Elif İnce: A History of Turkey’s LGBTI Movement in the 1990s

Despite the raids and evacuations of trans homes in Cihangir and torture in police custody, the LGBTI in Turkey became organized during the 1990s. Lambdaistanbul and Kaos GL associations were founded after the police dispersed the 1993 Pride Parade and the first LGBTI publications appeared.

Source: Elif İnce, “LGBTİ: Kaldırımın Altından Gökkuşağı Çıkıyor”, (“LGBTI: The Rainbow is Peaking Out from the Pavement”), bianet, 8 December 2014, http://bianet.org/bianet/lgbti/160544-lgbti-kaldirimin-altindan-gokkusagi-cikiyor

The 1990s were the years when the LGBTI movement started to organize as a social movement against police violence. Despite the raids on homes and nightclubs and the days-long torture in police custody, these years witnessed the foundation of the Lambdaistanbul and Kaos GL associations, the LGBTI organizations in universities, and the first LGBTI publications.

The first Pride Parade named “Sexual Freedom Events” in 1993 in Beyoğlu was blocked by the police based on the governor’s ban. Activists’ houses were raided and they were taken into custody. Participants from abroad were deported. The first pride parade was held ten years later in 2003 and was attended by 40 people. In the last pride parade, 2014, tens of thousands marched.

Gays, Feminists, Greens

The oppressive environment of the 1980 military coup led to the weakening of mainstream leftist groups. Those who could not previously find a place for themselves in these movements began to have their voice heard. In 1997, the Kaos GL Association submitted a statement to be published in Radikal İki, a Sunday issue of a liberal daily Turkish newspaper (now only online). The statement read as follows:

“Transvestites, transsexuals, feminine gays also experienced the oppression of the 1980 coup. Things were ignored and it was a time of every man for himself. When we tried to make a little bit of noise, our voice was drowned among those endless hierarchies. They’d say “not now; there are bigger urgencies”… In the 1980s, there were similar reactions from many different groups to voices that people were not used to, voices they had not heard before. Gays, feminists, greens… Where the hell did they come from?”

In the mid-1980s, the Radical Democrat Green Party Initiative was founded under İbrahim Eren’s leadership. Greens, feminists, atheists, anti-militarists, as well as gay and trans individuals started to organize within this initiative. The party declared its support for gay rights. Eren observed that gays became the largest group within the party and the party was dubbed the “party of the gays”. In 1998, trans activist Demet Demir said, “the group was called the gay group but the majority were trans.”

Sevda Yılmaz, who wrote under the pen-name of Ali Kemal Yılmaz, tells the story of a hunger strike that began on 29 April 1987 to protest the systemic violence and oppression of gay and trans individuals at the hands of the Beyoğlu Police Department. The Radical Democrat Green Party Initiative supported the strike.

The strike which began in a house in Taksim moved to the stairs of Gezi Park on 30 April and was dispersed by the police. The strike continued in different houses for a couple of weeks. Yılmaz was the spokesperson for the strike, which found coverage in international press and drew the support of important artists such as Türkan Şoray, Rıfat Ilgaz and Barış Pirhasan.

This hunger strike is remembered as the first large-scale LGBTI protest before the 1990s.

Preparing for the First Pride March

Istanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association volunteer İlker Çakmak remembers the meetings in 1992 for the 1993 pride parade, which ended up being blocked by the governor’s ban and police intervention.

Heribert Mürmann, a member of the International Gay Group Berlin Executive Committee, played a key role in the organization. With the suggestion of the association’s president, Selman Arıkboğa, Mürmann proposed a pride parade in Turkey (which was then called “Christopher Street Day” in Germany). With the support of an LGBTI group called Rainbow 92, the preparations began.

Çakmak said that the meetings were attended mostly by middle and upper income gays and the thought of “not being seen in the same group with trans sex workers” was predominant. Though Mürmann and Çakmak lobbied for the inclusion of trans sex workers, they were excluded.

Mürmann distributed  “Gay Weekend in Istanbul with international support” flyers for a large-scale meeting at Beyoğlu film festivals.

