December 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm EST | by Efe Songun
Turkey’s new ‘sultan’ wants to silence LGBTQ community

LGBTQ rights advocates in Istanbul and throughout Turkey have faced increased persecution under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

On Nov. 16, news came that the German LBGTQ Film Festival organized in cooperation with the German Embassy in Ankara had been cancelled. The human rights and LGBTQ communities were stunned. Yet for me, I had in mind the past incidents that had led to that moment in Turkey, especially ongoing constraints on freedom of expression and civil society.

The 2013 Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul marked the first mass movement against the ever-growing authoritarian regime in Turkey, bringing together prominent figures from various parts of civil society, arts and culture, academy and even the corporate world. It became a milestone event that questioned the actions of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) run by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The protests that year brought together many like-minded people for Istanbul Pride too, with an estimated 80,000 attending. This number, however, has been significantly diminished after municipal bans on Pride from 2015-2017. Authorities often used force and violence against attendees, spreading fear among the public.

By the summer of 2016, ongoing conversations about changing the constitution ended in passing extended authorities to the president that gave him even more power. The attempted military coup around the same time created a state of emergency that gave Turkish authorities the justification to start prosecuting any “undesirable” individual or groups.

For the past month, the LGBTQ community in Turkey has been busy raising public awareness and taking legal action in order to reverse the ban that stopped the film festival. Unfortunately, the ban now includes greater restrictions on gatherings, protests, exhibitions and screenings organized by any LGBTQ groups, including those at universities.

LGBTQ advocates in Turkey are working with broader human rights organizations to bring an end to this ugly attempt to silence the country’s LGBTQ community.

Senem Doganoglu, an attorney for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey mentioned to me that the recent ban by the government to stifle freedom of expression is not only a sign of restrictions on the LGBTQ movement itself but also shows how the limitations can expand to any minority group in Turkey. Doganoglu has been a part of the LGBTQ movement and reports human rights violations in Turkey.

Apart from being a setback on actions that were taken so far, the ban at its core constitutes threats of detentions and arrests. This reminded me of the motto of the LGBTQ movement in Turkey: “The Liberation of Homosexuals will Free Heterosexuals.” Doganolu added that for a movement that took years to build itself and has networks in all parts of civil society, these actions will affect the larger networks.

At the moment, the human rights and LGBTQ communities in Turkey have set their priority as resuming the film festival Kuir Fest that will take place in January with the online campaigns #LGBTIYasaklanamaz (#LGBTICantBeBanned) and #LGBTİFilmleriYasaklanamaz (#LGBTIFilmsCantBeBanned).

Kuir Fest is organized by Pink Life, an organization that advocates primarily on transgender rights in Turkey. This year’s theme is James Baldwin, who fought for human rights and freedom of expression in the United States. It is fitting since it seems as if the LGBTQ community and civil society are facing something similar to Baldwin’s fight.

Holding the LGBTQ film festival in January will be a strong display of the successful efforts of the LGBTQ community in Turkey. I trust those successful efforts will refuel the movement as it continues its fight for equality.

Efe Songun is a Human Rights Campaign Global Fellow.

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