THE BLOG

'The Other' and LGBT Rights in Turkey

05/17/2013 12:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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In 2009, Dr. Binnaz Toprak, then a professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, authored a report titled "Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization." The report, jointly published with the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, demonstrated how the conservative religious politics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had intensified the sense of "otherness" and marginalization of people "with different identities or preferences."

In her research, Dr. Toprak cites a 2006 survey that shows that for people in Turkey, a country with one of the highest rates of violent hate crimes against transgender worldwide, "the most undesirable neighbors include Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslims, foreigners and homosexuals." She says that her research shows that verbal harassment of male teenagers suspected of being gay is a common phenomenon in Turkey, where they are often told, "You should try to look more like your father than your mother!," or asked questions like, "Are you the gun or the ammunition?," an offensive way of asking, "Are you gay?"

In June 2011, Dr. Toprak was elected as a representative from Istanbul, Turkey's largest metropolis, to the Grand National Assembly, the nation's parliament. In that election, her party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), secured 135 parliamentary seats, more than 25 percent of the total. Being a freshman from the largest opposition bloc allowed the 69-year-old former political scientist a unique opportunity to push for her vision for social change through inclusion and equal rights before law.

On Feb. 14, 2013, Dr. Toprak made history by breaking the government's silence on violence against LGBT people in Turkey. She sponsored a motion demanding that the parliament establish a commission of inquiry to identify all forms of discrimination and abuse faced by the LGBT community. Dr. Toprak's motion collected a total of 59 signatures from members of parliament.

Dr. Toprak's historic motion starts with a description of how "otherness" motivates discrimination and how the LGBT community in Turkey experiences discrimination, violence and denial of rights. It declares that social development is not possible as long as discrimination against LGBT people is ignored by the government, which has been "adopting the language of the majority on this issue, and allowing the occurrence of discrimination and abuse." The motion also took note of the fact that the ruling AKP party rejected the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the draft of the new constitution.

The motion references a survey of LGBT people that finds that more than 70 percent of the members of this community are afraid of being attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, given the apathy of government officials, incidents of police harassment and abuse and disproportionate arrests under vague regulation (especially the Law of Misdemeanors). The document raises concerns regarding social and cultural prejudices that classify LGBT people as "sick" and "twisted," a negative outlook that has contributed to a high suicide rate among the LGBT population as well as incitement of hate crimes against this portion of the population. Such stereotypes also have a devastating economic impact on the LGBT community, including exclusion from the the labor market and forced sex labor as a survival technique.

Despite the immense symbolic value of this motion, it was not met with a positive response from the government. As Dr. Toprak told the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, the "LGBT issue seems to be the Achilles heel of the [ruling] AKP.... [There has been a pattern of] rejection of the [ruling party to include LGBT rights] in the resolutions on hate speech, and their position on [using "gender equality" instead of "gender expression"] in the draft law on violence against women."

Dr. Toprak's decision to initiate the motion was motivated by two high-profile international documents on Turkey, which found the government of Turkey responsible for not protecting LGBT people's human rights. The first document, the 2012 European Commission Progress Report on Turkey, was issued in November 2012, demanding that the government of Turkey pass "comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, including the establishment of an anti-discrimination and equality board," and noted that LGBT "[p]erson(s) continued to suffer discrimination, intimidation and were the victims of violent crime," which was compounded by "shortcomings in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity."

The second document was the Concluding Observations by the United Nation's Human Rights Committee following the committee's review of Turkey's compliance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at its 106th session in November 2012. The UN Committee voiced concerns "about the discrimination and alleged acts of violence against people on the basis of their gender identity and sexual orientation, and about the social stigmatization and social exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons," while requesting that the government of Turkey "ensure the investigation, prosecution and punishment of any act of discrimination or violence motivated by the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity."

Dr. Toprak and her brave colleagues in parliament are great allies of the LGBT movement in Turkey. Their political fight for equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, is a source of inspiration for human rights activists in Turkey who have been advocating for years for equal rights and protection of LGBT individuals. IGLHRC is proud to support the efforts of LGBT activists from Turkey through years of international solidarity work as well as proactive advocacy at the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

On May 13 Dr. Toprak received the Outspoken Award, presented by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission at A Celebration of Courage. Each year since 1994, IGLHRC has honored those making a significant, lasting and heroic impact on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people worldwide.