The LGBT community’s conflict with Erdogan: An increasingly homophobic government

  • + The Turkish head of religious affairs accused publicly the LGBT community of causing disease and corruption.
  • + Erdogan chose to defend him and seized the occasion to attack queer people.
  • + Turkish political and religious leaders find in homosexuality a threat to national security.
Source: Human Rights Watch

Why are Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the LGBT community in conflict?

Answer: Religious leaders and the government have increased their attacks towards the LGBT community in Turkey since 2015. 

Ali Erbas is currently the head of the state’s religious affairs directorate in Turkey. On April 24th, he stated in a public sermon at the start of Ramadan that homosexuality is evil and the Turkish people must act together to fight against it. This declaration, despite its extremism, was not surprising. What was surprising was the Prosecutor Office’s decision to not investigate the speech, as the Office’s Chief did not see any reason for it. Moreover, Turkey’s President Erdogan defended the imam position stating that he was right.

Later this year, in June 2020 (yes, in the 21st Century), Kerem Kinik, one of the vice-presidents at the IFRC – the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – tweeted against the LGBT community. Kinik linked homosexuality to pedophilia and argued that it represents an attack to human dignity and must be eradicated (the tweet has been erased from his account). This declaration was made during the Turkish Pride Day. 

After Erdogan’s support of Erbas’ speech, it was expected that he also supported the words of Kinik. Obviously, that’s what the Turkish President did; although he did not explicitly addressed homosexuality, he stated that “some people insidiously attack our national and moral values” and invited his citizens to “take a stance against those displaying any type of perversion forbidden”. 

Traditionally, Turkey was seen as a safeguarded place to the LGBT community, since the country was more tolerant than others in the Middle East region. Unfortunately, it has changed, and the now conservative Muslim nation is targeting homosexuality. 

Since 2015, the LGBT Pride March has been banned. There have been several restrictions on freedom of expression and association, actions that have been reported by some NGOs, such as the Human Rights Watch. Ironically, the Turkish director of the President’s Communications tweeted that it is the LGBT propaganda the one that “poses a grave threat to freedom of speech”. 

Currently, a silent conflict is taking place in Turkey. One side, led by Erdogan, has political and religious resources. Besides, the Prosecutor’s Office is on their side too, as it has opened a criminal investigation on a bar association for filing a complaint against Erbas’ speech.

The other side has hope and the support of international NGOs and the rest of the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch has denounced the homophobic attacks the Community is suffering in Turkey under Erdogan’s presidency. But also, other NGOs with regional and international scope are reporting these violations before the international fora. This includes reports for the UN Human Rights Council. The issue is also of concern for the EU, as Turkey needs to meet human rights requirements in its EU accession negotiations. Moreover, Turkey was a spot for the LGBT refugees from its neighbourhood countries, such as Syria and Iran, and meant an escape from oppression. 

What does the LGBT Community want?

Answer: The LGBT Community wants to be protected by the law and have equal rights to the rest of Turkish citizens. But, mainly, they are seeking the end of these attacks.

The people around the world who form the LGBT Community, and concretely the ones from Turkey, want their lives not to be endangered. As human beings, they deserve a treatment based on human rights and dignity. Erdogan’s government and Turkish authorities are not respecting the above. 

In 2017, Erdogan stated that empowering gay people was against the values of the Turkish nation. Moreover, he authorised the police to use rubber bullets and detain citizens to cancel the Pride parade of that year. 

Despite having been considered as the most LGBT friendly Muslim country for decades, the rise of political Islam and the direct attacks of the Turkish institutions are undermining the security of the LGBT Community. A Turkish member of the LGBT movement said that there are worries of the legitimisation that the government’s attitude is having on violence against queer people in Turkey. 

For years, the rights of the LGBT Community have been under attack – alleging a public morality based on Islam –, and their will is to end those attacks and public declarations from the upper echelons of power. Otherwise, the only solution they find to keep their integrity is to move to the European Union. 

What does Recep Tayyip Erdogan want?

Answer: Support of the electorate as his popularity is at historic low levels.

