Protesters demanding an end to the discrimination, abuse and violence faced by Turkey's transgender population gathered in central Istanbul on Sunday for the country's fifth annual Trans Pride march.
Several thousand glitter and makeup-covered demonstrators turned up, brandishing rainbow flags and banners in the afternoon sunshine.
The police presence was heavy, however, and riot cops blocked the group from assembling in Taksim Square, focal point for last year’s anti-government Gezi Park protests. Eventually the crowd set off down Istiklal Avenue to Tünel Square instead.
Seasoned LGBT activists marched alongside younger Turks who described Gezi as their first experience of political protest.
There was even a trio of former US soldiers in attendance.
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Some had traveled a long way to attend.
Rufus, a burly bearded man holding an International Bear Brotherhood Flag told VICE News that he had come from Barcelona specifically for the march.
“I’m here because civil rights and human rights are in danger in Turkey,” he said, referring to the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Bertho Makso, a Lebanese activist told VICE News that he had traveled to Istanbul because despite his country's comparatively tolerant (by Middle Eastern standards) attitude to homosexuality, a similar gathering would not have been possible there.
“I’m marching for all of the people who can’t march but want to,” he said. “In Lebanon, we can’t do this.”
Speaking after the march, organizer Ilker Cakmak, spokesperson and head of communications with Istanbul LGBTT Solidarity Organization, told VICE News that the day had gone well.
“We’re happy with the march….the cops wouldn’t let us go to the square, but the people didn’t give up, so we said what we wanted to,” Cakmak said.
Despite new hate crime laws, the Turkish legal system does not legislate against discrimination or violence on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
AKP politician and former Minister for Women and Family Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf has famously described homosexuality as a biological disorder and disease.
As a result, Turkey's LGBT population is exposed to discrimination and abuse in many aspects of their lives. Transgender people, less able to hide their identities, often find themselves facing even bigger problems, unable to use public transportation, refused service in shops and restaurants, abused in the street and even arrested and fined purely because of who they are.
This often also means that transgender women are unable to find steady employment and are forced into sex work in order to survive.
Activists say that even the most sought after earn just 30-40 lira ($14-$18) per customer.
They are particularly at risk of violence on the streets. Thirty transgender people were killed in Turkey between January 2008 and December 2012, according to a report released last year by Transgender Europe.
It was the highest figure of any European or Middle Eastern country for which data is available, and campaigners say there are likely many more unreported cases. The attacks are often horrifying. Slit throats, shootings and genital mutilation are common.
To make matter worse, the culprits in trans murders often get lenient treatment in the courts by claiming that they were provoked because their masculinity was insulted.
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However, the transgender community in Istanbul, as well as the wider LGBT population has gained some new supporters over the past 12 months. Transgender women played a leading part in the Gezi Park protests, fighting side by side at the barricades with anarchist soccer fans.
Last year's Trans Pride march saw attendance up fivefold to around 10,000 as a result.
Most were newly politically aware heterosexual Turks, some of whom admitted to having been homophobic and transphobic in the past.
Nevertheless, Cakmak said that things had not improved for Turkey’s transgender population and if anything were deteriorating. “I don’t think things have gotten better. Hate crimes are still rising, and that’s only the ones we know about,” he said.
“The government prepared a special hate crime law," he continued. "But they’re not talking about LGBT. LGBT people are still invisible to the government.”
All photos by John Beck