“If you had stood by us when the Gay Pride parade was banned with the excuse that it was Ramadan—if you had reacted to those bans loudly and visibly—then we could have prevented all of this from happening, all together.”
So wrote Iris Mozalar, a 21-year-old artist and model. Iris is a recognizable and loved personality from Turkey’s transgender community. She is also the subject of the internationally acclaimed, short documentary “Iris.” Her Tweet from June 22 was a response to President Erdoğan’s statement about live music last week.
Erdoğan announced a number of normalization measures under the auspices of Turkey’s COVID-19 restrictions, but he stated that certain things would still not be tolerated, regardless of the pandemic. “We’re pushing our ban on music back to midnight. My apologies, but no one has the right to disturb anybody else.”
After this statement, the typical cycle of online indignation began. Outraged citizens took to Twitter in a flurry of rage. Under the hashtag “We don’t accept your apology” (#kusurabakıyoruz) they listed their objections. First, the music industry has already been brought to its knees by the COVID-19 restrictions. More than 100 unemployed musicians have committed suicide. While shopping malls and mosques remain open, why should open-air concerts be banned? There is no scientific basis for the ban on live music.
Instead, as many rightly argued, the Turkish government seems to be using the pandemic as an excuse to intervene in people’s lifestyles, as with the blanket ban on alcohol sales during last month’s weekend curfews. Banning music after midnight is just another nail in the coffin of the music and entertainment industries. The ultimate goal is to ban anything that does not fit the government’s conservative culture war, whether it be live music, drinking, or ‘improper’ dancing.
Yet it should be obvious at this point to anyone who follows Turkey that the front line of this conservative culture war is LGBTI+ issues. For the last 6 years, the government has been taking an increasingly belligerent stance against the LGBTI+ community. After several years of jubilant and crowded Pride marches in Istanbul, in 2015 the governor banned the event. The excuse that year was that it coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. The next year it was so-called security concerns. Ever since then, riot police and pressurized water cannons have become an indispensable part of Pride. LGBTI+ people and their allies still gather to celebrate and affirm their existence, as they did this last Saturday for the Pride Parade in Taksim, but they know that what awaits them is less a joyful march than a violent battleground.
And so Iris Mozalar’s point is that those who are concerned about live music or alcohol being restricted should loudly express their solidarity with Turkey’s LGBTI+ community. The two groups are natural allies in the fight for everyone to live as they please and be who they are, without arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions. People who want dance, drink, and sing freely should see that their place is also under the rainbow flag, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For this reason, it hurt to see thousands of regular citizens and high-profile bands quickly and unambiguously come out against the music restrictions while Pride Month is once again here and LGBTI+ people are once again left without sufficient public support. Yes, high-profile musicians like Zeynep Bastık posted “Love is love” on social media during Pride, but are they truly putting themselves on the line to protect their LGBTI+ fans?
For example, after the President’s statement about live music, some musicians took to the streets in civil disobedience. At midnight on June 21, rapper Ağaçkakan announced that he would be playing a mini-concert at a park in the Kadıköy district of Istanbul. Before he could perform a single note, the police took him into custody. Yet the music-loving public showed him an outpouring of support until he was eventually freed.
Two days later the LGBTI+ staged its own act of civil disobedience but did not enjoy the same public support. A Pride Week picnic that was planned for Heybeliada was canceled by the police. The organizers decided last minute to move the event to Maçka Parkı, a green space massively popular with beer-drinking youngsters that is part of the supposedly liberal Şişli Municipality. Yet the Şişli Governorate has banned all events associated with Pride Week under the pretext of “national security, public order, prevention of crime”. And so when the few dozen picnickers came with their blankets and vegan snacks to sit in the grass and chat, they were met with police checkpoints. The police searched everyone’s bags for rainbow-colored flags, blankets, or clothes as if they were illegal paraphernalia. The picnickers were finally able to enter the park, but after raising a rainbow flag for a photo they were beaten and dispersed by the police. A university student broke their arm and another was taken into police custody.
When the rainbow flag was banned from the park and the picnickers beaten, the response beyond LGBTI+ activist circles was crickets. Yet those who want freedom for their music and their lifestyles should recognize that whatever restrictions are imposed on them are first tested on the LGBTI+ community. They are seen as expendable guinea pigs. When the public fails to stand up for the rainbow flag, the government raises the stakes and imposes restrictions and bans on ever wider sectors of society. After all, they have already gotten away with it once.
There is only one way out of this cycle--to stand together. Just as musicians are performing acts of civil disobedience against the concert bans, LGBTI+ people are staging their own, lonelier acts of civil disobedience. At the Pride Parade in Taksim on Saturday, they were again beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested.
Will you be standing with them next time?