I strongly agree with critical perspectives on ‘pride’ – reiterating that it is a corporate event that oftentimes overrides pressing concerns of marginalised LGBTQ-I communities. Yet, I decided to devote this post to a ‘Pride’ related topic – the events in Istanbul on 28 June 2015, which were excessively violent and more than discriminatory.
The authorities appear to be influenced by the dominant discourse in Islamic societies that perceives non-heterosexual relationships and non-cisgender gender identities in an unwelcoming way. The observer who looks at things at the surface would easily dismiss ‘oh, what’s there to say! Muslim countries are like that huh! They’re so very discriminatory and their religion is simply horrible’ etc. etc. (the list never ends…). However, and especially given the growing aversion of people of the Islamic faith especially in Western Europe, it is worth taking a closer look at the politics behind what happened at Istanbul pride.
There is little argument that Islam is a conservative Abrahmanic faith, with considerably low space for the accommodation of non-cisgender and non-heterosexual lifestyles. So is Christianity, and for that matter, Judaism. The latter two, however, include elements (that largely operate at the fringes, i.e. away from the ‘mainstream’) that are somewhat accommodative of LGBTQ-I people. There was an effort sometime back in South Africa to open a mosque that was LGBT friendly, but it was soon reported that the premises was attakced and shut down.
LGBTQI rights as a ‘Western’ thing
Today (and more than ever before), we live in a world in which LGBTQ-I rights, or as it goes in colloquial parlance, ‘gay rights’ are a ‘thing’ (if not ‘the thing’) of the ‘white’ West. In many societies outside the West (and of course amidst communities with non-Western roots living in the West), LGBTQ-I rights are largely perceived as a Western trend. In the backdrop of religious faiths that are less than welcoming of LGBTQ-I identities, this would also transform into an aversion of this ‘Western’ trend. People who identify themselves as LGBTQ-I are then perceived as those trying to blindly follow Western trends, abandoning their identities, cultural traditions and national pride. Especially in migrant contexts in the West, people tend to strongly cling to heteronormative behaviour, and conservative culutral and religious dictates of their respective cultural and religious backgrounds.
All this serves to make life doubly challenging for people (espeically young people) in migrant communities in the West, as well as for LGBTQI people living in so-called ‘non-Western’ societies (including societies at the historic connecting point between West and East, such as, most significantly, Turkey and very specifically, Istanbul). When a young person does not feel comfortable in the gender assigned to them at birth, they risk being immediately dismissed, punished and condemned for not conforming to the ‘established’ way in which they are expected to behave. Upon coming of age, one is forced to face a constant dual challenge, of being seen as the ‘other’ amidst LGBTQI friendly environments, and perceived as the non-conforming ‘other’ in their own family and religious contexts.
Forms of white privilege in Western LGBTQI circles?
In the liberal West, it certainly is not easy for a person of colour to be fully part of the LGBTQI community without being stigmatised, cornered, being viewed in a ‘what the hell is s/he doing here?’ view. In some cases and contexts, LGBTQI lobbies take for granted routine discrimination against non-white/foreign/non-Western LGBTQI people (people from Islamic backgrounds are especially vulnerable to such treatment). This puts people in a situation in which they are constantly forced to ‘prove’ themselves, and justify their queer existence. It is as if the Western establishment would not accept that people with roots outside the West can be LGBTQI. This is the sentiment that also gains currency when supposedly tolerant and accepting Western governments turn extremely sour, discriminatory and outright violent towards LGBTQI immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers of colour. The treatment that LGBTQI migrants experience at border crossings and detention centres in the West is not too dissimilar to what LGBTQI activists experienced in Istanbul yesterday. This is a reality that a large number of mainstream Western media outlets deliberately avoid clarifying.
A strategic priority: Importance of looking beyond narrow political conceptualisations
Governments in non-Western contexts ought to conceptualise the rights of their citizens for freedom and equality as inviolable. In order to get there, it is extremely important to look beyond narrow political binaries of West and East, being religious and non-religious etc. It is also essential that countries with strong political traditions of devotion to socioeconomic equality and striving to empower the masses through socialist alternatives come to terms with the rights of the individual to lead a dignified life, irrespective of personal choices, including gender identity and sexual orientation.
As long as (geo-strategically-speaking) non-Western states, especially strategically crucial powers, respond to LGBTQI rights and visibility as a form of unwelcome Western infiltration, blasphemy, a disgrace and undue interference in domestic affairs, it only benefits the Western block. In conceptualising LGBTQI rights as a feature inherent to the ‘Western’ block, all they are doing is giving the West – their strategic rivals – more leverage in the international system, thereby expanding the West’s ability to practice blatantly contradictory and discriminatory policies, such as proclaiming gay rights at home and simultaneously violating the fundamental rights of hundreds of thousands through drone attacks elsewhere, all for strategic and economic purposes.
