Credit: Erin Browner.
ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--During the 11th annual Istanbul pride parade for LGBT unity, which drew record crowds on June 30, chants from Taksim Square protests echoed through the side streets of Istiklal, the main street leading into the square.
"Taksim is just the beginning," tens of thousands cheered.
The familiar chant wasn't so much a spillover from the Taksim protests as a different venue for members of the LGBT community, who have been on the frontlines of the anti-government protests in Istanbul that erupted on May 27 when Turkish police attempted to violently eject activists from Gezi Park.
LGBT activists and Gezi Park protesters in Taksim Square are fighting for similar human rights, said Oznur, a 31-year-old marketing manager who attended the pride march after demonstrating alongside LGBT activists in Taksim Square. Oznur and other Gezi Park protestors and pride participants asked to not use their full names in fear of police targeting and the recent arrest of protestors who are speaking out on social media websites.
"People feel what gays are feeling because we have been suppressed and they have been suppressed all the way, so we are feeling great to defend them," Oznur said.
Oznur had wanted to participate in the parade in previous years, but this was her first time in the march. "With the Gezi protests I wanted to be added in to the crowd to defend gay rights."
Yudum, a 30-year-old sales clerk marching in the pride parade, said the national protests were spreading support for the LGBT community. "I think more people are becoming tolerant toward other groups. This is a part of Gezi as a whole idea."
She doesn't see any legal or institutional changes for LGBT rights on the horizon. "But I think people can get more tolerant and as people get more aware it will translate to legal issues one day," she said.
Istanbul Pride March: Gezi Protests Creates Awareness for LGBT Community
Istanbul pride organizers estimated that 40,000 people lined the city's Istiklal Avenue to support gay, lesbian and transgender citizens at the pride parade, saying that attendance has doubled since last year and reached a high watermark in the history of the event. Estimates vary however, and some news outlets reported attendance as high as 100,000.
A wide array of age groups joined the parade. Signs in Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish read "my child is gay."
Members of opposition and Kurdish political parties also participated in the parade on Sunday, according to the Association for the Study of Social Policy Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation (SPoD), a national nongovernmental LGBT organization based in Istanbul.
Neval, a university student from Istanbul who protested during the Gezi Park demonstrations and asked not to give her full name, shook a tambourine in the crowd beside her mother, Yasemin, in Taksim Square before the pride parade began to march.
"This is my mother and this is her first time in a demonstration like this," said Neval, 23. "I came here last week [for Gezi Park protests] and she's here this week [for pride]. We can share this and people can just join."
"We haven't seen this kind of unity in Turkey before," said Istanbullite Deryz Yusek, 35, who was also marching in the parade. "So it's all great."
For parade participants, unity looks like a massive rainbow flag clutched by dozens of LGBT supporters with flower tiaras and anonymous masks. It sounds like tambourines, whistles and shouts. It feels like confidence and safety while walking down the street wearing a short skirt and heels. Neighborhoods of Istanbul transformed into a safe space for a day.
In a country dominated by Islamic culture where individuals have been murdered for their sexual orientation, a massive pride march offered a reprieve from the underlying reality of harsh bias and discrimination.
One Turkish man recently pleaded guilty to "accidentally" murdering his son for being gay, The Gay Star News reported on June 29.
Homosexual residents of Turkey conceal their sexual identities on a daily basis. Neval said she's observed interactions between traditional members of society and gays.
"I've seen a lot of people who express that they are gay, like with their looks, and a lot of people give looks to them and that's the judgment," Neval said.
Same-Sex Marriage Unlikely
Marriage equality for same-sex couples may be spreading fast in the United States and in other countries, but Simge, a psychologist from Istanbul who also marched in the parade asked not to provide her last name, doesn't see that happening in Turkey any time soon.
"It will take a long time, maybe centuries, for society to change their viewpoint," Simge, 32, said while laughing. "Maybe more than one century, because of cultural issues in Turkey."
Merverur Yunaz, 23, from Istanbul's conservative neighborhood of Uskudar, does not think same-sex marriage is right for Turkey.
"Same-sex marriage will be maybe free in America but not suitable for Turkey's society. Yes, we have a lot of liberal people and we believe everyone has rights, but same-sex marriage is very different for Turkey," she said.
Unlike some in her neighborhood, however, Yunaz recognizes the LGBT community. "When I think about homosexuality, I think about my future son or my future daughter," she said. "If I have a homosexual son or daughter . . . I believe I will defend their rights because I listen to a lot of mothers of homosexual Muslim people, it's a very hard problem."
LGBT civil rights are lacking in Istanbul, said Sezen Yalcin, a coordinator at SPoD. Partnerships, jobs, housing, legal justice and life are at risk for the LGBT community.
Last month, the main opposition Republican People's Party lobbied to initiate a parliament commission focusing on LGBT issues. Yalcin saw that as a good first awareness step for the LGBT community. Next on the civil rights agenda, she said, are social security, access to adequate health care, access to housing and incorporating LGBT issues into the education system.
Despite the heavy police presence in Istanbul since the start of the anti-government protests, the pride march was peaceful. Still, some were equipped with gas masks decorated in dazzling ways and construction helmets painted in colors of the rainbow.
"In every peaceful protest the police attack the people," said Oznur, who overcame fears of getting gassed again as she had during the Gezi Park protests.
"This being an international event, pride march, [the police] could even attack if they wanted. They don't need a reason," said Oznur. "But it's kind of humorous to paint a rainbow on my helmet."
For weeks Deryz Yuksek had routinely carried a gas mask while running errands around her neighborhood, but left her mask at home for pride. "Every time you rise up for your rights, there is a possibility that you will be attacked by police unfortunately," Yuksek said.
Yunaz, a student of Islamic philosophy at Marmar University, keeps the narrative of a Muslim prophet in mind when it comes to the intersection of LGBT and Islamic societies. "Some people came to the prophet and said, 'Must we kill the man wearing like woman?' The prophet said, 'No. I am not allowed to kill people who are praying'."
Yunaz has a Muslim friend who calls herself a lesbian. "But she is hiding," said Yunaz. "She believes she is sick and wants to change."
"Muslim people are saying [homosexuality] is just a choice and they can change. But I don't believe it," said Yunaz. "I believe in sexuality as part of biology, not as a sickness."
Erin Browner is a freelance journalist from San Francisco interning as a foreign correspondent while based in Istanbul during June and July of 2013.
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