On 28 June 2015, the 13th annual Istanbul Pride March, or Onur Yürüyüşü in Turkish, was disrupted by water cannons, the firing of rubber bullets, and assaults against LGBTQI activists as various organizations and individuals attempted to gather in central Istanbul to mark the end of the 2015 Pride Week.i One searing video to emerge from the events is of a police officer firing off rubber bullets at a trans woman who was attempting to put back on her shoe. Prior to the assault, she scolded journalists on the sidelines of taking video or photos but then not publishing them—a reference to a journalistic environment in which controversial or marginalized groups and stories remain under-reported, censored, and unseen. A dear friend of mine, too, was grabbed and “roughed up” by a police officer as he and a friend attempted to escape from the noxious clouds of looming tear gas.
Since 2003, various LGBTQI advocacy groups such as Lambda Istanbul and Ankara-based Kaos GL have organized peaceful marches in Istanbul, following a global trend that marks the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.ii This year’s global pride marches followed many momentous advances in LGBTQI rights, particularly the legalization of same-sex marriage in Mexico and the United States. While people were celebrating in Mexico and the U.S., the end of Turkey’s 2015 pride week was marked by state-sanctioned violence, highlighted in the anecdotes above.
It was announced just prior to the start of the annual walk down Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, Turkey’s iconic Beyoğlu district, that the mayor of Istanbul was revoking permission for the march. As local alternative news outlet, Bianet, reported, the mayor’s office announced that due to the holy month of Ramadan, they would not be granting permission for LGBTQI activists to gather in Taksim Square.iii Moreover, the municipality cited possible provocations by protesters and other groups as another motivating factor for pre-emptively revoking the right to gather. The possibility of ‘provocation’ or escalation is often cited by both the local and national government as a reason for shutting down mostly oppositional protests and gatherings. Though the Justice and Development Party is certainly not the first ruling government or institution (notably the military) to curtail oppositional activity, the reasons cited for the parade’s closure highlight a pairing of ‘concerns over public safety’ and religion.
Indeed, the Justice and Development Party in conjunction with former leader President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have begun more explicit and aggressive campaigns to curtail various forms of public gatherings, events, and art (such as movies) which they find to be at odds with public moral and religious sensitivities. Notably, the Justice and Development Party has developed a proposed national aesthetic policy based on arts and culture that remain attuned to a national and religious program. Amidst these debates, the Constitutional Court in Turkey upheld a ruling that the storage, distribution, and display of ‘unnatural sex’ was punishable by law. These proposed policies and court rulings are not just a response by conservative factions to preserve a social moral and religious fabric, but see such policies as essential for ensuring the public remains safe and most importantly sheltered from violence and ‘perversion’.
Thus, the 2015 Pride Walk occurred in an environment, which not only regards homosexuality, transgender identity, and other forms of non-conformative/normative sexual and gender identities as deviant, but is actively moving to prevent such identities, orientations, and lifestyles from a larger, public view. The attempted prevention of the Pride celebrations and subsequent police attack were attempts by the state to prevent the visibility of those they see as threats to the status quo. However, these are not recent developments or sentiments formented under the Justice and Development Party. While the Justice and Development Party has certainly brought religion to the forefront of socio-political debates, the backlash against Pride and the presence of LGBTQI individuals does not only stem from the salience of Islam within Turkey, but is linked to a history of patriarchal, heterosexual nationalism.
The official political rhetoric surrounding the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 formulated roles for men and women based on essential notions of gender, wherein men and women became political subjects through their distinct and separate roles. Men became constituted as faithful citizens through military service, while women fulfilled their duties and were included as political “citizens” through their roles as asexual mothers of soldiers (for more see Parla, 2001; Altinay, 2004; Koğacıoğlu, 2004).iv This political rhetoric and practice formed a socio-political culture in which gender identity was (and in many ways still is) regulated and determined through your role towards the state. Men were only men in as much as they served in the military, while women were women only in their roles as mothers. This segregation of men and women not only created state-sanctioned gender essentialism, but promoted and relied upon heterosexuality to continue this national paradigm.
What the Pride events, gatherings, and marches signal then is not simply a threat to what the Justice and Development Party claims to be ‘Islamic’ values, but a threat to the very foundational myth of the Republic of Turkey. By denying the heterosexual, gender-essentialist, and patriarchal roles rhetorically assigned to them as their duties of “citizenship,” LGBTQI individual’s presence expose the cracks within the uneasy foundations of nationalism, whether in the form of Kemalism or a hybrid nationalism seen under the Justice and Development Party. Therefore, the municipality of Istanbul is correct in seeing the Pride events as a provocation. These gatherings and marches provoke and threaten the safety of political ideologies that regulate and legislate through bodies and sexualities to institute slavery to the state, not just in Turkey but everywhere.
So, in an attempt to preserve the status quo and ensure the functioning and re-creation of the nation-state myth—as Ettiene Balibar (1991) would call it—the Istanbul municipality revoked permission to gather. But by denying permission for protesters to march in attempt to hide the presence of these people and lifestyles, the municipality (and state) made a grave mistake in their attempts to preserve hegemony: They acknowledged the existence of the LGBTQI community. By recognizing their presence, those in power in Istanbul, Turkey, and for that matter anywhere else, expose the precariousness of oppressive systems, which must be continuously re-created in order to function. Thus, while many were injured and violently persecuted on 28 June, it is not a total loss but a victory. It is a victory because it exposes the hypocrisy of a system that functions through the denial of LGBTQI identity.
i The organizers of the 2015 Istanbul Pride Week use ‘parade’ and ‘march’ interchangeably. The original Turkish form ‘yürüyüş’ directly translates to walk.
ii Pride Istanbul. (2015). About Pride Week.
iii Ç. Tahaoğlu, (2015, June 28). Onur Yürüyüşü’ne Polis Saldırısı. Bianet. Retrieved from http://bianet.org/bianet/lgbti/165637-onur-yuruyusu-ne-polis-saldirisi.
iv R. Miller, ‘Rights, reproduction, sexuality, and citizenship in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey‘, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2007), 347-373.