“2020 has been a year when some of us have increased our distance with other people and some of us have decreased our distance from ourselves. And we—lubunya who are used to every type of crisis and stigmatization—are coming together with maximum excitement to organize, sing songs, sext, have fun [gullüm alıkıyor], celebrate our existence and our unity and say: “WHERE AM I?”
This timely statement, filled with the untranslatable slang words specific to Turkey’s queer community, can be heard in the promotional video announcing the Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Week. To be celebrated from June 22-28, this year’s Istanbul Pride marks the 28th year of this event in the city. Istanbul Pride began in 1993, when a group marched down Taksim’s İstiklal Avenue and were arrested by police. Istanbul Pride has grown in size and strength ever since then, culminating in the joyful crowds of tens of thousands that took to the streets in 2013 and 2014. Since 2015, the event has been banned by the Istanbul governorship. Not easily intimidated, LGBTI+ individuals and their allies continue to celebrate Pride in the streets every year but are met with tear gas and increasing violence.
This year, faced with the new challenge of a global pandemic, Pride Istanbul’s organizers followed the path taken by many arts/culture institutions and moved the event online. Similarly, InterPride and European Pride Organizers Association have made Global Pride 2020 a digital event. Yet according to Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Week committee member Ali Yıldırım, celebrating the event online has particularly significance in Turkey.
“Like a shadow, the state follows our sites of resistance. And we know that the ruling power, all ruling powers, use social media in a very serious manner. They track political campaigns online. The ‘LGBTI+ Children Exist’ campaign became a viral social media topic in Turkey,” Yıldırım told the Bianet news portal, giving examples of online hate campaigns and creative counter-campaigns by Turkey’s queer community.
Given the LGBTI+ community’s history of seeking spaces of freedom amidst the ever-tightening grip of individual and organized hate, this year’s Pride Istanbul theme is “Where am I?” The online talks, workshops, and discussions center on issues like migration, isolation, and safety. Yesterday’s thematic forum discussed the spaces the LGBTI+ people inhabit—from the “assigned family home” to the workplace, from the park to the border, from metro to the bar.
Other upcoming events deal with the question of location and space through art/culture. On Sunday there is an event on “Being Women in the Entertainment Industry,” which will feature speakers who share their experiences trying to survive within the “masculine dominant” fields of entertainment and nightlife. There will also be a “Queer Filmmakers Meeting,” a forum designed to “develop, strengthen the relations between queer filmmakers, and to create a network of solidarity.” Another event entitled “Where Is Our Geography” raises questions of identity through a Zoom dance party with DJs playing music from Turkey and the region.
One of the most exciting developments in the lead-up to this year’s 28th Pride Week has been the support from artists. If there are to be spaces where LGTBI+ individuals in Turkey can live freely, vocal solidarity from people active in music, film, and television is essential. To this end, a recent video shared by the official Istanbul Pride Week social media account is instructive. In the clip, musician Melike Şahin, pop star Mabel Matiz, actors Mert Fırat and Serra Yılmaz, actress and singer Zuhal Olcay, and rocker Ali Güçlü Şimşek express their support for the LGBTI+ community.
In terms of artist support, pop diva Nükhet Duru remains an inspiration. Since her career as a singer began in the late 1970s, Duru has become increasingly vocal in her support for LGBTI+ individuals, the feminist movement, and the rights of sex workers. In 2015 Duru publicly announced that she would be joining the Pride march in Istanbul. And last month, before playing a free Instagram concert in support of Pride, Duru spoke on the İbrahim Selim show Bu Gece to express support for LGTBI+ rights: “I don’t think it’s acceptable for anyone to harass people with such hatred and with no remorse. I’ve been looking at it like this all along. Everyone has their own life. It’s between them and God. You can’t interfere with their home, their possessions, or their way of life.”
Duru’s vocal stance has increased the love for her music within Turkey’s LGTBI+ community, bringing her into the local pantheon of queer musicians and their allies. Just as music has historically worked to unite marginalized and oppressed communities across the world, music holds an important place for LGTBI+ individuals in Turkey. The examples of Zeki Müren, Bülent Ersoy, Ferdi Özbeğen, and others continue to inspire, despite their complications.
Sadly, due to the pandemic, this year there can be no raucous and crowded dance parties. But there’s no reason one cannot dance at home, or wherever one feels most safe. Some organizations have shown their support for Pride Week by creating playlists. The website Velvele and podcast Yine Yeni Yeniden 90 have teamed up to create “Together and Alone Songs: A Pride Week Compilation.” The almost four-hour playlist features songs by some of the names listed above, as well as younger LGBTI+ musicians like burakbey and international idols such as Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, and Janelle Monáe. Similarly, the video portal GZone and drag organizers Dudakların Cengi have released a playlist of international dance anthems. This comes after they worked with Warner Music Turkey to host a Lip Sync video challenge dedicated to the songs of rising pop star Dua Lipa. The money raised went to queer performance artists who are out of work due to the pandemic.
As pressure increases against Turkey’s LGTBI+ community, let’s hope that these expression of support—however small—add up to a broader and uncompromising visibility. As the classic slogan puts it, “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!”
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