Students protest against Turkey’s anti-LGBTQ+ and politically motivated rulings

Recently, Turkish President, Recep Erdogan, has been facing backlash after appointing a new rector from his political party for Bogazici University and later for making several anti-LGBTQ+ claims against protesting students.

Demonstrations at Istanbul’s Bogazici University erupted earlier this month after Erdogan overrode the school’s tradition of electing one of its own faculty members to the post, instead appointed Melih Bulu, a former politician, as rector. Students at a handful of other universities have been staging rare protests in solidarity with Bogazici and against their own state-appointed administrators, according to Politico. Students started protesting against the politically-driven decision to appoint Melih Bulu as rector and unveiled proof that he had plagiarized his 2003 PhD thesis. An article on Science Integrity Digest examined the whole PhD and found that “about 30-50% of the text of Chapter 3 is not original.” The new rector is thought by activists to have “close links to AK, an Islamist-rooted party,” says myGwork. 

Erdogan has been systematically replacing rectors all over the country in an effort to impose his political views. “Arrests and dismissals of professors since a failed coup in 2016 have already eroded autonomy at the country’s 200 or so universities,” says Politico. Many activists are comparing Erdogan’s recent actions to the 1980s coup that brought about the dismissal of hundreds of intellectuals and academics in order for the government to take control of education. The president’s actions not only violate the universities’ academic autonomy and democracy, they also harm the quality of upper education in Turkey. At present, Turkey ranks at the bottom of the Academic Freedom Index. The report also states that Turkey is among the countries whose scores worsened the most in the last five years.

Students have been peacefully protesting for over a month against Erdogan’s attempts to control upper education. During one of these protests, four students were arrested in Istanbul over a piece of artwork that supposedly combined LGBTQ+ and Islamic symbols. “The artwork reportedly depicted LGBTQ+ rainbow symbols alongside the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Masjid al-Haram – the Great Mosque – in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the most sacred site in Islam. There was also an image of the Shahmaran, a popular Middle Eastern mythical creature, half woman and half snake,” according to BBC. Ibrahim Kalin, chief advisor to the president, said “neither freedom of expression nor the right to protest” could defend the artwork, adding that the act would receive “the punishment it deserves before the law.” 

After these statements, Erdogan slammed the LGBTQ+ community in a broadcast to his conservative AK party last week: “We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation’s glorious past. […] You are not the LGBT youth, not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.”

Students walk with rainbow flags during a gathering in solidarity with Bogazici University students who are protesting against…
Image shows students protesting the new university rector, Melih Bulu, February 2021// credit: voanews

The president’s homophobic remarks perpetuate the discrimination against Turkey’s LGBTQ+ community. “Homosexuality is legal in Turkey but official opposition to the LGBT+ community has grown in recent years. The Istanbul Pride march was banned for five years in a row up to 2019. Covid-19 prevented any attempt to hold it in 2020,” says myGwork. The UN Human Rights office called for the release of the peaceful protestors in a tweet, condemning the “homophobic & transphobic comments by officials, inciting hatred & discrimination against LGBT people.”

Political support of the LGBTQ+ community has always been controversial in Turkey.However, homosexuality was tolerated for the most part since it became legal in the 19th century. Turkey’s gay rights movement took shape in the 1990s, but gained energy as Erdogan expanded civil liberties during negotiations to join the European Union that began in 2005. Turkey has also become an important stop for LGBTQ refugees from across the Middle East and provides temporary haven for as many as 2,000 from Iran alone. Tens of thousands of participants made Istanbul Pride the largest LGBTQ+ rally in the Muslim world before it was banned in 2015, according to Politico. Erdogan even came on a program named “Young Vision” before the 2002 elections and appeared to be in support of the LGBT community: “It is a must that homosexuals are also legally guaranteed within the frame of their own rights and freedoms. Seeing the treatment that they face on television screens from time to time, we do not find such treatments humane,” according to Bianet.

All of this changed when Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party, the AK Parti, came to power in 2002 and started turning the country more socially conservative. A report on human rights violations of LGBTQ+ people in Turkey states many problems with the current situation in the country including: “The government of Turkey limits the freedom of expression for LGBT-related materials – including artwork, novels, and magazines – by arguing that gay relationships are “obscene and against the morality.” The government is able to limit publications that discuss sexual orientation and gender identity because Turkey does not have a clear definition of “public morality” in the national law. 

During the recent drafting of Turkey’s new Constitution, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied calls by other political parties & NGOs and refuses to make any references to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in the Constitution. In 2010, Selma Aliye Kavaf, the Minister responsible for Woman and Family issues deemed homosexuality a “biological disorder” and a “sickness” and later refused to retract her comments after international criticism. Turkey’s laws, discrimination and speech against the community have put the country second to last on the advocacy group ILGA-Europe’s ranking of LGBTQ+ equality.

Despite political disapproval, the LGBTQ+ community continues to fight for their rights and will hopefully continue to be backed by international support.

Header image credit: Economist