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The two sides of Turkey: A country divided on LGBTIs

The two sides of Turkey: A country divided on LGBTIs

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

On one hand, Turkey is the first country in the Muslim world to hold a Pride march. Now, 11 years on, 2014 Istanbul Pride is widely lauded. It surpassed last year’s LGBTQI pride attendance that drew nearly 100,000 revelers and onlookers.

It is the ‘go-to’ country for LGBTI Muslims fleeing other Islamic countries for their safety.

The country’s Supreme Court acknowledged in July that calling LGBTI citizens ‘perverts’ is hate speech.

And in 2013 a landmark ruling from the Supreme Court stated selling DVDs depicting graphic as well as pornographic LGBTQI group sex is ‘natural,’ and ‘that an individual’s sexual orientation should be respected’.

All this would suggest Turkey embraces tolerance and acceptance.

But it has the highest levels of LGBTI hate crime in Europe, with the trans population at greatest risk.

Since 1858 same-sex relations in private between consenting adults have been legal in Turkey. But LGBTI people are generally excluded from the justice system and from society as a whole.

Michelle Demishevich has become the international face of the country’s struggle with its transgender population. She was fired in September from her job as a reporter at Turkey’s IMC TV.

Reason for her termination: ‘I was getting warnings about my clothes and the color of my hair,’ Demishevich told Bianet. ‘Even my use of red lipstick started to be a problem.’

According to the 2011 World Values Survey, 84% of Turkey’s population doesn’t want LGBTI residents in their neighborhood. Many hide their true selves from their heterosexual neighbors.

‘I can’t send my picture or show you my face because as you know Turkey’s an Islam country. 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,’ my Turkish pen-friend Bordanacı wrote to me.

Housing discrimination can be added to the laundry list of other discriminations – health care, education, public accommodations and employment, to name a few.

‘If you’re fired from work for your sexual orientation you cannot receive compensation from the workplace. They can tell your family by phone,’ Burçin shared.

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 Erdogan said homosexuality is ‘contrary’ to Islam.

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

‘I don’t Salat [attend prayers], but I’m Muslim. 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,’ Bordanacı shared with me.

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

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. It aims to bring together all of the country’s LGBTI groups and organizations.

And Bordanacı is so fearful that he protects his identity and uses the anonymity of the internet to do his work. Even I have no idea what he looks like.

I applaud his activism but I’m worried. Especially remembering the suspected anti-gay ‘honor killing’ of college student Ahmet Yildiz. In 2008 Yildiz represented Turkey at a gay international gathering in San Francisco. He was fatally shot outside a café near the Bosphorus strait.

So with each email exchange I had with Bordanacı I always ended mine by saying: Be safe!