During Pride month this year, the governorates of Izmir and Antalya banned all Pride-related events citing public safety and security concerns. One month earlier, the Pride march organized by the students of Middle East Technical University in Ankara was violently broken up by the police. Pride marches have been organized in Istanbul since 1993, but starting from 2015, the government has banned them.
Reasons for the Istanbul Pride ban since 2015
To understand this, we need to explore the reasons behind the violent police crackdown on the Istanbul Pride marchers in 2015. In 2013, massive anti-government protests—which started against developing Istanbul’s Gezi Park—spread to several other cities. Protesters saw the destruction of a public park and the subsequent heavy-handedness of the police as a decline of democratic values in Turkey. The protests brought out many allies for the LGBTQ movement, which resulted in 100,000 people attending the Istanbul pride in 2013. The 2014 Istanbul pride attracted even more people than the previous year.
The pride marches united various secular and liberal-minded groups, posing a threat to the more conservative powers, who feared that such groups might expose Turkey’s gradual decline in press freedom and increase in human rights violations. The marches served as a political space where not only LGBTQ groups but also secular-liberal groups could network together. Following the huge turn-out at the Pride marches in 2013 and 2014, the government decided to ban Istanbul pride march in 2015. The Turkish government – particularly President Erdogan—has been instrumental in canceling Istanbul pride and even gone on record saying that empowering gay people was “against the values of our nation”.
Although gay sex has been legal in Turkey since 1858, it still lacks social acceptance among a large portion of the Turkish population, that remains socially conservative and religious. The recent ban and crackdown on LGBTQ events have hardened public opinion against homosexuality. Except some liberal quarters in Istanbul and Ankara, there is not much public acceptance or space for the LGBTQ community in Turkey. Idil, 25, who lives in a small city in southern Turkey and was a regular participant at the Istanbul pride, stated, “It isn’t just uneducated people but also the well-educated who think that being gay is not natural. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Europe’s 2019 report ranked Turkey at 48 (one of the lowest) out of 49 countries in terms of its LGBTI laws and policies. The government’s policies have hurt the LGBTQ community in terms of freedom of expression, assembly, and discrimination.
Factors Influencing Support for the LGBTQ community in Turkey
This begs the question: why does support for LGBTQ community vary so much around the world? Studies have often linked reasons to three factors: economic development, democracy, and religion. They show that on average poorer countries tend to be less supportive of LGBTQ rights because cultural values tend to focus more on basic survival. As an upper middle-income country with a GDP per capita (PPP) of $25,135 and high Human Development Index of 0.791, Turkey fares well on economic development. Therefore, economic development is not a reason for Turkey’s low acceptance of homosexuality.
However, Turkey does not fare well in democracy. On a scale of 0 to 10, where ten equates full democracy, Turkey’s score of 4.37 qualifies it as a hybrid regime with a weak rule of law and civil society, government pressure on opposition parties and candidates, and substantial irregularities in elections that prevent them from being free and fair. Since 2006, there has been a steady decline in Turkey’s Democracy Index with rising authoritarianism, press censorship, arrests of journalists, and control on civil society. The aforementioned studies show that in democracies, citizens are more tolerant of gay relationships because of equality, fairness, and the right to protest against injustices. Turkey lacks these qualities, especially in terms of freedom of speech and freedom to protest. Although LGBTQ organizations are allowed to operate in Turkey, they have to censor their freedom of expression and assembly to avoid repercussions from police and government.
Lastly, studies list religion as another factor that can limit acceptance and rights of LGBTQ people. Western Europe, with its relatively low levels of religious belief, has been at the forefront of legalizing same-sex marriage. Most organized religions are less tolerant and less supportive of homosexuality. For them, it is against the order of nature and their religious beliefs. 98% of people in Turkey identity themselves as Muslims. Although devout Muslims have declined in Turkey, 51% of Turks still identify themselves as religious, and 65% of Turks fast during the holy month of Ramadan. In addition, 74% of Turks stated that a man and a woman should have a religious marriage to live together. Although religious people can be less accepting of LGBTQ people, the 2017 global attitudes survey report on Turkey presents a nuanced picture on this issue.
International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association-RIWI Global Attitudes Survey of 2017 asked Turkish people if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: It is possible to respect my religion and be accepting of people who are romantically or sexually attracted to people of the same sex. Interestingly, 41% of people strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with this statement, whereas 35% strongly disagreed or somewhat disagreed. In addition, 24% neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement. This shows that while there is a sizable section of Turkish people who use the religious argument to not accept LGBTQ people, there is a larger proportion of people who are both religious and accepting of LGBTQ people. Therefore, it appears that a greater portion of the Turkish population has successfully reconciled their religious beliefs and their acceptance of homosexuality.
The recent ban on Pride marches and the censorship of LGBTQ events are mostly due to the rising undemocratic nature of the Turkish state and its President. Although there is still a lack of widespread support for homosexuality in Turkey, there is a sizable proportion of people who support LGBTQ rights. As the survey above showed, the religious argument against homosexuality is not widely used in Turkey (still a secular democracy) when compared to other middle eastern authoritarian regimes. If the Turkish state does not use its power to restrict LGBTQ events and pride marches and allows civil society organizations to spread awareness about the community, there is likely to be a further acceptance of homosexuality in the country. These pride marches and events provide an avenue not only for the LGBTQ community to come together and express solidarity with each other, but also for the heterosexual community to learn about the community and network with one another. That is how prejudices and misconceptions are dispelled. At the end of the day, restrictions on LGBTQ communities is a human rights violation, and uncharacteristic of any progressive democracy.
This blog post was contributed by Abhi Slathia, who is currently an intern at HasNa Inc.