PART TWO: Istanbul
Almost three weeks after the Mavi Marmara incident, I returned to Turkey. For a moment I thought I might use my American passport to enter. Who knows, with the relations how they were I was afraid one side –either Israel or Turkey- might opt out for a radical measure and suspend relations between the two countries. In that case, I might have to exit and reenter on my American passport. However, after seeing about 300 hundred people in line waiting for a visa, which Americans need and Israelis don’t need, I decided to skip the whole visa process and entered on my Israeli passport.
Happily, I immediately noticed things had calmed down. Walking down the streets in Istanbul, the only tension one could feel were the leftovers from the wave of demonstrations which flooded the city following the incident; by this I mean anti-Israeli graffiti and a Palestinian flag hanging above the Pangalti Metro stop. Unlike Israel, Turkey is a huge country and their media almost immediately finds a new story to latch onto; so much so that in the last few days there have been no new stories on Israel in the local papers. Once the dust settled more and more people also began to criticize the Turkish government’s role in the incident and questioned how such radical groups were able to attract so many people quickly to the demonstrations and set the daily agenda.
I arrived right before the annual Gay Pride week, something I have watched grow over the past few years. I first came across it as I was studying French at the French institute in Taksim back in 2008. During the last few years, I have attended lectures featuring Turkish parliament members from the secular CHP and the Kurdish DTP (now BDP). Although the LGBT community appears to have thrived under the conservative Muslim AKP government, they have received little or no recognition from the ruling government. This is surprising since in 2002 a pact between liberals and the AKP was formed; both fighting to break the secular institutions monolithic type of Turkish nationalism which is homophobic and leaves little room for the expression of multiple identities. Therefore the CHP should be commended for participating along with the Kurdish BDP.
Ten years ago such a “public event” would have been unheard of in Istanbul. I remember one friend who marched for LGBT rights about eight years ago at a May 1 Demonstration wrapped in a kefiyyeh just in case his parents might spot him. While the fear of “coming out” on television (as there is quite a bit of media coverage) and its repercussions are still quite threatening to some, this year the Pride March had an impressive turnout with about 3000 people (more or less). Numerous groups participated from transgendered sex-workers, university students, lesbian and gay sub-groups, groups representing different parts of Turkey as well as allied groups who tie the progression of LGBT rights to human rights in general.
The annual Istanbul Pride parade in a sense reminds me of the Tel Aviv pride twenty years ago: quite political and mostly attracting activists among the LGBT community and allies. Organized by Istanbul LAMDA, it is clearly leftist in orientation, which in the end presents it with its greatest challenge. If they were to open their doors to wider communities they might lose the heart of their radical movement but gain a new generation of activists, and with proper organization and leadership they could easily double their numbers.
Nevertheless, for Turkey and its civil organizations, Istanbul Pride is a true show of force and optimism. While the Turkish society overall is quite conservative they to are coming to terms with the fact that the LGBT as an active community is here to stay. No longer can government ministers, such as Aliye Kavaf (minister of Woman and Family affairs), who stated that “homosexuality is a disease that needs to be treated”, hide from the slogans thrown at her by thousands of protestors. The fact that she has not had to resign is in itself a disgrace to the current government. Furthermore, the march signifies more than anything that Turkey has changed a lot during the last decade and that the Turkish society is indeed in the midst of a quite dynamic phase.
Link to photos