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Should I stay or should I go? The LGBTQ+ community's search for a future in Türkiye

The Istanbul Pride March, in support of LGBTQ+ rights, has been banned by the Istanbul Municipalitiy since 2015.
The Istanbul Pride March, in support of LGBTQ+ rights, has been banned by the Istanbul Municipalitiy since 2015. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Aylin Elci
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This article was originally published in Turkish

Members of the queer community in Türkiye spoke to Euronews Culture about their future in a country where hate speech against LGBTQ+ people has become rampant.

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“No LGBT person can be the product of this nation!,” Türkiye's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a pre-election rally in May.

Erdoğan's win later that month marked the continuation of his 20-year conservative rule into 2028 and parliamentary seats won by two Islamist parties escalated concerns among LGBTQ+ activists.

As rights advocates predict that the next five years will be difficult for LGBTQ+ groups in Türkiye, some members of the community are leaving for what they believe will be a better ad brighter future. 

Speaking to Euronews Culture, Marsel Tuğkan Gündoğdu from SPoD Siyasal Katılım, an NGO supporting LGBTQ+ rights in the country, pointed out that President Erdoğan's began his new term by targeting the queer community in his victory speech.

“This is the peak of institutionalised anti-gender ideology” said Gündoğdu, "the situation could go to a very dangerous place".

Türkiye's LGBTQ+ report card

Türkiye ranks 49th among 50 European countries in the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) Europe's Rainbow Report published last May.

The organisation’s country specific report found that queer individuals faced discrimination in daily life, including when applying for jobs or when looking for a flat.

"It's hard for me to feel safe in Turkey because things that are not crimes (such as the way you dress and speak) can be criminalised," said a queer person from Istanbul.

Speaking to Euronews Culture under the cover of anonymity for security reasons, he added, "Even if you don't experience anything on the street, when you’re on social media or reading the news, you’re constantly faced with homophobic and transphobic discourses. It makes people feel that they are not accepted here".

'It’s not all perfect abroad either'

"My most basic expectation is to not feel threatened by a politician or a figure of authority every day when I put on the news," he said. “I know it’s not all perfect abroad either,” he added revealing his plan to leave Türkiye in September.

In 2015, Turkish authorities banned the annual Istanbul Pride and every edition of the event has been held without authorisation since then, leading to more than 600 detentions in the rally's last edition in June 2023.

Another anonymous individual explained to Euronews Culture how that restriction triggered a fight-or-flight response in him. “After the 2015 Pride March, I realised that if I didn’t leave, I wouldn’t be able to live," he said.

Leaving for the United States following those events, he explained how choosing to go didn't mean you were freed from pressures in the country. 

"My expectation was that everything would suddenly go very well," he said, adding "but when you flee Türkiye, you don't leave Türkiye behind, unfortunately."

He went on to explain that growing up as a gay non-binary person in a conservative city on the Eastern Black Sea left psychological scars that took time to heal.

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"When I realised I had these wounds, I was very happy to be abroad because there was a system that could support me, mentally and physically, and I was able to seek support without being judged, he said. I am very grateful for that, and I don't think I could’ve found that in Türkiye."

From country life to city life

“As a child, I worked hard at school to meet my parents’ expectations, but at university I realised that if I wanted to live a free and happy life - and that I didn't have the money to move abroad - I had to work hard to win a scholarship," he said of his “escape” from his conservative city.

"There are a lot of queer kids in rural Türkiye who think it’s impossible to leave the country. It is possible, and there are people all over Anatolia who want to lead a good life. In the major cities of the west there is a larger LGBTQ+ community," he said.

Performing artist Akış Ka, one of the leading figures of that scene in Istanbul, travelled to London on May 1 following an invitation from one of Britain's leading cultural venues, the Barbican Centre, to take part in its cross-genre arts night Transpose.

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"Turkish elections took place two weeks after I came here, and the run-offs were held two weeks after that. The LGBTQ+ community was constantly targeted during the campaign and the election results were dire. That’s why I looked for ways to stay here," said the artist who uses the pronoun they.

Thanks to their temporary working visa, Akış Ka, whose name is a pun in Turkish about gender-fluidity, was able to apply for an artist visa. They will find out in September whether their request is accepted.

"In my performances, I try to explain transgender rights, our right to live in Turkey and our fight for survival," Akış Ka told Euronews Culture.

While they were making a living as an artist for eight years in Turkey, they were not able to find a job in the last three months they spent there due to being constantly banned from clubs.

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"I don't know if galleries in Türkiye will be able to work with me after I’ve proven myself abroad," said Akış Ka, "because everyone gets a phone call from the government saying 'you can't put on this show, this has to be banned'".

The artist says that since they moved, many people from Türkiye have reached out to them asking for advice. 

“Whoever I talk to is thinking about asylum, about how to escape, asking me 'what should I do, how can I leave?’,” they said.

The NGO SPoD Siyasal Katılım confirmed that LGBTQ+ people seeking to leave were mainly doing so through asylum requests.

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'There will always be queers in Türkiye'

"Türkiye is hard to live in, but there will always be queers living here," said the anonymous person from Istanbul, of those who cannot leave the country or prefer to stay. 

"There are ways to stay here, of course, but the conditions are very difficult right now," he added.

For Gündoğdu from SPoD Siyasal Katılım, the LGBTQ+ community in Türkiye will continue to exist despite being oppressed: 

"This country belongs to all of us, and we are at our place here as much as everyone else is. It's great that some people manage to keep up their hopes up for this country and find the power to fight for themselves in them".

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The civil society worker said that the hostilities towards the queers now go beyond the community and affects anyone who shows support.

"They want to make everyone who wants to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ community pay a price," he explained, adding that the queer community isn't the only group leaving Turkiye: "People from many professional groups, but young people particularly, are leaving the country because they cannot dream of a better future here. It's a very sad situation."

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