Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
This piece is dedicated to Muhammad Wissam Sankari, a lubunya from Syria found dead in Istanbul in 2016. Mekanın cennet olsun, Muhammad.
On June 26 2022, 373 people were arrested in Istanbul and taken into police custody for protesting against the ever-increasing violence affecting LGBTQIA+ communities in the country. After the curtailment of already limited and exclusionary liberties for lubunya under the leadership of the Justice & Development Party, this year’s 20th Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride March resulted in a large number of protestors being violently taken into custody across the city; more so than in all previous years’ Pride events combined. Using illegal methods of detention such as reverse handcuffs and confinement in airless and unmarked police vans, we were denied access to our lawyers, subjected to physical and psychological abuse, and eventually dumped at hospitals in far-out suburbs of the city towards the following morning. On the same day, demonstrators in Izmir were also subjected to police violence and taken into custody using similar tactics. The following week, marches took place in Eskişehir and the capital Ankara that resulted in further arrests , and in Ankara, a series of violent physical attacks against young and unarmed demonstrators in broad daylight by self-proclaimed Islamist gangs. In total, 582 people were reportedly taken into police custody over the course of 45 days at a variety of different protests, events and gatherings across the country, all pertaining to LGBTQIA+ ‘rights and recognition’.
The question of why we are subjected to such state- and state-adjacent violence as lubunya must be acknowledged as a consequence of the Turkish government’s contemporary practices of moralization politics and neoliberalisation. Notably in the last decade, the ruling Justice and Development Party has adopted an ideology of Islamic morality in order to legitimize the ongoing neoliberal co-option of the country’s material and political resources into the hands of a small ruling elite. As a result, human rights abuses and censorship have become commonplace in Turkey, as a shock doctrine of economic neoliberalisation has taken center stage with religious morality to perpetuate the flaws of an already deeply unequal and repressive country. Like many fellow communities experiencing hyper-marginalization at the hands of this proto-fascist state, lubunya in Turkey have organized in active opposition to such developments both historically and contemporarily – for instance, through the prominence of the LGBT blok during the 2013 Gezi Protests that centered around Taksim in Istanbul (documented in the 2016 documentary #direnayol featuring trans activist Şevval Kılıç, directed by Rüzgâr Buski). By doing so, lubunya have been identified as credible targets of state and state-adjacent violence, with the outright banning of Pride marches since 2015 becoming emblematic of this new and unparalleled era of targeted hatred.
Below, I discuss what I believe to be two conditions of ambivalence that have contributed to the marginalization of lubunya in contemporary Turkey. First is the use of ambivalent language within discourses of activism pertaining to lubunya rights, particularly regarding citizenship and the notion of ‘equality’. Second is the ambivalence of the wider cis-hetero-patriarchal society that, whilst not (always) choosing to directly engage in violence, still hold some complicity when denying its existence in the public realm. In both cases, we see how lubunya are further marginalized through the exclusionary rhetoric of ‘Turkishness’ and the politics of citizenship, alongside the normalization of physical acts of violence in public spaces, usually in broad daylight, with virtually zero accountability.
Ambivalent Language ///
Socio-political discourses pertaining to lubunya empowerment in Turkey offer interesting and nuanced insights into the intersectional struggles for freedom in the country. However, citizenship and ‘equal rights’ are omnipotent in the language accompanying such struggles. From press releases to public speeches, I have both noticed and been complicit in how demands for lubunya equality are based fundamentally on our rights as citizens of the Turkish state. Such ambivalence towards linking our emancipation to the hegemony of the nation-state negates the complex histories of ethno-religious, cultural and linguistic supremacy that have perpetuated unequal relationships between the Republic, its citizens and, importantly, its non-citizens since the formation of the state (regardless of whether said citizens identify willingly or forcibly as subjects). I particularly find activism utilizing legal discourses for empowerment in Turkey, such as those citing constitutional rights, to represent the peak of ambivalence vis-à-vis the country’s oppressive architectures. For instance, Article 3 of the Constitution of Turkey declares that “The State of Turkey, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish”. Through such declaration, multifaceted histories that are indigenous to Anatolia are totally erased from the very codification of identity in the country; Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians and other such native minorities having been victims of this erasure through violent processes in the last century alone. In fact, Article 42 of the Constitution declares that “no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education”. Turkey has similarly not signed charters and declarations endeavoring to protect minority rights in the country, including the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and Protocol 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Additionally, Article 34 of the same document states that “everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission”. Nonetheless, it continues by stating that “the right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall be restricted only by law on the grounds of national security, public order, prevention of commission of crime, protection of public health and public morals or the right to freedom of others”. As one imagines, peaceful activism pertaining to ethno-religious equity, rights and indigenous self-determination does not enjoy such freedom. Turkey’s state(-adjacent) auxiliaries’ silencing of activists and movements that question this – such as the massacre of 37 Alevis in Sivas in 1993 (predominantly notable intellectuals), the assassination of Turkish-Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink in 2007, and the incarceration of the left-wing and pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) co-founder Selahattin Demirtaş in 2016 – are some examples of this. It is thus necessary to thoroughly and critically question the continual usage of constitutional rights as a reference point in Turkey for our fight for equality, when minorities notably advocating for equal rights from various backgrounds are killed and incarcerated for doing the same.
