A critical moment for Turkey’s LGBT community

Posted on 18 Aug 2011 at 3:20pm

Amnesty International pushes for much-needed protections in new constitution — and you can help

Guest.Phyllis.2PHYLLIS GUEST  |  Taking Note

The upheavals of autocratic governments that started in North Africa and spread eastward into Asia have been — and are still being — well documented.

One nation about which we have heard less is Turkey. But that may soon change.

On July 29 The New York Times reported: “Turkey’s top military commanders resigned en masse on Friday.” This is perhaps the most surprising event since Gen. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk assumed power in 1923 and began converting Turkey into a secular state. Politicos quoted in the Times suggested the mass resignation was a last-ditch effort by the military to regain the power it has lost over recent years. Most thought the generals’ Hail Mary pass would fail.

Already, the nation has begun changing in various ways. So, now’s the time for those of us in the U.S. LGBT community to help it change for the better.

Next month, Turkey will draft a new constitution that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says will protect “everyone’s lifestyle, belief, language, culture and ideas.”

Not so, says Amnesty International USA. To date, according to AIUSA’s press releases and related emails, the suggested wording does not include any protections for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons. For sure, Turkey’s current laws and customs do not protect LGBTs. Discrimination against Turkish members of our community is so widespread that it includes virtually every aspect of life: employment, education, housing, health care, public services, even credit ratings.

And Turkey’s LGBTs suffer more than discrimination. They are often berated, beaten or imprisoned by the very police and military that should be protecting them.
Failure to recognize LGBT rights flows from the top. One minister recently said the 21st century is too soon to offer LGBTs protection. Another said homosexuality is “a biological disorder, a illness and should be treated.”

Amnesty International’s recent report, “Not an Illness, Not a Crime,” has a cover photo of thousands of people — LGBTs, family members, and other supporters — marching through Istanbul last year with the rainbow flag.

But it also documents all manner of discrimination. One of the most startling is that military service is mandatory, but “gay men are deemed unfit for the military … and proof of military service is often a prerequisite for employment.” Even more startling: Gay men who seek an exemption from the military “must prove their homosexuality by showing photos of themselves having sex” or by submitting to a medical “examination.” How unspeakable is that?

Another grim aspect of life in Turkey is that LGBTs feel they have to “conceal their sexual orientation … [particularly] lesbians and bisexual women.” By law, women are supposed to have equal rights, but because in practice they have less economic, political and social power, “they experience grossly unequal treatment.”

Worse still are the circumstances of transgenders. Their families frequently throw them out; the police harass, jail and attack them; and city authorities force them to live in squalid and/or inconvenient locales. The AIUSA report includes interviews with transgenders who have suffered terribly. The most painful stories are of transgender women who cannot find lawful employment and, to keep body and soul together, become illegal sex workers, thus exposing themselves to sexually transmitted diseases and to violence by their customers and the police.

In Istanbul, yet another issue poses real and immediate danger to transgenders. The district of Tarlabasi, which the AIUSA report states is the only area in which transgender women can live “relatively comfortably,” is undergoing urban renewal. Some of the historic buildings are to be refurbished and others are being torn down to make way for expensive new homes. While homeowners expect to be offered some teardown compensation and relocation monies, renters — including virtually all transgender women — will get nothing.

Finally, the right to seek asylum is a problem for LGBTs in Turkey. Whether they are Turkish by birth or have fled to Turkey because of even more severe persecution in a nearby nation, asylum-seekers and refugees usually wait several years to have their cases resolved. Meanwhile, they are “dispersed” to smaller Anatolian towns and cities where residents are even more conservative.

I would have thought that Turkey’s long effort to join the European Union would have encouraged … ummm … tolerance. I would have been wrong. But Amnesty International has mounted an urgent campaign to add LGBT protections to the new Turkish constitution.

If you want to join the fight for LGBTs’ constitutional equality in Turkey, just Google “AIUSA Turkey.” The new report and other materials come right up. Also, you can join the AIUSA effort to support equality for LGBTs in Turkey and elsewhere by contacting Amnesty International’s Dallas Group 205. Write to Dr. Rick Halperin, SMU AI, P.O. Box 750176, Dallas, TX, 75275; email him at rhalperi@mail.smu.edu; or call his office at 214-768-3284.

Phyllis Guest is a longtime activist on political and LGBT issues and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas.

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