Since high school, Erdogan has been committed to the cause of political Islam. He started his political career guided by an Islamist politician, Erbakan, even though during the 90s there was a ban on religious political parties. This started to change when Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul and he started respecting a secular vision of politics. 

While being in power, first as a Prime Minister and currently as President, Erdogan’s Islamist roots have been increasingly more visible – a fact that is posing a threat to the secular order under which Turkish politics was functioning. 

His powers progressively increased as he undertook the necessary reforms on the Turkish Constitution and legal corpus. In fact, he has managed to include Islamism in the political agenda and break with the secular system that characterised Turkey’s politics. 

His popularity has decreased recently, as in the 2019 elections Erdogan lost its electorate’s confidence in three major cities – Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This was a big coup for the President who wants to protect his ascenders’ legacy. 

With those actions, Erdogan seems to look for the support of his most conservative, Islamist-rooted and elder electorate, as he is putting the religious speech into politics. Their support could be translated into the insurance of Erdogan’s power for the years to come. 

For decades, Erdogan has worked hard to establish an Islamist political order in Turkey, and he will not accept a decrease in his popularity. His hunger for power has already shown that he is not willing to be defeated. Erdogan has gotten away with all the legal manoeuvres he has performed in order to increase his political power, which include coping with an attempted coup. The failed uprising of 2016 was understood by Erdogan as an opportunity to accumulate more power in the figure of the State.

What is Recep Tayyip Erdogan doing?

Answer: Attacking a minority group, a strategy which has been proved to be an efficient tool to increase popularity among the masses.  

Instead of cleaning up institutions from corruption and managing the situation of the Turkish army on Syrian and Libyan territories, Erdogan has found in the LGBT Community the escape door for his stagnant popularity rate. 

As it has been stated above, the situation of Erdogan’s government is not the desired one. The Turkish lira has weakened by 36% and investments are decreasing. The leaders of the opposition, specially Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, have greater support from the citizens than Erdogan, at least in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara. 

There are concerns among the youth about the lack of freedom and opportunities they have in Turkey with Erdogan’s government, even though these young people support him in the elections. But Erdogan has chosen to not listen to his young electorate – who is more open and friendly with the LGBT Community – and keep strengthening his ties with the religious and military establishment. 

Furthermore, Erdogan has taken profit from the pandemic situation to fight back against his dissidents. With the pretext of the current laws, he has managed to target those who disobey the law and provoke panic and fear on social media and the media. These actions include the persecution of journalists and ordinary citizens, even politicians from the opposition. 

Erdogan’s actions against what he thinks undermine his popularity have not stopped with the persecution of concerned citizens. He has reconverted the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. Also, there is a promise from his associates to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. 

Moreover, his last fight has been against Netflix, as the media platform had included a gay character on a Turkish TV series. 

Summing up, Erdogan is looking for the support of his traditional allies, the Islamist conservatives. In the search of those votes for the next elections, and keeping his religious beliefs on the political agenda, Erdogan has opted for targeting what in his words are perverts and insidious people. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Erdogan.

Life is hard. And it is becoming harder for those queer citizens that are being targeted for loving who they want or feeling represented by non-traditional values. The LGBT Community is being persecuted in Turkey, and it seems that they do not have any chance to win this battle. At least until the elections of 2023, when a more secular political party might enter office.

Tayyip Erdogan has the religious and the political and military establishment on his side. Unless the international community takes some actions against these regime’s freedom restrictions, there is little to do for the LGBT citizens of Turkey. 

Although here we are referring to a Muslim-majority country, this reality is not limited to the Middle East. We have to bear in mind that hate is all around us. And in times of economic recessions and fear, all we need is hate. Some political parties, including ones from European Union Member States such as Poland, are targeting the LGBT Community in their own territories. 

This is a fight against hate that affects all of us. We have, as citizens of the world, the chance to choose in which kind of society we want to live not only by voting every four or five years but in speaking out the injustices we see around us. It is our choice to be accomplices of these attacks, or fight them back.

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern