TV & Radio
The New York Times
February 5, 2006
Turkey Balks on Widening Rights for Gays
By SEBNEM ARSU
ISTANBUL, Feb. 4 Groups advocating equal rights for gay people in Turkey have long hoped that their country’s bid for membership in the European Union would bring European-style sexual freedoms. But as Turkey has moved closer to conforming with European legal standards and policies, its movement toward legal parity has been halting.
Social opposition to public depictions of homosexuality dissolved in the 1990’s, letting a gay world emerge from hiding, at least in part. The trendy clubs of Istanbul nightlife have gay singers; gay clubs are crowded in the city’s funky Beyoglu district on weekends; and one of the most prominent singers of traditional Turkish music is Bulent Ersoy, a transsexual.
But discrimination and simple distaste for the general topic is widespread.
In a rare disclosure of bias crimes, an Istanbul police official, making a speech before an international conference on global security in 2003, said 36 homicides classified as bias crimes involving sexual orientation had occurred from 1996 through 2003; advocates suspect that the number is not really representative because families are hesitant to bring the cases to court.
During Turkey’s campaign for membership in the European Union, rights groups had moments of great hope. In 2004, as lawmakers revised the Turkish penal code, the groups persuaded the Justice Commission to enlarge the definition of the crime of sexual discrimination to include bias based on sexual orientation.
But then the justice minister, Cemil Cicek, eliminated the term from the draft law, recounted Serdar Soydan, a 25-year-old rights advocate.
“Turks have achieved a remarkable transformation in terms of human rights, but ours is not a part of that,” he said.
Recep Ozel, deputy chairman of the Justice Commission at Parliament, rejects the argument for broadening the definition of discrimination. “It doesn’t matter if a person is a heterosexual or a homosexual, if he or she has been the subject of a crime,” Mr. Ozel said.
The groups have not found it easy to rally public opinion against that approach.
Kursad Kahramanoglu is the secretary general of the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association, which represents more than 400 organizations worldwide. A Turk, he left for Britain in the early 1970’s, when homosexuality was still seen as morally reprehensible in Turkey.
After a military coup in 1980, gay artists were banned from appearing on Turkish state television or on stage in public places. Many fled to Europe, but eventually came back when bans were lifted in the 1990’s once a civilian government had been firmly reinstated. Still, he noted, even popular gay and lesbian intellectuals, writers or artists have not tried to give a public face to the quest for more rights.
“They remain completely silent, giving in to the official state line that limits discussion of human rights violations in Turkey to the issues of the Kurdish community or freedom of expression.”
The efforts by rights groups to change public opinion are hampered by officials in the government who consider gay groups a threat to traditional values. During the regular process of registering advocacy groups with the Interior Ministry, traditional prejudices against homosexuality place the groups seeking legal parity at the mercy of interpretations of Turkish Civil Code statutes that prohibit the establishment of any organization that works against the rule of law or public morality.
In September, a gay rights group known in Kaos GL that is active in the capital, Ankara, applied for official status. But before the Interior Ministry could rule, the deputy governor, Selahattin Ekmenoglu, asked the courts to block recognition.
It was a delicate moment, just as the country was on the verge of starting negotiations over membership in the European Union. In early October, a state prosecutor in Ankara declined to act, after which the group was given public status.
In a measure of how important the European Union considers gay rights, it referred to the case in one of its regular progress reports on Turkey’s preparations for membership, criticizing the legal barriers raised to its recognition.
Mr. Soydan, a member of Lambda-Istanbul, another gay group seeking government recognition, and other advocates are learning organizational skills from their long-established counterparts in Europe, and preparing regular reports for the European Union. A conference that Kaos GL and Lambda-Istanbul hope to organize this year would encourage gay men and lesbians to speak about their lives and experiences.
Improvements in the legal framework could give homosexuals strength to come out and claim their rights, said Mr. Soydan, one of Lambda-Istanbul’s 400 volunteer workers, as he took a last sip from his tea and plunged his hands into a plastic bag full of bright yellow stickers that read, “If they don’t know you exist, we’re never complete!”
“I’m going to hand these out today,” he said. “When I see the enthusiasm in the eyes of the newcomers, it encourages me the most. That’s what counts.”