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The Turkish State of Emergency and LGBT+ Kurds

LGBT+ Kurds raise rainbow flags at Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır in 2011. Photograph by Damla Gülmez. LGBT+ Kurds raise rainbow flags at Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır in 2011. Photograph by Damla Gülmez.

After the end of the peace negotiations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) in July 2015, Kurdish cities witnessed massive destruction. The destruction was accompanied by racist and sexist graffiti messages by Turkish government forces in many of the wrecked areas. Then, following the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016, a three-month state of emergency was declared by the Erdoğan government, extended again for another three months, blurring the boundaries of Erdoğan’s authority over state power. Empowered by the narrative of defeating the 15 July coup attempt, the government expanded its targeting of the Gülen movement, the alleged coup plotters, to also further target the Kurdish political movement. The success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) in the June 2015 elections had re-enforced the movement’s role as a roadblock against Erdoğan’s presidential fantasies of one-man rule. Eventually, the Erdoğan government arrested twelve HDP MPs, including its co-chairs. The government also arrested democratically-elected co-mayors, including the co-mayors of the largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakır/Amed, and appointed trustees to a large number of Kurdish municipalities.

The Erdoğan government’s recent policies against women are a part of a historically significant gender aspect to Turkey’s war on Kurds and a threat to their gender equality gains. One might argue, quite reasonably, that it is difficult to differentiate between the oppression against women and LGBTs in times of severe conflict, as they are closely related in their existential struggles against the constant onslaught of patriarchy. Nevertheless, the distinct experiences of the LGBT+ community and their resistance remain invisible in the broader political discourse, and analysis thereof. In the light of increasing oppressive policies, Kurdish LGBTs are in a “doubly vulnerable” position vis-à-vis state oppression through an “intersectional vulnerability”: on the basis of their ethnic and gender identities. My intent making this claim is to draw attention to the so-far unaddressed dimensions of the political purge against the HDP through possible LGBT+ perspectives. Also important is the situation of Kurdish LGBTs and of LGBT+ refugees.

The HDP party program includes detailed pro-LGBT+ policies. Thus the attempt to eliminate the organization from Turkey’s political scene is also an attack to LGBT+ gains within the state and society in Turkey. According to a survey on LGBT+ rights in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the HDP and its antecedents requested fourteen out of twenty-five parliamentary inquiries into LGBT+ rights between 2008 and 2014. Also, the HDP and the LGBT+ activists faced a number of homophobic reactions from various sections of Turkey and Kurdistan. These reactions ranged from threats by far-right Islamist groups like Huda-Par, or using HDP’s LGBT+ policies against it in pro-AKP rallies, to pro-government newspapers marking LGBT+ activists as targets. Considering the AKP’s discourse on LGBTs from 2001 to 2015 provides sufficient insight into the homophobia within the formal political sphere. Nevertheless, these harsh attacks did not cause the HDP to change its policies. The party continued to bring LGBT+ issues to the Turkish parliament up until the most recent political purge.

Erdoğan’s recent political purge against Kurds included prominent figures of the Kurdish women’s movement and LGBT+ struggles. The government violently detained and ultimately arrested Sebahat Tuncel, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) and former HDP MP. Tuncel is an active LGBT+ rights advocate. In 2008, she was the first MP in Turkey’s history to request a parliamentary inquiry into the status of LGBT+ rights. In addition to Tuncel, the government detained Levent Pişkin, a renowned LGBT+ activist and one of the attorneys of the jailed HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, following a campaign against him run by the pro-government newspapers. These two examples (Tuncel and Pişkin) drew reactions from various political factions, shedding light on how the intersection of political identities and/or advocacies may exceed their own realm of meanings and merge to form specific solidarities. It also demonstrated the LGBT+ aspect to the recent purge of the formal political sphere.

There is a strong alliance among LGBTs of different ethnicities within leftist politics in Turkey and Kurdistan. Some of the most recent examples of this alliance area are the joint declaration on human rights violations in post-coup attempt Turkey and the joint statement with feminist organizations against the arrest of Gültan Kışanak (co-mayor of Diyarbakır/Amed). The state of emergency, as a mechanism, works against all kinds of anti-oppression solidarities and alliances. This mechanism includes organizational aspects, like suspending the activities of civil society organizations like Gündem Çocuk (a prominent children’s rights organization), which prevented further collaborations on the rights of LGBT+ children.  The mechanism also includes other aspects, such as disseminating fear and criminalizing acts of solidarity. Despite these impediments, the solidarity effort under the repressive conditions itself remain inspirational.

Kurdish LGBTs are in a “doubly vulnerable” position. On the one hand, they are  Kurds under Turkish rule, where Kurdish national rights are denied. On the other hand, they are LGBT+ persons under a heteronormative and homophobic social order. Yet this dual vulnerability has at the same time increasingly opened up a space for their mobilization and visibility. The proliferation of LGBT+ organizations in Kurdistan has been noteworthy and promising. For example, the city of Dersim—known for the major 1938 massacre and a center of leftist mobilization in Kurdistan—featured its first pride parade in 2014. It was Roştîya Asmê (“Moonlight” in Kurdish/Dimilkî) that organized the event. Keskesor LGBTI (“Rainbow” in Kurdish/Kurmancî), located in Diyarbakır/Amed, is another prominent initiative that used to be active in organizing events within Kurdistan. In 2013, the Istanbul-based Kurdish LGBT+ initiative Hêvî LGBT (“Hope” in Kurdish/Kurmancî) announced its establishment, asserting: “It was necessary to form an entity in Istanbul that can call out to Kurdistan and so here we are.” During the destruction in Kurdish cities and through the declaration of the state of emergency, Kurdish rights advocacy has become almost impossible, given the authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. The same is true for the above-mentioned Kurdish LGBT+ organizations. Furthermore, tracking hate speech and other violence against LGBT+ people has become nearly impossible. These organizations are effectively prevented from working. In a December 2016 interview with Yıldız Tar, a prominent LGBT+ activist and an editor for Kaos GL, they interpret the situation of the LGBT+ rights advocacy in Kurdistan as follows:

