2 students arrested for involvement in a pro-LGBTQI+ artwork depicting rainbow flags alongside the Kaaba were released on probation from jail earlier this month. Shortly afterwards, Erdogan pulled Turkey out of the internationally recognised Istanbul Convention on the grounds that it “normalizes homosexuality”. More protests followed as a result, with 12 students being arrested last Thursday for unfurling LGBTQI+ flags; the following day, dozens more were detained while protesting against last Thursday’s arrests.
Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University alumni continue to show no signs of giving up on their protest against the appointment of AKP affiliate Melih Bulu as rector. At the start of the year Erdogan announced that Bulu would take the post of university rector, an act that saw instant resistance from the students and staff of Boğaziçi University, an institution that prides itself on its liberal and democratic stance towards academic freedom and cultural values. Since January, roughly 600 people have been arrested, with raids on the houses of suspected protestors and supporters taking place alongside numerous documented cases of police brutality.
The LGBTQI+ community has been chosen by Erdogan and his government as a scapegoat, and labelled as “terrorists”, leading to Turkey’s controversial withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention last weekend. The agreement, signed by 45 states and the European Union, was put into force 3 years before Erdogan’s presidency began with the aim of eradicating violence against women, but Turkey withdrew on the grounds that it opposed traditional family values and “legitimized LGBTI+ propaganda”.
On the evening of the release of two university students from custody I spoke to a student of Boğaziçi, a chemistry student who has lived his whole life in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul. He describes himself as “queer and super punk” and is also a comedian, having done stand-up routines that comprise one of the many different activities Boğaziçi University are hosting as part of their protest. The release of two of his friends from police custody last week after a month and a half in custody provided a rare victory for Boğaziçi University, but the interviewee is still pessimistic about the general situation. He says the release of these students and of others weeks earlier provided “2 good nights alongside thousands of [bad ones]”. Larger Turkish society is still fairly far from western European norms in terms of equality for the LGBTQI+ community, and people like the student I spoke to often fear for their safety, “I’d be glad to live in a country where I’m not thinking ‘I wonder if I’ll be killed today’. I’d be down with that.”
The arrest itself proceeded strangely. The 2 students noticed that they were being followed after leaving the campus and reported it to a policeman who said nothing can be done to help. When they complained that they shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe like this, the police arrested them.
The detainees were arrested shortly after a video surfaced online of an art piece at an exhibition organized in tandem with student protests which depicted LGBT flags next to the Kaaba. An investigation was started the same day, leading to 2 students affiliated with the university art collective being placed on house arrest (and later released). The 2 students released last week had no official ties to the collective, but were seen on a social media comments section saying that it would be put on display the next day. The art piece was then stolen, and 2 more students were placed under investigation for spreading a petition to look into the theft of the piece. The detainees were also seen physically putting up the art piece on security cameras, footage which, along with the comments on social media, were used as evidence in court. Mysteriously, the original artwork was also brought to court as evidence. The judge then demanded an investigation be launched to look into how the painting managed to make it to the courtroom.
The hearing also commenced “pretty weirdly,” according to the interviewee’s sources. “The judge went on a 15 minute tangent in which he was like ‘is LGBT a terrorist organization? I’m not really caught up on this.’ They basically had been completely out of touch with everything.” This lack of understanding of what the LGBTQI+ community actually is is apparently widespread among Turks. The interviewee cited remarks he says are fairly common to hear such as, “I get the gays, I really do, but I don’t agree with this LGBT thing” and “people say things like ‘are you from the LGBT party?’ So the judge thought it was some kind of terrorist organization.”
The court case was finally won by the defence, who’s lawyer is a known gay rights activist, being gay himself. The interviewee paraphrased him, “as my clients lawyer, I am gay, I am the G in LGBT, and you are completey, unlawfully criminalising a whole community in Turkey.” The defence essentially hinged on the fact that Turkey is officially a secular society. The interviewee’s sources said the lawyer made the point that “any LGBT flags near the Kabba or any kind of special place should not and definitely cannot be criminalised in any way”. The court apparently agreed with this reasoning and released the students.
Despite the pessimism of the interviewee and despite Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the results of the hearing certainly presented a step in the right direction as far as the LGBTQI+ community is concerned. Referring to the atmosphere in front of the courthouse where hundreds gathered to show their support, the interviewee said “the presence of LGBT flags and rainbow paraphernalia was overwhelming and it was just so cool to see. I had a rainbow flag, some other guy had a rainbow flag, some old dude had a rainbow flag and some headscarved muslims had a rainbow flag and it was beautiful. All sorts of people all there to support the release of our unlawfully kept friends.”
The students’ release legitimized the LGBTQI+ community in a way that has been unheard of in Turkey for a long time. I could tell while interviewing this smiling student that some weight had lifted from his shoulders, especially as he described the scene in front of the courthouse, the coming celebrations and how people expressed solidarity, “They were all out on their balconies shouting and screaming. It was beautiful […] After all of these years of fangirling over LGBT protesters and activists of our past, I can see myself as one of them, as someone who did something good. I’m glad I could do this alongside the wishes of academic freedom and all sorts of great values that I share with so many others.”