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Turkish police use tear gas, detain German politicians at gay parade

Ozan Kose, AFP | Riot police officers detain a LGBT demonstrator during a Gay Pride parade on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul on June 26, 2016.

Turkish security forces on Sunday briefly detained two German politicians who joined demonstrators defying a ban on Istanbul’s Gay Pride parade. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and detained 12 activists in a bid to disperse the gathering.

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Istanbul Pride -- dubbed “the biggest gay pride parade in the Muslim world” -- collapsed in chaos this year with heavily outnumbered Turkish riot and plainclothes police clamping down on a few hundred protesters who gathered in small groups Sunday around the city’s landmark Istiklal Avenue.

Two German politicians -- Volker Beck, a prominent Green lawmaker and one of Germany's most vocal gay politicians, and Green MEP Terry Reintke -- were detained on Sunday and held for a few hours. By Sunday night, a dozen other detained activists had been released.

Since its 2003 launch, the annual Istanbul Pride has attracted thousands of demonstrators, becoming a hallmark event in international LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) circles. The 2013 march, for instance, attracted nearly 100,000 people, filling up the entire length of Istiklal Avenue, as the anti-government Gezi Park demonstrators joined forces with the gay rights movement in an extraordinary display of grassroots mobilisation.

‘They essentially hate the LGBT community’

The contrast between the 2013 march and the small groups of hardened activists on Sunday daring to defy the ban on the gathering was sharp.

Authorities in Turkey’s commercial capital banned the 2016 Istanbul Pride parade citing security concerns. The fallout of the war in neighbouring Syria and the scrapping of a peace process with the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has hit Turkey in recent months, with the country witnessing a number of deadly attacks, including a March 19 attack in Istanbul’s tourist district of Beyoglu, which killed five people.

Turkey’s gay rights activists however were not convinced by the ruling AK Party’s assertion that the march was banned due to security concerns. “The AK Party has an Islamist tendency and they essentially hate the LGBT community,” explained Levent Piskin, a lawyer and prominent Turkish gay rights activist. “They should have provided us with a democratic way to demonstrate, but they didn’t. They chose instead to forbid the demonstration.”

Piskin was speaking to FRANCE 24 during a banned transgender parade a week before Sunday’s march, where similar scenes unfolded on Istiklal Avenue, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse scattered groups of demonstrators.

Sitting in a café on Istiklal Avenue while police officials in riot gear blocked the side streets leading to the city’s main tourist drag, Piskin nervously monitored his incessantly ringing and beeping mobile phone as reports from demonstrators in the area began pouring in.

As the now familiar scenes of a police crackdown on demonstrators unfurled, Piskin noted that the deadly June 12 attack on an Orlando gay nightclub by an Afghan-American had increased the tensions surrounding the event this year. “This situation is stemming from the Orlando attacks. It has very much affected the Middle East. Turkey has a Muslim majority and according to conservative, observant Muslims, homosexuality is a sin,” explained Piskin.

‘Ramadan is an excuse’

This year’s gay pride parade -- which is held either on the last weekend of June or the first in July – occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The timing offended a number of conservative Turks in a country where the rising tide of Islamism has been testing the republic’s constitutional secularism, deepening the divide between Turkey’s Islamists and secularists.

While homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, homophobia is widespread across ideological lines. The June 19 transgender march, for instance, was banned after an ultra-nationalist youth group, the Alperen Hearths, threatened to break up the rally. At a press conference days before the "trans pride" parade, the group’s Istanbul provincial head, Kürşat Mican, warned, “To our state officials: do not make us deal with this. Either do what is needed or we will do it. We will take any risks, we will directly prevent the march.”

Turkish gay rights activists have dismissed the government’s assertions that a gay pride parade during Ramadan increases the security risks. “Ramadan is an excuse. If you are going to respect Ramadan, respect us too. The heterosexuals think it’s too much for us, only two hours in 365 days,” Ebru Kırancı, a spokeswoman for the Lambdaistanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association, told the Guardian.

‘Islam and homosexuality are not against each other’

Last year, the Istanbul Pride also coincided with the holy month of Ramadan and also ended with police firing water cannons and rubber pellets to disperse hundreds of demonstrators.

This year’s parade drew fewer people amid fears of a repeat of the kind of police crackdown Istanbul residents are familiar with. It also came weeks after the Orlando nightclub attack by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American of Afghan origin who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group, that has sparked a debate on gay rights within Islam.

Piskin however does not believe that Islam is inherently homophobic. “Islam and homosexuality are not against each other. It’s just a hegemonic Islamist interpretation that says homosexuality is a sin or that Islam calls for the headscarf. Gays can be Muslim, Christian, Hindu, anything. Islam is a belief, this is a matter of gender identity. There’s no contradiction.”

A number of scholars have noted that the Koran does not call for the punishment of gays and that most of the vilification of homosexuality comes from the hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammed, which have been frequently debated through the centuries.

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Turkey scores slightly better on gay rights than Christian-majority countries in the region, such as Russia, Armenia and Ukraine.

Scholars also point to the popularity of flamboyantly gay or transsexual entertainers in modern Turkey, such as the late Zeki Muren and the singer Bulent Ersoy, noting that Turkish society accepts eccentricity among performers.

Gay relationships, as well as a rich literature celebrating gay relationships, flourished under the Ottomans, leading Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and author of the book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” to note that, “The Ottoman sultans, arguably, were social liberals compared with the contemporary Islamists of Turkey, let alone the Arab World.”

Turkish activists say that the tradition of a pluralist Islam is being steadily eroded oded President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government. But Piskin insists Turkey’s gay rights movement will not be silenced. “Our movement has been developing and strengthening for years. We are everywhere -- we’re lawyers, students, parliamentary candidates -- we have our opinions and we will be heard, we will not be silenced.”

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