“According to them, hate speech is a kind of free speech”
Kerem Dikmen is the legal coordinator for Kaos GL, one of the oldest and largest LGBTQIA+ rights organizations in Turkey. In this episode of Turkey Uncut, he sits down with Jared Conrad-Bradshaw to discuss why Pride Parades haven’t happened since 2016, the barriers to gender-affirming care for trans people, and the present and future of LGBTQIA + rights in Turkey.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. The video contains the full interview, uncut.
We’re belatedly conducting this interview in honor of Pride Week. When I first moved to Turkey, there were huge Pride marches right through the center of Istanbul. Since about 2016, there haven’t been any legal Pride marches in Turkey. How did they start, and why aren’t there any marches anymore?
People first started to have Pride marches in the early 90s. In 1993, the Turkish LGBTI community decided to hold a Pride march in Istanbul. But, like today, the Governor of Istanbul banned that action, and some people were taken into custody.
The first “legal” Pride march could only be held in 2003, and marches were held every year in June. During the Gezi Protests, in 2013, the march had its highest attendance. According to some reports, more than 100,000 people joined. In 2014 and 2015, the Pride marches were also very well attended.
Every year since 2016, however, the governor of Istanbul has banned Pride marches, and also all other outdoor activities for Pride Week.
What reason did the governor give for these bans?
He gave so-called reasons, pretextual reasons. It’s the same everywhere in Turkey. They say that people want to attack LGBTI activists, and there would be threats to public safety, so if they ban Pride marches and outdoor activities, everything will remain calm. That’s the basic, pretextual reason. The reasons they give are the same in Izmir, the same in Ankara, the same in Eskisehir, the same in Antalya. When we read the decisions of the various governors, we think, “Oh, they’re just using the same text everywhere.” Maybe one person wrote the decision and sent it to everyone else to publish it.
It's interesting that they officially ban the marches for security reasons, rather than moral reasons. Why do you think that is?
They want to seem like they respect human rights. They’re not worried about the internal audience, but to Europe, they don’t want it to seem like discrimination is mainstream in Turkey. It’s still very open, very obvious. Everyone knows why they’ve banned Pride marches and Pride Weeks.
What is the frontier of gay rights in Turkey? Are there any areas that you think will improve in the next 10-20 years?
If we focus on the short term, we can see that LGBTI rights are not expanding right now. In fact, it seems like they’re shrinking. But if we focus on the long term, say over the last 50 years, the picture isn’t too bad.
How do you think LGBTIQA+ rights have changed over the last 50 years?
Kaos GL must be the first legal LGBTI association in Turkey and it was only founded in 2004. Before that, there were no legal NGOs or charities in Turkey [associated with LGBTIQA+ rights advocacy]. If we did this interview 50 years, and the reporter asked about Pride marches in Istanbul and other cities, I believe people would just be shocked. In fact, 50 years ago, people couldn’t even think about LGBTI rights. Things are changing, year by year, and we are struggling and defending our rights.
Over the next 10-20, I think the future of LGBTI rights will be related to the general situation of civil rights in Turkey. I think LBGTI people will be able to participate in communal life more than today, that we can solve some problems in employment.
But at the same time, if you look at the reports of Kaos GL or those of other LGBTI associations in Turkey, you can see that we have a big problem with hate crimes in Turkey. Access to the right to life is an issue in Turkey. Last year, eight people — most of them were trans — died because of criminal attacks.
Today, what are the priorities for Kaos GL?
We are dealing with hate speech, especially coming from politicians and other people in official positions like governors, heads of universities, ministers.
What happens with these cases?
If a symbolic person spreads hate speech, it effects ordinary people. The people in the streets think, “Yes, being LGBTI is illegitimate in Turkey.” So their criminal motivation increases and they’re more likely to commit violent attacks.
We apply to prosecutors for them to open hate speech cases, but never have access to the criminal legal system. The prosecutors don’t file criminal charges against people who make hate speech because, according to them, hate speech is a kind of free speech. But Turkey’s part of the Council of Europe system, which has clear limits to freedom of speech. For example, you cannot invite attacks on LGBTI people or other minorities. People cannot defend Nazi ideology. They cannot deny the Holocaust. Things like that. This hate speech is not legal according to the European Convention on Human Rights but, according to Turkish prosecutors, this sort of hate speech is not a crime — even hate speech that provokes violent attacks on minorities. Since 2012, people can apply to the Constitutional Court for individual applications, and the Turkish Constitutional Court has had a lot of decisions that we have to apply up to the European Court of Human Rights.
Are there important cases that have gone to the European Court of Human Rights?
Actually, we have to use our domestic remedies. We have a lot of domestic remedies.
Like criminal cases. But the Turkish Constitutional Court consistently says that these rights don’t apply to criminal cases. They invite us to file civil lawsuit against people for non-pecuniary damages. It’s not effective. As Kaos GL, we filed two cases against the newspaper Yeni Akit because of its hate speech against us. Yes, the Court of Istanbul and of Ankara found in our favor, but — and I don’t remember the exact numbers — but it was for maybe 2,000 Turkish lira ($115/€115). It’s not effective. People are dying because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. This kind of money can’t solve any problems. We need access to the criminal system.
In Turkey, prosecutors have a lot of independence in which cases they bring. Have you found any prosecutors who will cooperate with you?
This kind of cooperation cannot happen in Turkey because the prosecutors aren’t elected. The minister of justice appoints them. The prosecutors cooperate with the minister of justice. And we know the mentality of a minister of justice, so it’s impossible for us.
Are there any employment protections in Turkey for LGBTQIA+ people?
Many LGBTI people can’t access employment at all. There’s also a lot of discrimination, mobbing (workplace bullying). HIV-positive people have a lot of problems. This is one of the main issues in Turkey.
Are there ways employees can access specific protections?
They can sometimes. It’s a bit complicated. If they’re hired into a job, the Labor Code protects them. But if an employer doesn’t accept their application, there’s only the Civil Code and the general rules protecting them. The general rules are very weak rules so it’s not effective protection.
Unfortunately, Turkish unions don’t support LGBTI laborers enough. They don’t care about us. That’s another problem. If they were part of a strong labor movement, they could access other support, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
Most LGBTI people cannot be open in at work. This is the other problem.
Does being married present any special problems for trans people? Can a married trans person receive surgery or other gender affirming care?
There are some conditions for legal gender recognition, and one of them is being single. So if a person is married, they cannot apply to the court for legal gender recognition. Otherwise, it would mean — indirectly — that the Turkish government could allow them to have a same-sex marriage! That’s why this is a rule.
How hard is it for adults to get gender affirming care in Turkey?
The 40th Article of Turkish Civil Law explains the legal process. Unfortunately, it’s a big problem. There are a lot of barriers. A trans person needs to go before a judge. A judge is part of this decision. The Population Authority of Turkey is part of this process. Doctors and their hospitals. So there are a lot of people that can act as barriers.
Also, surgery is mandatory, so they have to accept something done to their bodies. It’s not good for human rights. You know the costs of these kinds of surgeries are very high, and trans people in Turkey have problems accessing work, so there are a lot of obstacles.
Kerem Dikmen, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, too.
*Jared Conrad-Bradshaw is a writer based in Istanbul. His writing has appeared in the New York Times among other venues.