Despite a raging pandemic, a massive economic contraction, and a war along its southern border, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other high-level officials in his administration have decided to redirect the country’s attention towards waging a culture war against Turkey’s LGBTI community.
LGBTI people have long been the targets of hate speech in Turkey, however the past few months have seen a surge in online hate speech directed against them. As Turkey celebrated Pride Month in June, reactionaries organized around hashtags demanding a ban on LGBTI public activities and organizations. As Turkey’s LGBTI community slowly began to find representation in media, the Turkish government has politicized advancement of LGBTI rights, greatly endangering the community. In early April, rumors that Netflix’s latest Turkish-language series would feature a gay character triggered a flood of homophobic slurs. The series was finally released with no such character after a request from the government.
Turkish government officials had the audacity to shamelessly fan the flames of homophobia and transphobia with impunity, even with support from the president. In April, Ali Erbas, Turkey’s top religious official, targeted LGBTI individuals in a sermon otherwise focused on the devastating spread of COVID-19 in the country, claiming that “homosexuality brings disease.” President Erdogan immediately defended Erbas, who heads Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, declaring, “An attack on Erbas is an attack on the state.” The Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint against Erbas, alleging that his statements constituted a “public provocation to hatred and hostility.” Shortly after the complaint, the Ankara prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the bar association and Turkey’s justice minister responded by tweeting in support of the investigation, denouncing the bar association’s statement as “revealing the fascist reflexes that remain in their minds.”
The attacks continued in June, when Kerem Kinik, chairman of Turkey’s Red Crescent Society, accused the country’s LGBTI community of “imposing their pedophiliac dreams cloaked as modernity on young minds.” When the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) rejected his comments as “wrong and offensive,” Erdogan’s communications director and confidante, Fahrettin Altun, accused the organization of becoming complicit in “LGBT propaganda.” Erdogan chimed in, brazenly endorsing hate speech. “They are insidiously attacking our national and spiritual values. Throughout the history of mankind, they have been trying to poison young minds by normalizing cursed perversions,” he said, adding that people should “react negatively” to “deviances.”
Homosexuality is legal in Turkey, but the government does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships. LGBTI individuals are often fired, denied housing, health care, and other essential services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the absence of legal protections, Turkey’s LGBTI community is routinely subject to harassment, discrimination, and violence. At least 51 people in Turkey were the victims of transphobic murders between 2008 and 2018, according to Transgender Europe. Furthermore, Turkey ranks as the second-worst European country on the Rainbow Index, which measures how laws and policies impact the lives of LGBTI people. The Turkish Armed Forces defines homosexuality as a “psychosexual” illness and identifies LGBTI citizens as unfit for military service. Conscripts who declare their homosexuality receive an “unfit report,” which often induces further discrimination in public life.
The Turkish government has blocked Pride marches since 2014 and has a history of cracking down on peaceful demonstrations in support of LGBTI human rights. Last May, Turkish police violently broke up a Pride march at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University and placed 19 peaceful demonstrators on trial for allegedly “refusing to disperse.”
LGBTI individuals have long been the targets of hate speech and violence in Turkey, often at the hands of government officials. However, the participation of high-profile government officials in such an extended and government-wide campaign against LGBTI is unprecedented. This shift signals continued repression of freedom of peaceful assembly for LGBTI people and may be an indication of a greater crackdown on LGBTI civil society.
These recent developments are the latest frontier in a culture war launched by President Erdogan in an effort to rally his base ahead of elections scheduled for 2023, though rumors suggest they may be held earlier. Dealing with a chronic current account deficit, rampant inflation, and surging youth unemployment, Erdogan seems desperate to channel national discourse away from the failing economy and towards cultural battles where he believes he can score victories.
Not coincidentally, this culture war targeting LGBTI human rights comes at a moment when an increasing number of young lawyers, artists, TV stars, and influencers are publicly announcing support for LGBTI people. This trend is encouraging, but online hate speech, left unopposed, is already fomenting an uptick in physical threats and attacks as politically motivated discrimination gains traction. Istanbul-based rights group SPoD (Social Policy Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association) reported calls to their hotline for individuals subject to discrimination and violence based on their sexual identity and orientation doubled in the 45 days following Erbas’s comments.
The government of Turkey must end homophobic statements that stigmatize LGBTI people. Instead, Ankara must take urgent action to counter stereotypes, eradicate discrimination, and foster greater equality. Given the threats faced by Turkey’s LGBTI community, the U.S. government has a role in ensuring that LGBTI rights are included in discussions of human rights in Turkey. In addition to the plight of other at-risk communities such as Kurds, refugees, and religious minorities, U.S. officials now have an opportunity to raise LGBTI issues with their Turkish counterparts, remind them to uphold their obligation to respect and protect the rights of all individuals regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and urge them to refrain from making statements which can incite intolerance or violence.
Deniz Yuksel is the Turkey Advocacy Specialist for Amnesty International.