The ground, on which the LGBTI organisations can breathe or work is being taken away from them. I mean, a large part of Kurdistan is doomed to a regime, in which it is a success merely to survive, to live. . . . In addition to a war against Kurds, there is also a war against Kurdishness itself on a symbolic level. You live under this pressure, you continue to try to construct your reality, at the same time you are an LGBTI individual, which means the entire space around you is narrowed down. . . . For example, just the "LGBTI individuals have rights" sentence becomes a luxury, maybe more than ever before in Kurdistan. In fact, what you try to say is that LGBTI individuals live through the oppression twice as much, but the sentence hits the wall and tinkles, because beyond that wall, there is a war.

Trying to understand LGBT+ politics without evaluating its intersection with other modes of politics is a reductionist approach. One cannot think of an LGBT+ identity in the Kurdish context without thinking of the war therein as well. The very identities, both Kurdish and LGBT+, are constructed within and through the war. Furthermore, as a consequence of these constructions, their mere existence becomes a form of resistance: “Under certain conditions, continuing to exist, to move, and to breathe are forms of resistance, which is why we sometimes see placards in Palestine with the slogan ‘We still exist!’” [1]

LGBT+ refugees constitute another vulnerable group. On 11 August 2016, the HDP raised the issue of an LGBT hate crime in parliament, the murder and beheading of gay Syrian refugee Muhammed Wisam Sankari in the context of impunity for such LGBT+ hate crimes. There are in fact several indicators of emerging solidarity networks between the local LGBT+ initiatives and the LGBT+ refugees. For example, Kaos GL counselled 452 LGBT+ refugees in 2015. Hêvî LGBT, on the other hand, conducted a comprehensive research project on the community. They continue to organize talks on and with LGBT+ refugees in order to document and report their experiences. These acts of solidarity not only strengthen the LGBT+ communities, but also form alliances and subvert the narrative of victimhood.

It is also important to draw attention to individual experiences, protests, and objections, in which we can see the type of resistance this article is highlighting. In a recent video, Turkish police can be seen harassing a Kurdish trans activist, Demhat Aksoy, because the gender marker on their ID card does not match their gender identity. In the video, which went viral, Demhat is at a protest site, and during the police search, they request a female police officer to conduct the search. Yet the female police officer objects: “If the Turkish Republic calls you a man, I will treat you like a man,” the officer asserts, pointing out the blue-colored identity card, denoting the male gender. In an interview I conducted with Demhat, they interpret the occasion as follows:

Police tells me about the blue ID, you see, tells me that I am a man, but that blue ID doesn’t bother me either, instead, that blue ID becomes an evidence where I define myself. Her [the police officer] pleasure when she flings the ID in my face, becomes my pleasure. I then say: you have learnt one woman, and one man, the colour for them is either blue or pink, but see, my color is completely different.

The decision makers on gender vary from doctors—who hold the power to decide on behalf of a new born baby—to other state agents, such as police officers—who hold the power to limit the movement of bodies based on a normative/binary understanding of sex/gender. These decisions not only surround our bodies, but also help produce them in a certain way. Yet, at the very same time, such decisions face objections, which produce a certain kind of tension. This tension itself becomes a site of possibility for politics and resistance. In the above-mentioned video, we also witness a discontinuity within the protest, and this highlights the importance of discontinuities within the struggles: they are interrupted, contested, and brought into a sphere where the boundaries between daily lives and moments of protest are blurred. In fact, the struggle of LGBT+ people goes beyond protest sites—and arguably, beyond the state of emergency. In other words, every site of their lives can become a site of resistance. State officials and others used the gender binary against the very bodies that gather to resist repressive policies. They also mobilize homophobia and/or transphobia in different ways in order to prevent assemblies of resistance and new political possibilities.

For when bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands: they are demanding to be recognized, to be valued, they are exercising a right to appear, to exercise freedom, and they are demanding a livable life.[2]

In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler asserts that “alliance” is not merely a future social form, and sometimes it is a part of our own subject-formation. So, if “I am myself an alliance, or I ally with myself or my various cultural vicissitudes,”[3] what political possibilities could emerge from our own subject-formations as Kurdish LGBTs? How can these possibilities strengthen us in Kurdistan against Turkey’s oppressive, if not colonial, practices? Other significant questions follow from this context: What new forms of solidarities and alliances can we expect or establish, primarily within the Middle East? Through effective cultural translation, what can the struggle of Kurdish LGBTs offer to other contexts? What can Kurdish LGBT+ learn from Palestinian queers, as they both are LGBTs of stateless nations? How can other LGBT+ movements or experiences in the Middle East influence us? What might the political system in Rojava,[4] which is partially being constructed with an emphasis on gender equality while fighting against the Islamic State, who murders LGBTs, offer to LGBT+ politics? We should constantly be asking questions for possible solidarities and alliances, then seek new questions from within. Drawing on Benjamin, if the “state of emergency” is not the exception but the rule, it would be proper to conclude with a famous Kurdish political slogan, which also applies to the LGBT+ struggles: Berxwedan Jiyan e! (To Resist is to Live!)



[1] Judith Butler, “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance” in Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay (eds), Vulnerability in Resistance (Duke University Press, 2016), 26.

[2] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard University Press, 2015), 26.

[3] Butler, 2015, 68.

[4] Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboğa, Revolution in Rojava – Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, translated by Janet Biehl (Pluto Press, 2016).



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