Thousands gathered in central Istanbul on Sunday for the city’s 12th LGBT Pride march, the biggest gathering of its kind in the Islamic world.
The march wasn’t officially sanctioned — it never is — but apart from a minor confrontation with the massed riot cops blocking access to iconic Taksim Square, it passed peacefully.
Homosexual conduct between consenting adults is legal in Turkey, unlike many other Muslim countries. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, for example, it is punishable by death.
Yet intolerance is still widespread. Eighty-four percent of Turks said gays or lesbians were among those that they would least like to have as neighbors, according to 2011 research conducted as part of the World Values Survey.
This widespread prejudice often spills into discrimination, abuse, and violence. Advocacy groups say that Turkey has higher levels of hate crimes against LGBT individuals than any other member of the Council of Europe.
There have been documented cases of “honor killings,” such as the 2007 murder of Ahmet Yildiz, and the attack of Rosin Cicek, a 17-year-old who was beaten then shot 17 times by his father and uncles for being gay.
Transgender people, less able to hide their identities, are at even greater risk. Trans women, who are often unable to find steady employment and forced into sex work to survive, are at particular risk of violence. Thirty transgender people were killed in Turkey between January 2008 and December 2012, according to a report released in 2013 by Transgender Europe.
Despite new hate crime laws introduced by the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish legal system does not legislate against discrimination or violence on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"It's important to support what's happening in a place like Turkey," Jack, a 34-year-old American living in Istanbul, told VICE News. "[Being LGBT] is difficult here, it's forced into the shadows sometimes."
Discrimination starts at the top. AKP politician and former Minister for Women and Family Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf famously described homosexuality as a biological disorder and disease, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described it as “contrary” to Islam.
Chants making fun of Erodgan and the AKP were mixed in with calls for LGBT rights during the march. A number of attendees said that they felt that the divide between increasingly liberal secular Turks, who took part in the anti-government Gezi Park protests last summer, and more traditional segments of society represented by the AKP, is growing.
Merve, a glamorously dressed transgender woman and activist, told VICE News during a break from posing for pictures that while she thought attendance was down from 2013 when it was boosted by Gezi protesters, there seemed to be more media interest this year.
"It's been amazing," she said. "Last year it was very crowded, and while now there's not as many people, it's good, because there's more attention."
Local media has not been sympathetic to LGBT rights in the past. RTÜK, the Turkish state agency which monitors broadcast material, frequently censors LGBT content. It banned the film Sex and the City 2 from being shown on cable TV, for example, because the film included a “twisted and immoral” gay wedding.
The state Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB) has also stopped internet-hosting providers from even using the word “gay” in domain names and websites, as well as shutting down LGBT internet forums, Freedom House says.
Against this dearth of information and coverage, Berdan, 22, told VICE News that he was marching to show his countrymen that there were LGBT people in Turkey.
"We have to be visible. For a while I didn’t know that other people like me exist, now we will show people that we do." He paused for a second and looked around. "Even I didn't realize there were this many."
All photos by John Beck
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck