Last month Turkey's government banned Grindr, which is just the latest manifestation of the country's widespread homophobic censorship. But gay activist groups are fighting back.
Two men embrace at the LGBT pride parade in Istanbul on June 30.
In Turkey, it just got harder to enjoy a good old-fashioned no-strings-attached hook-up—at least if you’re a gay or bisexual man. Last month the Turkish government banned Grindr, the app that advertises itself as a way to “find gay, bi and curious guys near you” and had 125,000 users in the country.
If you try to access the app now—in the name of research, I tried—a message will appear stating that the Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB, by its Turkish acronym) has banned the site “as a protection measure.” Protection, presumably, against men having sex with each other.
When Emrecan Ö, a 34-year-old from Istanbul who often signs into the app for a quick distraction while working from home, found out about the government's decision, he said he was shocked but unfazed. He plans to continue logging on by installing a virtual private network (VPN), with which users can still access the site and navigate around website blocks.
Emrecan’s not alone. In the first weekend of June, when massive protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were organized through Twitter and Facebook, installations of one company’s VPN software skyrocketed by 1,000 percent. Erdoğan’s declaration that social media was “the worst menace to society” during those demonstrations has only fueled further installations, as more and more feel their right of expression is under threat.
“The government is not trying to block content,” Emrecan told me. “They are just trying to make life annoying. They found a way to attack the LGBT community so we don’t have an online presence.”
Internet censorship is nothing new in Turkey, a country that made Reporters Without Borders’ latest Countries Under Surveillance list for censoring the internet. The government famously banned YouTube from 2007 to 2010 in response to a posted video deemed insulting to the nation’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In the wake of the recent protests, the state has tried to obtain user information from Twitter, and according to the Wall Street Journal the ruling party is recruiting 6,000 young people to what sounds like a social media propaganda team.
It’s also not the first time the LGBT community has been targeted by Turkish laws. In 2011 the word “gay” was included on a list of words banned from being used in web domain names, and the government has censored many LGBT sites after accusing them of child abuse or "obscenity."
When Emrecan found out gayromeo.com, another website where gay men can meet each other, was blocked as well, he sent an email to the government to find out why. The short reply he received directed him to a law on the protection of families. If he wanted to try to overturn the decision, he could, he was told.
Easier said than done. The reasons behind these rulings are often not made clear. Similar decisions have cited ambiguous terms like “general morality” and “Turkish family structure.” The Turkish government even told Ankara-based LGBT group KAOS GL that only those directly a part of the court case could find out why Grindr had been blocked.
KAOS GL could very well be on its way to the courthouse. After learning of the censorship of the popular sex app by chance when a staff member couldn't access it, the group got in contact with Grindr and began talking about ways to fight back through legal action. The group has a fair amount of experience with these kinds of cases, having already faced (and beaten) its fair share of charges—in August, it won a battle against conservative newspaper Yeni Akit, which had described homosexuals as “perverse.” The court ruled in favor of KAOS GL and found that that kind of language wasn't covered under freedom of expression laws.
“The [Grindr] ruling is another act of repression against LGBT people in Turkey,” said Ömer Akpınar, KAOS GL’s media coordinator. “According to the law, being LGBT is not a crime, but there is no recognition of LGBTs. And we have no anti-discrimination bill to protect LGBTs.”
For many, it is simpler just to go around the bans, if only to avoid the headaches. “It’s a very tiresome business to right a wrong in the government,” said Emrecan. “Instead, we find personal solutions.” These remedies can range from changing the domain name system (DNS) or investing in a VPN.
Emrecan admitted that for many, this is not an option. Some only peruse these dating sites from internet cafés, either because they lack access to the web at home or are afraid of their families finding out about their sexuality. Particularly in urban parts of Turkey, it is still common for young adults to live with their families until they marry and move out (though this is slowly changing), and since gay marriage is far from being legal, escaping from the family’s close watch is extremely difficult for some.
Even foreign visitors are affected by the internet censorship. Emrecan may be able to get around the blocks, but the tourists that contact him before visiting Istanbul often go silent when they arrive. Back in their countries, they write to say they tried to reach him but were taken by surprise by the bans on certain sites.
International gay rights group All Out is calling for a repeal of the ban on Grindr. The nonprofit has been communicating with KAOS GL and Grindr to launch a petition that declares that the ban violates freedom of expression and information. More than 12,000 people have already added their names.
“We were very concerned that this blockage represents a trend to block gay content at will by the Turkish government without explanation,” said Joe Mirabella, the director of communications at All Out. “Will they block All Out, other LGBT organizations, or news sites? Where is the line?”
For groups like Kaos GL and All Out, taking direct action is the only option. “Our motivation to choose a petition was simple: All Out believes that when enough people speak out, people in power listen,” said Mirabella.
After the crackdown on protests at Gezi Park this summer, the current AKP administration is increasingly seen as an overbearing father figure imposing on the lifestyles of its citizens. The ban on Grindr provides yet another example of this.
But are the government’s actions in line with the general public’s views? This year’s LGBT pride parade in Istanbul drew an exuberant crowd of tens of thousands—its largest turnout yet in its 11 years —and smaller rallies were held in Ankara, Izmir, and Antalya. Despite a greater presence in Turkey’s public space, however, LGBT people still face discrimination—workers continue to be fired because of their sexual orientation, and in 2012, at least six transgender and five gay individuals were murdered because of their identities.
“You can change your DNS settings and it works,” said Akpınar. “But it is very important to win such a case. We don’t want to live secretly.”
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