In acknowledging the asymmetric experiences extant between the state and its subjects in Turkey, I remember a discussion that I had in the back of the unmarked police van that we were kept in at the Vatan police headquarters; phones and IDs confiscated, unlawfully cable-tied, doors sealed tight with no windows, air conditioning off, and sweltering in the early summer heat without a drop of water. A young Kurdish demonstrator spoke of the two weeks they spent in prison earlier in the month in Istanbul for attending a protest showing solidarity with the long-term imprisoned founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan. Whilst in custody, neither this person nor any of their comrades even considered demanding their rights to hold meetings and demonstrations as declared in the constitution of Turkey when interacting with state auxiliaries. Their experiences as activists of the Kurdish liberation struggle meant that they were cognisant of the redundancy of such rights as forced subjects of the Turkish state, and instead they faced (later-dropped) charges of ‘terrorism’ for ‘threatening national security’. On the other hand, on multiple occasions during our collective detention, myself and many others on the bus repeatedly cited our constitutional rights during our verbal confrontations with the police. Although our treatment throughout the night indicated how such rights were purely ceremonial words on paper, we still championed them as beacons against the injustices we were facing. Whilst not directly complicit in the treatment of our lubunya comrade just weeks earlier by the same system we were fighting, our ambivalence to the language that we were using represented our own naivety to the permanent embeddedness of unequal relationships with the state.
Lubunya activism in Turkey additionally necessitates an urgent need to make visible those in our communities who do not hold a formal relationship to the state at all. These are individuals who face even more precarity vis-à-vis the protection of their rights than those of us navigating formal, albeit unequal, relationships. As the host of the largest displaced population in the world (currently numbered at 3.7 million Syrians under temporary protection and over 320,000 refugees and asylum-seekers under international protection), there are a number of frameworks across the country that try to serve the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Very few exist that explicitly serve displaced lubunya, however. Although KAOS GL, an organization integral to the movement for equality in the country, has been supporting LGBTQIA+ displaced peoples since 2007, human rights defenders in Turkey have recently commented on the country’s collective slowness at embracing advocacy for displaced lubunya more broadly and actively across the country. In the meantime, displaced lubunya in the country have been subjected to unparalleled levels of violence. In 2016, Muhammad Wisam Sankari, a gay refugee from Syria, was found mutilated and beheaded after going missing in the district of Fatih in Istanbul where he was living. According to reports, he had told the police that he feared for his life only six months earlier after having been abducted, tortured and raped by unknown attackers. Metin Çorabatır of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration reported that “some LGBT refugees are placed in conservative cities, where they are often exposed to homophobic and transphobic hate”, but the violent torture and murder of Muhammad Wissam Sankari in Istanbul alone demonstrates to us that even the most metropolitan areas of the country can similarly be sites of homophobia and transphobia.
As lubunya communities fighting for empowerment both in Turkey and its diaspora, we have an obligation to ensure that the stories of displaced lubunya such as Muhammad are well documented and represented within the activism we incite. The state and its auxiliaries must be pressured to be equally as accountable for their treatment of informal subjects as they are for formal ones. Violence is not a new phenomenon in Turkey and disproportionately affects those most vulnerable in our communities such as displaced, transgender amd sex worker lubunya. It is exactly for this reason that our activism must contain intersections within it that acknowledge our displaced siblings like they do our transgender and sex worker ones, and a good first step pertains to questioning the language that we have normalized in our discourses of representation and emancipation. Only by ensuring that our rhetoric distances itself from that of a ‘citizen’s struggle’ and instead extends to incorporate all within our community can we strive to break down the walls of the cis-hetero-patriarchal society we found ourselves stuck within; locally, and globally. Walls that manifest themselves in the gender binary, in the neoliberal economy, and in the borders constructed by colonizer polities such as Turkey.
