History repeats itself for Turkey’s LGBTI+ community

After Turkey’s 1980 coup discrimination against prominent LGBTI+ figures such as Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy was rampant. Anti-LGBTI+ sentiment has surfaced most recently with the Boğaziçi Protests. LGBTI+ flags carried by protesters became the target of government criticism and basis for discrimination.

It is somewhat ironic for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to adopt the policies of the former coup government. Nevertheless, the AKP has turned Turkey into a state envisioned by the 1980 coup putsches.
 
Zeki Müren, a classical Turkish singer and composer was one of the most famous people I knew of when I was a child. He was frequently on TV and people loved his songs. He was thought of as an eloquent person, who used a very sophisticated Turkish and he seemed to enjoy glamour. Whatever outfit he chose always sparkled. He had well-coiffed hair and manicured eyebrows over long thick eyelashes. He was truly an icon. Despite this awe, only now do I understand that he was one of the bravest people living in Turkey at that time.
 
He was different than other prominent male figures we saw. The world was quite different back then, especially in Turkey. Men in power were expected to behave like ‘men’ and women like ‘women’, whatever that meant. I remember on several occasions asking adults whether Zeki Müren was a man or a woman? I often was told that he was just different or that he had a ‘condition.’
 
Bülent Ersoy, who was a bit younger than Müren at that time, is transgender. For some reason her identity was easier for adults to explain to children. She was born a man, but came out as a woman and had an operation. Ersoy was also a classical Turkish singer who loved using sophisticated language. She is still alive today, unlike Zeki Müren. She used to be more visible on TV, until recently. A couple years ago, she was even a guest at President Erdoğan’s iftar table during Ramadan. Oh how times have changed.
 
Back then I did not fully understand what it meant for an openly gay or trans person to be able to perform on TV in Turkey. A couple of years before I was born the military took over in Turkey; as they used to do every 10 years back then. The 1980 coup resulted in the suppression of every social movement in Turkey. It crushed the Turkish left and adopted as a paradigm a combination of nationalism and local Islamism, known as Turk-Islam synthesis. The putsches were against LGBTI+ individuals. Bülent Ersoy was banned from having concerts or appearing on TV. Any LGBTI+ individuals were forced out of Ankara, İstanbul, and İzmir.
 
The LGBTI+ community, which was put through hell, has only recently been able to share their experiences: They were put on trains in Istanbul and deposited near Gebze and İzmit. LGBTI+ people had to hide their identities in order to stay in school or keep their jobs. Those were already dark days for Turkish society in general, but certainly darker for LGBTI+ individuals.
 
40 years after the 1980 coup, LGBTI+ individuals face similar challenges. Anti-LGBTI+ sentiment has surfaced most recently with the Boğaziçi Protests. LGBTI+ flags carried by protesters became the target of government criticism and basis for discrimination.
 
First, the Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu tweeted that LGBTI+ people were deviants. Then, President Erdoğan said “there is no LGBT, we are devoted to our national and moral values.”
 
The Boğaziçi LGBTI+ student club was ordered to shut down by the newly appointed rector of Boğaziçi University Melih Bulu.
 
Erdoğanism has been surviving off this polarization. The government has continuously cycled through different segments of society to antagonize; be it intellectuals, artists, feminists, LGBTI+; and then consolidate its base around this sentiment of hostility. This tactic radically warped Turkish society. Now hatred is rampant and our society is sick. The latest enemy selected is the LGBTI+ community. In an environment where democracy is dying and freedoms are trampled upon, it is hard to hope for a better future for the LGBTI+ community in Turkey.

February 25, 2021 Is Boğaziçi a turning point?