Walking through the streets of Istanbul, it's easy to get an impression of Turkey as a secular state, albeit one with a slightly higher number of hijabs and burqas than other European countries. Many women wear short shorts and couples walk hand-in-hand through open-air shopping districts filled with Western high-fashion clothing chains.But at the 2013 Trans Pride march last weekend, lesbian, gay and transgendered demonstrators painted a very different picture of a society beset by homophobia, intolerance and normalised violence against those whose sexuality doesn't conform to religious standards.
Almost all the protesters I spoke to asked not to be identified by their full name for the understandable reason that they fear police repression. Göikem, a demonstrator sporting a beard, a wig and a glittery, gold spaghetti-strap top, suspects the ruling Islamist AKP party quietly supports violence against the transgender community.
"To this year, 18 trans women have been killed. Murdered," he said. "There's no law against homosexuality or transsexuality, but the state hurts us secretly, like paramilitaries… The state supports them (the murderers), actually. Their only punishment is, like, two years in prison."Most of the demonstrators I spoke to listed violence against LGBT people as their main grievance with the government. In 2008, 26-year-old Ahmet Yildiz was murdered by his father, apparently just for being gay. The killing, as well as the government's perceived lack of an effective response, spurred the gay and transgender community in Turkey into becoming much more vocal about their rights. Nevertheless, the honour killings continued and, in 2011, Ramazan Çetin was killed by his brother Fevzi, who declared, "My brother was engaged in transvestism. I killed him. I cleansed my honour."Another demonstrator named Dogu said that, although the LGBT community in Turkey is becoming more visible, the problem of religiously-motivated honour killings is only getting worse.
"Especially when we look at the honour crimes, the picture is basically becoming even worse," he told me. "Because the honour crimes are done by the parents of these people. And we don't have any constitutional guarantees to prevent the hate crimes and honour killings, either."
Denis, a lesbian demonstrator, blamed anti-gay sentiment in Turkey specifically on the religious beliefs of the population (which the Turkish government claims is 99 percent Muslim) and, especially, the AKP."Tayyip [Erdoğan, the Prime Minister of Turkey] is Muslim," she said. "So we're gay and Tayyip Erdoğan says that gay people can't live here."The trans march came a week before a planned Gay Pride march, and just one day after a renewed police crackdown on protesters following a quiet week in Istanbul. And although many people I spoke to said that they feared police violence against the demonstrators, the march was quiet, quite possibly because the police left everybody alone. But demonstrator Secuk Ugurgun said that the state has subtler forms of repression."I'm surprised, because I thought the police and government wouldn't let us walk, but they couldn't stop us," he said. "They censor all media, like TV, radio and internet, like YouTube and these kinds of things. When you watch TV, you can only see whatever the government want to show you. There are no private channels for individual announcements or news. So if you don't get the news, you know nothing."Freedom House, an international group dedicated to tracking social liberties internationally, lists Turkey's internet and press as "partly free". In addition, Amnesty International's 2013 world report notes significant problems in the government's protection of gay and transgender rights.
The report states: "The government rejected civil society calls to include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited discrimination grounds in the new Constitution. No progress was made in adopting comprehensive non-discrimination legislation. LGBTI rights groups continued to report suspected hate murders motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including the murders of five transgender women."Ugurgun told me that, although gay and especially transgender people face discrimination in other countries, the situation in Turkey is worse thanks to the AKP."In Turkey especially, the government is fascistic. And no good. And they think that everybody should get married and have three children and have a normal heterosexual life," he said.Ugurgun, a long-time gay-rights activist, estimated the turnout of the march at 10,000 people. And although it was difficult to count the participants as they blended in with all the tourists in the area, everyone I spoke to agreed that the march was much bigger this year than it has been in the three previous years that Istanbul has hosted a Trans Pride march."Our community gets bigger every year. Last year, there were like 500 people at the Trans Pride march, but this year we were, like, thousands because of the Gezi resistance last month," Göikem said.
Ali Özsoy, editor of the Türksolu ("Turkish Left") newspaper, described the government as a "dictatorship" eager to deprive people of their rights, whether they're political or sexual. But he thinks the issues facing Turkey's LGBT community have deeper roots than the AKP's repression, and that the march may only serve to radicalise Erdoğan's base.
"Tayyip Erdoğan, actually, wants things like this more," he told me, "because the people who work for him can say, 'Oh, look at the homosexuals, look at the drunks, you know? They can march, but you can see that they're a threat to Islam.' He is a clever dictator. I'm not saying they cannot walk – if they want to do a gay pride march, of course they can. But it's not the way to get rid of the dictatorship."Many of the demonstrators involved in the Gezi Park protests have called for Tayyip Erdoğan's resignation. But a large amount of the demonstrators at the Trans Pride march see themselves as fighting for social rights, independently of any particular government. Dogu said that some parties, like the pro-Kurdish BDP and the Social Democratic CHP, support gay rights, but that the Turkish government has never protected LGBT rights, even before the AKP came into power.
"I mean, yes – the AKP is a conservative party. Even the Minister for Women's Affairs said three years ago that homosexuality is a disease. But I don't think it's just the AKP. We don't have any constitutional rights. We don't have any institutional backup, either. The previous governments didn't care about LGBTs, either," he said.Göikem told me that the problem isn't the particular party in power, but the government itself: "I have no figure in my mind [who I'd like to replace] Tayyip, actually. I'm against the state, let's say, because – whoever the president is – the state is disgusting."
Despite this, Göikem said the situation is slowly improving in Turkey: "It is changing. It's been about 21 years that LGBT communities have fought for their rights in Turkey. Something changed, of course. There are more people supporting us – more communities are supporting us."Ugurgun echoed the sentiment, telling me, "We have hope, and I believe everything is going to get better."More stories from Turkey:Could the Turkish Uprising Be a Breakthrough for the Country's Kurds?Istanbul Police Tear-Gassed a Memorial March This WeekendTalking to Besiktas' Bulldozer Joyriding Fans About Their Role In the Turkish UprisingThe Battle for the Heart of Istanbul Is Raging On