I felt some regret that I’d be missing out on Pride events in NYC this year because of my travel schedule in Turkey, but was happily surprised to find a thriving gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer community here in Istanbul pressing on in the celebration of diversity and the struggle for acceptance. The setting was especially poignant and inspiring to me, given the state of LGBTQ acceptance in Turkey and recent repression against even peaceful demonstrations here in Istanbul.
Last Sunday, we were taking a walk down Istiklal Avenue toward Taksim Square and Gezi Park to see where recent political demonstrations (and government-enforced brutality) had taken place, and we couldn’t help but notice a number of large armored police trucks and police dressed in full riot gear with shields staged up and down the crowded pedestrian mall. The street was bustling and vibrant with families and groups of friends smiling, talking, and shopping, with street vendors hawking produce, sweets, or gadgets, and shop owners welcoming anyone into their open stores. Istanbul is in the same western and eastern, and expressing liberality and conservatism. The crowds on the street could have been the same as any European city. But I might say here it was even more diverse in expressing what I see as conservative. Men wearing shorts and t-shirts walked with their modestly covered wives, most in headscarves, some in complete black chadors with only their eyes showing. The women’s dresses and scarves were beautiful, and I certainly respect their choices in religious expression, fashion, or whatever they’d like to wear for whatever reason. But it also reminded me that we were in a place that often views gender expression and roles–and dissent about them–in a far more restrictive light than even my own country.
As we walked down Istiklal toward Taksim Square, the crowd thickened and more police were clearly present–then we heard and saw why. Groups of men and women carrying signs, banners, and rainbow flags were marching slowly down the street. Drag queens with megaphones chanted slogans in Turkish to the cheering, chanting crowds rallying around them. Onlookers took photos with their cell phones, and the police seemed lazily amused or even bored as they watched from their staging areas on side streets and alleys.
As we made our way toward Taksim Square, we saw a Kurdish group that included traditional instruments, as well as a group carrying a giant, and well worn rainbow flag. There was no counter protest of any kind that I could see, and onlookers seemed either engaged, amused, or shrugging with indifference. This was really incredible to me. Turkish culture in many ways embraces secularism, yet is deeply and conservatively Muslim. Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ individuals in Turkey are endemic, as are rejection and disapproval from families and communities. I definitely relate to this–as someone who feels like I have a great deal to contribute to my community, country, and the world–it increasingly perplexes and angers me when others get stuck on superficialities such as what I look like, what clothes I wear, how I cut my hair, or what sort of people I can’t help but find wonderfully attractive–especially when they don’t even know anything about me. Why is it so hard to have basic respect for one another? Or to accept the beautiful differences of meaning and expression among us that make humanity so amazing and inspiring? Life is hard, but acceptance is just a key thing we can do to make things so much easier for each other.
What we witnessed on Istiklal last weekend was a demonstration with slogans that included the wish for LGBTQ individuals to be included in the equal protection clause of the Turkish constitution, and other signage we couldn’t fully understand. This came as a sort of pre-game for the large Pride parade scheduled for today on this same street–running from Taksim Square down the full length of Istiklal Avenue. The first Pride parade in Istanbul was in 2003, with only 30 people participating. Last year, with the participation of idealist youth from the Gezi Park gatherings, Pride festivities swelled to include more than 100,000 people.
One of our hosts over our week of travels in Turkey, an Alawi Muslim, told us a saying in his religious community–he who has hate has no religion. This really resonated with me. We’ve met a number of inspiring individuals across Turkey who hold respect and acceptance of all people as important, key tenets of their faith and ethics. Another of these was Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a Member of the Turkish parliament who we met with in Ankara. He’s a member of the CHP, the leading opposition party, and as a social democrat (and Harvard-educated anthropologist) he also happens to serve as the leading voice advocating for LGBTQ rights in Ankara.
I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Erdemir about the state of LGBTQ rights in Turkey, and he talked about the importance of a gradualist approach–and persistence. He mentioned an old Ottoman saying: if water drips long enough, it can shape marble. He introduced hate crimes legislation and other measures to include and protect LGBTQ individuals as equal citizens, which were defeated. But he said he will be happy to keep at this, and reintroduce more legislation. Because, he said of LGBTQ rights: “the lid is off.”
This trip to Turkey has been incredible and inspiring on so many levels, and I’ll have more to say on a number of topics. And Dr. Erdemir blew us away with his determination on so many important issues. But seeing the LGBTQ demonstration on Istiklal and learning firsthand about the struggles of these brave men and women, as well as their brave advocates in elected office, deepened this for me in an even more personal way. I’ve long been aware that it took until June 28, 1969, for a bunch of drag queens, butch dykes, and other marginalized people to finally reject the continuous harassment, prejudice, and assaults by fighting back against yet another police raid at the Stonewall Inn in NYC. I’ve attended Pride parades and events across America to celebrate and commemorate this since the early 1990s, and I’ve witnessed my own generation’s struggles for equality and acceptance with alternating joy, frustration, and anger.
We have much work to do in America end discrimination, violence, and judgment against people based on who we were born, and to unlock the full potential of what each of us have to contribute to our families, communities, country, and the world. But. It took things to an entirely new level for me to see this demonstration in Istanbul–and then step in and stand alongside men and women whose language I don’t really understand, but whose struggle I do–and grip one end of the giant rainbow flag they were carrying, and cheer and wave it with them in solidarity. The lid is off indeed.
Today is the day of NYC’s Pride parade, and today will also be Istanbul’s Pride parade–the latter of which will have added controversy because this is taking place during Ramadan. May both parades be huge, fun, peaceful, and inspiring. I am with all of you as I return home to NYC today. Happy Pride, everyone.