Instead of doing the West favours by discriminating against their own citizens, it is time for non-Western polities, big and small, to prize the rights of their citizens for equal treatment and non-discrimination.
In an effort to document what happened in Istanbul, and in full solidarity with those who suffered police brutality, I will share the full text of an article published in Le Monde (which, after a few days of publication, limits full text access to fee paying customers – hence my decision to post the piece in full below). This article, entitled La police réprime violemment la Gay Pride d’Istanbul was published on lemonde.fr at 17:19 on 28 June 2015:
Gaz lacrymogènes, canons à eau et même balles en caoutchouc : la police anti-émeutes turque a violemment réprimé dimanche 28 juin la Gay Pride, qui rassemblait des milliers de manifestants pacifiques dans le centre d’Istanbul.
Lorsque des manifestants portant des drapeaux arc-en-ciel ont scandé des slogans dénonçant « le fascisme » du gouvernement du président islamo-conservateur Recep Tayyip Erdogan, la police, présente en nombre à l’entrée de la grande artère piétonne d’Istiklal, a chargé la foule.
Plusieurs manifestants ont publié des photos et des vidéos des heurts sur les réseaux sociaux.
Des journalistes agressés
Avant le lancement de la marche, de nombreux policiers en tenue ont fermé l’accès à la place Taksim, sur laquelle s’ouvre la rue d’Istiklal, centre de la contestation contre le pouvoir islamo-conservateur de l’été 2013. Depuis, tout rassemblement est interdit sur la place et ses abords. Au moins cinq manifestants ont été interpellés par la police.
Un groupe de civils, apparemment des nationalistes et islamistes qui s’étaient réunis près d’Istiklal, là où devait avoir lieu la marche, ont attaqué les journalistes couvrant l’événement, blessant légèrement plusieurs d’entre eux, dont un photographe de l’AFP. La police n’a pas bronché à cette agression, selon les témoins et les médias. Une vidéaste de l’AFP a, quant à elle, été brutalisée par la police alors qu’elle filmait son intervention musclée.
Jusqu’ici, les 12 marches des fiertés déjà organisées les années précédentes s’étaient déroulées sans incidents graves en Turquie, où l’homophobie reste répandue.
In addition, I will also share an email sent by a Transgender rights activist via the messaging board of Transinfo Europe, which provides a personal account of the magnitude of the violence directed towards unarmed civilians, simply for being out and about in their ‘out’ selves. This is the text of a message sent by K.O. (full name withheld for data protection), a Turkish activist who personally attended the aborted event:
Today, the Istanbul LGBTI Pride was stopped by the Istanbul police. Several hours ago before the March started, all small streets to Istiklal Street, where the Pride March would take place, were shut by hundreds of policemen. At around 16:00 and on, when several groups arrived at these small streets, they were stopped by these policemen with no explanation. I personally have talked to these police officers as well as other activists, however nothing was provided to us as information. They all said: “This is the order we got from the Istanbul Governorship!”Those people who started to gather at Taksim Square we also stopped by policemen not to enter the Istiklal Street. The talks between the MPs from CHP (main opposition party) and HDP AND the chiefs of the police couldn’t solve the problem and the ban continued. During this time, the crowds at different small streets grew to thousandsand the police started to attack us, the marchers with teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets. Several LGBTI people got beaten up by the police. Several people have been injured severely and were taken to hospitals.Several times, in our attempts to enter the Istiklal Street, the police targeted us with teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets. They never stopped. I tried to talk to police officers in order to be able “breath” at small streets where we were “locked”, they just shouted at me and others to “shut up”. Several people were beaten up in front of us. The Istiklal Street experienced the highest level of police violence, this time to LGBTI people.Police still attacks several LGBTI people who throw out slogans for our rights on the streets… For the last 4 hours…I have seen civilians at small streets around Istiklal, running behind the marchers to attack them. Several people were attacked by these people with sticks… As usual, police didn’t protect the marchers against these attacks.The reasoning is that the March was planned in Ramadan… However last year it was during Ramadan. Last week on Sunday, Trans Pride March took place, during Ramadan, too. Nothing happened so far… This has been the very first ban and attack on the March in the last 13 years… Turkish Government showed its undemocratic face…I call on every human rights defender, NGO or others to share this news widely while protesting the Turkish Government. We, as LGBTI people deserve living as equal as others. Our right to assembly cannot be breached. We will not keep ourselves silent!