Lesbian and Transgender

Iranians Move to Turkey to Press LGBT Liberation

Monday, July 7, 2014

Turkey's 12th annual gay pride march on June 29 featured plenty of outrage over hate crimes and discrimination against lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender people. But for Iranians, the country is still a haven.

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Iranian gay activist
An Iranian gay activist during the LGBT pride march on Istanbul's İstiklal Avenue, June 29, 2014.

Credit: Léa Bouchoucha

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ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)--Some Iranians pushing to end the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights came to Turkey to speak out.

"We want to show that homosexuals and transsexuals from Iran are existing and fighting for our rights," said Iranian lesbian activist and researcher Shadi Amin. "They (the government) try to keep us silent but we want to be the voices of the voiceless in Iran."

Under Iranian law, same-sex intercourse between two males is punishable by death. Thousands of homosexuals are believed to have been executed since the Islamic revolution in 1979, according to Human Right Watch.

Kemal Aysu, a steering committee member of Transgender Europe, said LGBT people in Iran face serious human rights violations by both state and non-state actors in their everyday lives.

"Trans persons are required to go through sex reassignment surgeries by the state, which results in further stigmatization and discrimination of trans people who do not want to go through this surgery as well as LGBs in the country," said Aysu, who is transgender and has been a trans and sex workers' rights defender for more than seven years in Turkey.

Amin, who spoke to Women's eNews during last week's pride march here, said she was pressing the concerns of the Iranian LGBT community while in Turkey because that is the closest place to Iran where she can do so. "We want to show Iran that there is no difference if you are Muslim or not, you can accept and respect the differences between people," Amin said.

In many ways, Turkey represents a beacon of tolerance for LGBT rights in the Muslim world. Unlike Iran, where LGBT Iranians are subject to a wide range of abusive and discriminatory practices, such as custodial rape, arrests at social functions, expulsion from educational institutions and denial of employment opportunities, Turkey decriminalized same-sex consensual sex between adults in 1858, more than a century before Germany and the United Kingdom.

Between January 2010 and July 2013, 537 LGBTI ("I" referring to intersex people) refugee applicants arrived in Turkey, including 471 from Iran, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency. In 2003, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority nation to host a pride parade.

Much to Criticize

Nonetheless, the 12th annual gay pride march on June 29, left demonstrators with plenty to criticize about Turkey's shortcomings in recognizing and accepting LGBT individuals.

Mehtap Doğan, a spokesperson of the Istanbul pride parade, told Women's eNews that the national constitution does not offer protection against discrimination on grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation. "The discrimination goes unpunished and is considered rightful," said Doğan, who pointed to the lack of protective laws for LGBT individuals.

"We will not stop fighting to receive all of our rights, " Doğan said. "We are making many great progresses within the society, but the government maintains its traditional, homophobic structure."

While same-sex relationships have never been illegal in Turkey, they are far from enjoying mainstream acceptance. LGBT individuals go without any protection from routine discrimination in accommodation, employment, health and education.

Seventy-eight percent of Turks said "homosexuality should not be accepted by society," found a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. In March 2010, the minister for women and family issues, Selma Aliye Kavaf, called homosexuality a "biological disorder" and a "sickness."

Mindful of all these issues, a mixed crowd of Turks and foreigners marched along Istiklal Avenue here under heavy police to celebrate unity but also voice objections and demands.

"We are here to protest hate crimes and 'honor' killings in Turkey," said Sehlem Sebik, a Ph.D. student at Istanbul Bilgi University. Turkish rights groups reported 24 killings of gay and transsexual individuals between 2010 and 2012. Hate crimes against LGBT people are higher in Turkey than in any other member of the Council of Europe, according to the Council of Europe.

While Turkey is notably freer than it was a decade ago, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, many LGBT people in Turkey still lead lives of fear and stigma.

"We deserve to be treated equally," said tourist Yao-Yu Chang, from Taiwan. Armed with a rainbow flag, Chang had come with his partner Oscar Huang to voice their support of gay rights. "So far, we cannot get married and we don't have some other rights as heterosexual people have," said Chang. "I think it is important to try earning our rights."

In Taiwan, discrimination against sexual orientation in education has been banned since 2003 through the Gender Equity Education Right.

Sending AKP a Message

Didem Kosedagi, of Istanbul, joined the march to help send a message to the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AK), led by Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has a socially conservative ethos and since he came to power in 2003 his government has enacted a wide series of human rights reforms. In March 2012, Turkey passed a law addressing the problem of violence against women and the country banned sexual discrimination under constitutional amendments in May 2004. However, the governing Islamist-rooted AKP continues to turn a blind eye to laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination.

"The AKP government is not replying to any of the demands of homosexuals and therefore they are on the streets to show everyone that they exist," said Kosedagi. "I am here to support their fight."

The pride march began at 5 p.m. in Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, and capped off a week of workshops, panels, exhibitions, film screenings and parties.

Organizers with the Istanbul LGBTI Pride Week Committee estimated that the turnout may have been larger than last year's estimated 100,000. That high-water mark was reached as antigovernment sympathies aligned with protests over national demonstrations spilled into the pride march. The demonstrations were triggered whenErdoğan tried to build a mall in Gezi Park just weeks before last year's pride parade.

This year's slogans, however, were once again focused on LGBT rights rather than national politics, Erkut Emcioglu, managing editor of the Turkish Policy Quarterly, told Women's eNews in an email interview.

"Last year's Gezi 'martyrs' were remembered and their pictures were in the hands of many," said Emcioglu, referring to the eight people killed in the Gezi Park protests.

This year, activists chanted "Don't be silent, shout: Homosexuals exist!" Some displayed posters calling for an end to homophobia in the Muslim country. "We are not turning back," "Who cares about 'General morality!'" and "Generally un-moral" were among the most popular slogans.

Pride parade spokesperson Doğan called for an end of the systematic violence towards LGBT and transsexual people by police and military. Turkey is the only member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, according to Kaos GL, an Ankara-based gay rights organization, whose army considers homosexuality a psychological disorder.  Gays are exempted from the service military, which needs to be completed by all Turkish men, on this basis.

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