan, asks Turkish citizens whether his government can swap the parliamentary system with a presidential system that would give the president even more power. If the “yes” vote wins, the parliament will lose the authority to monitor the president, vice president, and ministers — which could turn Turkey into a real autocracy.

Prior to the rally, the Turkish officials were told by the Dutch Government that a rally would not be allowed. As response, the Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya tried to enter the country from the German border, by land. Not surprisingly, Kaya’s motorcade was stopped before she could reach the Turkish Embassy in Rotterdam and she was returned to Germany as persona non grata. The event sparked protests in several places in the Netherlands, the most prominent of which was in Rotterdam.

As a queer person from Turkey, one question I’ve gotten used to being asked is whether I am happy that I’ve moved to Amsterdam, considering whatever terrible event happens to be going on in Turkey when the question is asked. (Consecutive bombings and terrorist attacks, and a failed coup attempt are among the past difficulties.) To avoid being a party pooper, I usually just nod and give a brief explanation of how the lifestyle suits me better in this new, adopted hometown. But recently, when the question gets asked more delicately following the crisis, I find myself at a loss. I know where I stand regarding the referendum (like most free-minded Turkish people, I hope the “no” vote wins), but I don’t know what to think about the whole picture and how I relate to it.

I come from a family of conservative people who have been passionately supporting President Erdogan and his political party, AKP, ever since its humble beginnings. As a teenager living in a small, conservative city, I had no idea that there were other gay people, let alone coming out. Gay was not something I would see on the street or represented on the TV. The only option I saw was to do my best at school until I could get out of that place. I went and studied in Istanbul for college, where I found a welcoming community both at school and in the fabric of the metropolis.

I came out to my parents five years ago while I was still in college. I was told that being gay was my test in this world, that it was OK to be gay as long as I did not have sex with other men. I was going to be a bachelor for the rest of my life, they thought. The reaction of my parents to my coming out added to my subconscious archive of reasons to get out, this time, not just from my hometown, but the entire country.

Now I live in Amsterdam, share a house with my boyfriend, and I’m surrounded by people who accept me. For a quick moment, it was comforting to take stock of my past and where I come from, and to think that I found a way out. However, with Turkey’s turbulent socio-political climate over the last few years, and the most recent Dutch-Turkish crisis, my identity as a self-exiled Turkish queer person is unravelling.

The conflict I find myself in on a daily basis is difficult to put in words: I do not belong in Turkey as LGBTQ people like me are cast out of the society every day. My lifestyle and queer identity might be categorized as part of the modern Western context, but I am not from the West. From Europe to the U.S., populist discourses are gaining momentum everywhere, and my lifestyle and opinions will not make a difference if these discourses target the Middle Eastern minorities. Parts of my identity are incompatible with each other, yet I am read as a collection of all parts: My queer identity is not separate from my Turkish identity. Although I moved to Europe to have a better sense of belonging to a place, my identity always pushes me to the margins, especially at times of political conflicts between Turkey and Europe.

With this week’s referendum on the horizon, more is at stake for people like me. Erdogan’s voters here in the Netherlands and in Turkey will determine if Turkey will be more hostile to LGBTQ communities. If the “yes” vote wins, the already severed relationship Turkey has with Western countries might be lost forever. And when that disconnection leads to more hate speech towards Turkish people, I know that my sense of belonging in Europe, which is already lingering on the margins, will be lost forever.