Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Intolerance for LGBT people may be growing across the region.
There were alarming scenes at Istanbul’s Trans Pride celebrations this past weekend, where a squad of 300 police sprayed the assembled crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. The march near the city’s Taksim Square needed to be cleared, the city argued, because official permission to stage an LGBT Pride event had been revoked, following threats to disrupt it by Turkish nationalist groups.
The threats may have been real enough, but it is telling that police chose to crack down on the march that assembled despite the ban, rather than on those who threatened it. While the Pride parade was indeed attacked by conservative counter-protesters last year, it was the LGBT marchers themselves who were attacked by riot police, in violent scenes echoing those last Sunday. The latest attack on peaceful marchers is an unfortunate sign of the direction in which the needle of tolerance appears to be swinging in Turkey.
Such shows of state power are by no means confined to LGBT people. Turkey’s ever-more autocratic government is increasingly cracking down on many types of dissent or difference, or at least their open display. Across the country, the government of President Erdoğan has been conducting an all-out attack on the free press. Citing laws that forbid insulting the president, the government has opened 2,000 lawsuits against critics (most of them in the media) since 2014 alone. Outside Turkey’s borders, the government has even demanded that Germany prosecute a comedian who lampooned Erdoğan.
Parliament has also been a target, with a proposed bill to remove MP’s legal immunity, a potentially sensible sounding step that could in fact make it impossible for representatives of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish parties to carry out their duties without being prosecuted. And as violent conflict between government troops and Kurdish insurgents continues in the country’s east, Erdoğan has also proposed revoking citizenship for people suspected of supporting the secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
This backdrop of an increasing intolerance toward dissent does not lend itself to the furthering of rights and conditions for LGBT people. Homosexuality is legal in Turkey and Istanbul possesses social scenes for LGBT communities, but “honor killings” of LGBT people by their families remain all too common. LGBT activists in Turkey can face such risks that some of them have been granted asylum in the U.S. Such attacks are of course illegal, but official attitudes tend to range from indifference to hostility.
One phenomenon powering this hostility is a resurgence in Islamism, a once dormant force in a country whose frequently repressive governments were nonetheless secular, following the template set by modern Turkey’s founder, Atatürk. Some of the freedoms this secularism once permitted do seem to be waning: just last week, a gang of men violently attacked a Radiohead album listening party in Istanbul, angry that the group were drinking alcohol on a Friday during the month of Ramadan. Suppressing LGBT Pride, which was due to be held June 26, and its unofficial trans offshoot last Sunday reflects this trend, seeing public manifestations of LGBT identity as threatening and indecent. What makes this intolerance of any positive LGBT visibility especially repellent is its hypocrisy. While gentrification has been stripping the area of many of its former habitués, the streets south of Taksim Square have hosted an embattled but highly visible trans community for some time.
Turkey nonetheless doesn’t seem to be heading the way of Saudi Arabia or Iran. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an autocratic conservative party with Islamist tendencies rather than one with a full-blown Islamist agenda. A more apt comparison might be with the government of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Indeed, a hostile, only provisionally tolerant attitude to LGBT people is a feature across the Balkan and Black Sea regions, where minority rights and security remains in uneasy flux. After violence in 2010, Belgrade, Serbia, canceled that city’s Pride event for four years, returning last year only under conditions of intense security. And this month, the mayor of Sofia, Bulgaria, approved an ultra-nationalist march for the same day as the city’s Pride parade, doing so in full awareness that the two marches’ routes will meet at one point and that there is a risk of a violent attack against the Pride march.
Meanwhile, along the Black Sea, post-Maidan Ukraine is doing little or nothing to protect LGBT people from harassment, while recent ultra-conservative, anti-LGBT protests in the Republic of Georgia have targeted such unlikely venues as a vegan café. The one unambiguous bright spot anywhere near Turkey is Greece, where a government that strongly supports LGBT rights pushed through legislation legalizing civil partnerships in December, and has presided over Pride celebrations in Athens and Salonica that grow larger every year. It can be tempting to think of the direction of LGBT rights and safety as one of inevitable progress, albeit a progress deeply challenged by horrific attacks like the recent tragedies in Orlando and Xalpa. The unstable patchwork of tolerance and hostility to LGBT people across Southeastern Europe shows that, sadly, such progress is by no means a foregone conclusion.