A group of international academics, lawyers, trade unionists and activists travelled to Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast as election observers to witness the country’s epochal elections to be held on 14 May. In a series of articles to be published every day by Medya News leading up the elections, members of the UK delegation share the international election observers delegations’ findings from the ground.
Emma Òr & Anne Ohne
Erdoğan is doubling down on the repression of LGBTQ+ people, banning pride celebrations, claiming they threaten the ‘traditional family’ and even withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention – an international treaty to protect women from domestic violence – on the spurious claim that the treaty promotes marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights. The likelihood is that this is Erdoğan’s attempt to win the support of more conservative voters, who may otherwise have voted for the more centrist CHP.
Lack of safe spaces for LGBTQ+ community
We met with a group called Kesk û Sor – ‘rainbow’ in Kurmanci – a collective of LGBTQ+ people who offer support to the LGBTQ+ community, with a focus on Kurdish LGBTQ+ people, in a voluntary capacity for over 11 years. We have also spoken to members of the queer community and allies we have met along the way to build an understanding of the situation for the LGBTQ+ people in Kurdistan. Although on the world stage, Turkey was once perceived as a progressive country, in simple terms it is not a safe place to be LGBTQ+. The organisation Rainbow Europe ranks Tukey 48 out of 49 countries for LGBTQ+ rights, inclusion and safety. The LGBTQ+ community here operate underground – organising, loving each other, supporting one another, and fighting for their rights are all done in clandestine meetings and, at least in Kurdistan, without government or public support or funding. So few are the safe spaces in Kurdistan, that members of the community travel from all over the region to Amed to organise, hold arts events, party, and meet with friends – due to an absence of safe spaces in their own cities.
Familiar barriers face the trans community specifically, the LGBTQ+ community more widely, and more acutely impact the Kurdish queer community. Access to healthcare and gender affirming care of all kinds is limited if non-existent, estrangement from family and homelessness is common, and as a result many LGBTQ+ people are forced into sex-work and have nowhere to turn. On top of this, any LGBTQ+ organisations working in Kurdistan to support their community are forced to do so in secret, without funding, and face criminalisation, so any form of support is incredibly difficult to access. They also face a double oppression – that of the Turkish state for their Kurdish identities, and that of both the Turkish state and a large majority of the Kurdish population for their genders and/or sexualities. This very shallow summary is, of course, very oversimplified, and overlooks the intersections of class, race, disability and other protected characteristics.
The opposition’s stance
Erdoğan’s opposition has a more supportive stance regarding LGBTQ+ rights. In the Yesil Sol (Green Left) manifesto they write: “We will make the Parliament the parliament of women, of labourers, of all peoples, of the youth, of LGBTI+, of people with disabilities, of children, of cultures, of beliefs and of all oppressed people,” and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said about LGTBQ+ rights that “Nobody can interfere with everybody’s life”. In conversations with the candidates for Amed we heard wide support for LGTBQ+ rights, but the opposition parties also find themselves in a difficult position. Yesil Sol is part of a societal movement for freedom and represents Kurdish society. In this position they can push for change in society, but also not move away from society’s values or represent struggles that the society itself is not ready to fight. This can not purely be understood through the western mindset of more or less progressive – in many forms the village people represent a more liberated, communal way of living, often with an open-mindedness that is hard to find amongst the liberal, “progressive” parts of society in the West and Westernised cities in Turkey.
Yet, the knowledge and acceptance of LGTBQ+ people is more prevalent among these so-called ‘progressive’ liberal circles. The Party needs to strike a balance between these two groups. Rather than pushing for further liberalisation and progressiveness in a Western understanding, it must find a way towards a more liberated life on its own terms, that includes traditions and the Kurdish culture, but also the liberation of oppressed groups within the Kurdish culture, such as women and LGBTQ+ people. All of this is hard to achieve within the general hate-filled framework of Turkish electoral politics. Even though the Yesil Sol Parti’s steps can be criticized, the party is taking these steps despite the fact it may lose them votes from the Kurdish and wider Turkish society who do not support the LGBTQ+ struggle.
More can be done
A spokesperson from the LGBTQ+ organisation, Kesk û Sor said that the Yeşil Sol Party and the opposition are not ready to work towards LGBTQ+ liberation, and that though they don’t speak out against the community directly, they feel they are not doing enough to actively uplift their situation. Whilst we know the queer community is under attack, this is not going far enough to counter this oppression. They told us that at Newroz (a Kurdish Spring festival which takes place on 20 March) this year, a queer bloc marched with the YSP waving a rainbow flag. Members of the Kurdish community attacked them, and burned the flag. Only the YSP Women’s twitter released a statement to condemn these attacks.
Though there is a slight hope among wider party members that many of the sentences they have been wrongfully awarded by Erdoğan’s oppressive regime will not be upheld in the event Erdoğan is deposed, many party members do not feel that they will be liberated by the change of regime. LGBTQ+ people are typically charged under the same false pretenses (most democratically elected party members of HDP and other Kurdish national parties who are imprisoned or awaiting sentencing are charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’) as many other party members for their activism.
There is also implicit progress in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights within the wider framework of the Kurdish Freedom movement. By creating a dialogue around the deconstruction of more traditional gender roles in the fight for women’s liberation, a space is created for a more radical approach to gender, sexuality and social constructions of family in a wider sense. We can understand this as a ‘first step’ towards equity for LGBTQ+ people in the Kurdish community and for policy and politics to echo this. In the immediate future, the Kurdish Queer community have asked for their stories to be told, they have asked for mutual aid from the freedom movement worldwide, and they have asked not to be forgotten.