LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Pride as a hopeful resistance

freedom of assembly
civil society space

Written by Middle Eastern Technical University LGBTI+ Solidarity Group

“If we make it ten steps, it will be a successful parade.” These are not the words that most Pride March organisers would ever want to say – but on the night before the 9th Middle Eastern Technical University Pride March, it was one we as the Pride organisers had to remind ourselves. Our city, Ankara, is the capital of Turkey, a NATO member and EU accession candidate. With 5.2 million people, Ankara has a population slightly larger than Rome, or almost exactly equal with Norway. Yet, since 2016, the only pride parade in Ankara had been the one at METU – and we have faced police violence and bans. Thus, despite the recent repeal of the Ankara Governor’s 2016 ban on LGBTQ+ events, it didn’t come as a major surprise that our march had again been banned as a “threat to public safety.” So, for us, ten steps would be farther than anyone else in our city had been able to go – and would count as a victory. It would show our refusal to be silenced, and our determination to exist.

Yet, in reality we would never make even a single step. Hours before our march was to begin, the campus filled with riot police. March organisers attempting to make a statement, and students willing to express their pride and love were both attacked with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets. This occurred not only outdoors, but also within the campus buildings, with police tear gassing the library and multiple classrooms. Two dozen students and a faculty member were arrested.

Why? In the past, Turkey had the largest Pride parades in the Middle East. The 2014 Pride Parade in Istanbul attracted over 100,000 participants – and same-sex relations has been legal in Turkey since 1858, before the modern Republic of Turkey was founded. So why has the confetti and glitter been replaced by tear gas and plastic bullets? What have we learned? And how can we respond?

The LGBTQ+ community in Turkey is the victim of a wider crackdown by the state of any group seen as a threat to the current government’s domination of the Turkish state and society. While originally somewhat seen to be tolerant of the LGBTQ+ community when it first came to power in 2002, the current ruling party has cracked down on dissent since the 2013 Gezi Park mass protests, and particularly since the failed coup attempt in 2016. Using state of emergency decrees, thousands of academics, journalists, and others have been dismissed from their jobs and/or arrested on charges of terrorism or trying to topple the government.

However, as an already small and vulnerable community, this general backlash has hit the LGBTQ+ community and movements particularly hard. The Istanbul Pride Parades have repeatedly been banned on the logic of “security concerns” amidst “outside threats” – those who tried to gather were met with water cannons, tear gas, and arrests. To ‘protect’ the LGBTQ+ community, the Turkish government tear-gasses us.

It was this same twisted logic that was used to prevent the 9th annual METU Pride March from happening. The university Rector – who is directly appointed by the Turkish President - decided the event would be a “public safety hazard” given “outside threats against the march.” However, at METU - a famously open-minded university with an LGBTQ-supportive student body surrounded by barbed wire fences with police guarding every entrance - this explanation must be called what it is; a total lie. Thus, the current Turkish government is doing what oppressive governments have done throughout history – lying to make a small, oppressed minority a ‘danger,’ in order to justify that group’s own oppression.

So what have we learned? Critically, we have been reminded that the LGBTQ+ community cannot be silent, even when the cost is high. Despite the horrible price we had to pay, we did achieve our goals of proudly demonstrating our existence and refuse to be erased or silenced. We show pride in who we are. Furthermore, after the march, the METU campus held two days of protest, including a march across campus with hundreds of rainbow flags, and a student-led and faculty-supported academic strike.  We showed allies and observers throughout Turkey and around the world that there is a proud, hopeful LGBTQ+ community here in the capital of a Muslim-majority country that refuses to be erased or ignored, yet needs support and solidarity as it faces a government determined to silence it.

There will be a 10th Annual METU Pride Parade next year. It could again face tear-gas and rubber bullets – and we must be more prepared for that reality next year. But hopefully our refusal to be silenced, the support we have received from students and faculty on campus, and the support we continue to receive from allies around the world together will mean that the organisers of the 10th Annual METU Pride can make it a few steps further than we of the 9th did.

While Pride Month is a celebration of the love and joy of the global LGBTQ+ community, it is also a chance for us to remember that our community, from Stonewall to Ankara, is one born in hopeful resistance.  We, in the Middle Eastern Technical University LGBTI Solidarity Group, are proud to be a part of that tradition, and look forward to the day when our march will be counted not in steps, but kilometres – met not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but rainbow flags and hugs – seen not as a threat to the public, but a place for all to come and feel equal, loved and welcome. We, and the LGBTQ+ community around the world, deserve no less. (Photo: METU LGBTI+)

Read more: