‘Lesbians, Schmesbians’: Turkey Accused of Scapegoating LGBTQ Protesters

Turkey’s leaders are weaponising anti-LGBTQ sentiment to distract from growing student protests, LGBTQ rights advocates told VICE World News.
“Lesbians, Schmesbians”: Turkey Accused of Scapegoating LGBTQ Protesters
Turkish police officers detain a woman during a demonstration against the appointment of a party loyalist to head Istanbul's exclusive Bogazici University. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Gay rights advocates have accused the Turkish government of weaponising homophobia in response to a wave of student protests.

Activists told VICE World News they’re alarmed by a string of recent anti-LGBTQ statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other leading politicians, that have also drawn international criticism from U.S. and U.N. officials.

“Don’t listen to what these lesbians, schmesbians [lezbiyenlerin, mezbiyenlerin] are saying,” Erdogan told an online audience of women’s branches of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) Friday, in reference to protesters at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

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“Mothers are the pillar of the family.”

Earlier in the week, Erdogan had singled out the LGBTQ community in another video address to party supporters.

"We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation's glorious past,” he said Monday.

The comments followed a tweet by his Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu last Friday referring to a group of arrested students as “LGBT perverts.” The tweet was found by Twitter to have violated its “hateful conduct” policy and hidden behind a warning label.

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Police detain a protester in Istanbul this week. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

The attacks on the LGBTQ community have come in response to weeks of protests at Bogazici University, a liberal campus in Istanbul that’s considered one of Turkey’s most prestigious academic institutions.

The fierce protests have been sparked by the government’s appointment last month of academic Melih Bulu, a longstanding ally of the AKP, as rector. Students and faculty say the move is a blow against academic freedom that flies in the face of a ­decades-long tradition of rectors being appointed by the university, and protests have mobilised against what’s viewed as an example of the government’s growing stranglehold over Turkish life.

When an artwork depicting rainbow flags around an image of the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, was placed at a demonstration last Friday, government officials responded by painting the university’s LGBTQ students as agitators who undermined Turkish values. 

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Members of the campus ­LGBTQ club were accused of having created the artwork, and the club was raided and shut down by university officials Monday. Four students were arrested, with two still in detention.

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A protester joins a march at Bogazici University this week. Photo: Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Katrin Hugendubel, advocacy director at ILGA-Europe, an international LGBTQ rights group, said Erdogan’s government was using the incident as a pretext to “step up attacks” against the LGBTQ community.

“We’ve seen in recent years an increase in hate speech by government officials and religious leaders in Turkey against the LGBTI+ community,” she told VICE World News.

“It’s very clear that any opportunity there is, they use to step up the attacks. Now we’re seeing it in the framework of protests about academic freedom.”

She said the hostile rhetoric was contributing to a “very threatening situation” for LGBTQ people in Turkey, which has faced growing official opposition in recent years. While homosexuality is legal, Istanbul’s Pride march has been banned in recent years.

“They’re fuelling hate in society, scapegoating a minority and telling the majority of citizens that it’s OK to lash out, both on social media and in real life.”

The Turkish government has defended its response to the protests as justified, while branding some of the protesters as terrorists. Soylu said Tuesday, without providing evidence, that nearly 80 of those arrested were members of far-left terror groups.

On Friday, Erdogan hit back at criticism from the U.S. and the European Union over his government’s response to the protests, drawing comparisons to the storming of the Capitol and the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., and French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to the country’s “yellow vests” protests.

"What does America or the European Union say? 'We condemn what happened at Bogazici University.' Well, I'm saying this to the US: In the name of democracy, do you not feel any shame over the events that took place in America shortly before elections?," Erdogan told reporters.

"Macron, you deal with the matter of those yellow vests first.”