Ambivalence to Violence ///
Prior to my arrest in the Kabataş neighborhood, during which I was beaten by an officer before being taken into custody, I witnessed armed police brutally attacking press and passers-by on a crowded street in the neighborhood of Cihangir. In what was evidently utter contempt and disregard for the wellbeing of anyone not wearing a uniform (except the undercover officers strategically positioned around the crowds), the police stormed a café and indiscriminately arrested everyone using excessive force. After fleeing from the scene to avoid arrest, the remainder of us reconvened moments later and marched undisturbed down the streets of Cihangir and towards the Kabataş ferry port. Soon thereafter, I found myself standing by the side of a cocktail bar and calling out to a young demonstrator who had been ambushed by the police. As we called to them to shout their name so we could inform the lawyers of their arrest, our voices were drowned out by the sound of laughter and music coming from the bar next to us. When the police commissioner and his officers approached and started threatening us, I watched as all of the customers in the bar turned the other cheek as if nothing was happening.Not intervening out of a justifiably paralyzing fear of repercussions at the hands of a dictatorial state could be sympathized with, but to blind yourself to the very existence of violence unfolding in front of you feels like a much more sinister act. Acts of solidarity do not always have to take the form of intervention, sometimes, even outrage is enough. Nonetheless, we managed to escape on our own accord to a nearby apartment complex that we thought would be a good place to hide from the police. Unfortunately, we were then harassed by a resident of the building for “bringing our problems to their streets”. Whilst we had expected such hostility from the police, it was disheartening to experience it from other members of the public.We as lubunya had been societally demarcated as recipients of grand enactments of violence in public arenas, and wherever we were, it was understood that violence would soon follow. As a comrade next to me in custody said later on, “bu onların bize verdiklelri kader” (“this is the fate that they have given us”) .
Such occurrences this year at the Pride demonstration in Istanbul are not rare (rather, the difference is that I now have a first-hand narrative). Last year, one of Istanbul’s prolific lubunya by the name of Jilet Sebahat had written on social media about the police violence that took place at Maçka Park in the district of Şişli during the 2021 demonstration. What had upset Jilet, and many others alike, was not solely the level of force that the police used against a small constellation of people that had been enjoying a picnic as part of the festivities. Rather, it was the total ambivalence of everyone else in the park to all that was unfolding in front of them. Jilet wrote that shells of sunflower seeds littered the grass as bystanders, smoked, drank, and ate whilst watching the police violently take young lubunya into custody. Such disturbing realities were repeated this year in our own case, but rather than sunflower seeds, we were meandering through tables of espresso martinis and margaritas. These events unfolding in Istanbul (alongside other large urban centres such as Izmir, Ankara and Eskişehir) demonstrate to us how Turkey has cultivated public sites of state violence in which the wider cis-hetero(-patriarchal) society has become totally ambivalent towards the oppression experienced by lubunya; parks, cafes, neighborhood streets and buildings become fair game in such spectacles, and Pride has become the headlining show.
Of course, whilst Pride has become a space in which this violence is guaranteed, attacks against our communities continue all year round. A recent example of this is the attack on four lubunya in the busy neighborhood of Kadıköy on July 22, 2022, nearly exactly one month after Pride. As they made their way home in the evening, the four lubunya were first verbally harassed and later physically battered by a group of men referred to as mahallenin belalı çocukları (translated as the “problematic/bad kids of the neighborhood”). The assailants, motivated by their homophobia and emboldened by the norm of public violence acted out by the state against lubunya in Turkey, used weapons fashioned out of hoses to beat the victims. In the statement that the four lubunya released afterwards, the following (in translation) caught my eye: “from the shopkeepers and neighborhood residents who came to break up the fight, there were some who tried to justify the aggressors and what they did on the grounds that they were the ‘bad boys of the neighborhood’. Being LGBTI+, we saw the shopkeepers and neighborhood residents who were watching coldly and without moving a finger, trying to ignore the pain in front of their eyes, deprived of humanity … We also know the neighborhood residents who joined the attackers and hit us. We are familiar with the hatred in their hearts, the futile anger in their eyes” .
Moreover upon receiving the news that the four lubunya would be releasing a public statement about the attack, the area that was just earlier the site of violence transformed into a heavily policed zone; in translation, the testimony continued that “we saw that hundreds of police and riot police filled the neighborhood. Around these policemen, yesterday’s ‘neighborhood children’ were deployed, cursing and threatening women and LGBTI+s passing by. The risk posed by both the state and the fascist gangs for LGBTI+s living in the neighborhood was deemed great enough to cancel the protest as a result, and we dispersed”’ . To be attacked by members of the public and then silenced by the state from releasing a statement addressing it demonstrates the collaborative relationship and counter-insurgency extant against lubunya in contemporary Turkey clearly. The complicity of the attackers, combined with the ambivalence of the surrounding public (barring the few who decided to intervene), is encouraged by the state through the deployment of the police to repress the outrage that lubunya are able to express at such incidents. We are given no chance to ‘reclaim’ the streets in which violence is inflicted on us, much like the realities of the Pride celebrations.