Finally on 11 April 1993, a meeting in Beyoğlu Bilsak Culture House led to the decision of a joint working group for the march and they accepted activist Mine Yanat’s suggestion of Lambda as their name. Kaos GL published an article on Lambda and called this day its birthday. The group became a member of ILGA the same year.

Mürmann says that the meetings took place regularly in his home and they had support from the Association of the Fight Against AIDS, Purple Roof, and the Human Rights Association. The date for the “Sexual Freedom Events” were decided as 2-4 July.

The press statement declared its goals as “eradicating society’s prejudices towards the concept of homosexuality” and “creating communication between heterosexuals and homosexuals.” The speakers included actress Deniz Türkali, writer Küçük İskender, psychiatrist Dr. Şahika Yüksel, Dr. Selim Batur from the Association of the Fight Against AIDS, Ercan Kanar from the Human Rights Association, Fatma Budak from Purple Roof and writer İskender Savaşır. Speakers from abroad included Henning Michelson from the UN’s World Health Organization, “gay parliamentarian from Berlin” Christian Puls, and Petra Narimani from the German AIDS Association.

The invitation set the opening date as 2 July 1993, 20:00 at Beyoğlu’s World Cinema.

Governor’s ban: “Against society’s values”

The media reported that the Istanbul governor Hayri Kozakçıoğlu banned the march. An edict on 30 August signed by the Governor’s assistant Namik Kemal Eren cited that the march was against the Law on Demonstrations and Meetings. [Prior to this] On 2 July 1993, daily Milliyet newspaper carried the headline “No Permit for Homosexual Meeting” and reported the Governor’s reasoning as:

“Due to the fact that [the march] is against our customs and mores and contrary to our society’s values, considering that it may cause reactions from society and cause events that would jeopardize security, [the march] has been banned based on Article 17 of Law No: 2911 on Demonstrations and Meetings on the possibility of events that would seriously jeopardize public order.”

Çakmak says police raided the houses of activists, including Mürmann’s, the night before the march. Soldiers raided the nightclub 2019 in Maslak and many individuals who were not involved in the organization of the march were beaten and taken into custody.

The Gay Hunt on Istiklal Avenue

The next day would have been the opening of the events at Beyoğlu Cinema and the march. According to Çakmak, the police had blocked Istiklal Avenue and were taking anyone who they thought to be gay into custody. Çakmak witnessed a group of 9-10 foreigners, including parliamentarians, being handcuffed, dragged on the streets, and detained.

On 4 July 1993, the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper reported that the Human Rights Association protested the detentions despite the police blockade. The statement carried the signatures of the Purple Roof woman’s shelter president Fatma Budak, Human Rights Association Istanbul branch president Ercan Kanar, psychiatrist Dr. Şahika Yüksek and İskender Savaşır.

The story reported that 27 people, including Mürmann, were deported to Germany. Mürmann states that the group included Turkish and British citizens but they were all sent to Frankfurt, their lawyers could not speak to any officials, and AIDS tests were demanded from the group, though the request was not complied with.

After the March

Mürmann, who returned to Turkey after a short while, said meetings restarted at Lambda in the fall of 1993. They would first meet in a bar called Prive on Tarlabaşı Boulevard and then at the Association of Social Research, Culture and Arts in Beyoğlu. LGBTI individuals were socializing and meeting each other in Lambda parties at Prive and 14 which were attended by hundreds of people.

The second “Gay and Lesbian Culture Events” of September 1995 was also banned by the governor. Mürmann explains that protest messages against the ban were faxed to the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture, and the Prime Minister from abroad and overloaded the lines. The following year, Pride Week events would be closed to the press.

In June 1996, Lambda would rent a stand with the Human Resources Association at Istanbul Technical University’s Taşkışla Campus within the scope of the United Nations Habitat II conference. Lambda informed foreign attendees of their work and protested the police violence against trans residents of Ülker Street.

Ülker Street and Süleyman the ‘Hose’

“Back then, there were maybe a hundred girls there. If there was ever a collective life, a communal life in the world, it was there…” (Şevval Kılıç)

From the mid 1980s on, trans women started settling in the Kazancı Hill area of Cihangir, Pürtelaş Street, Sormagir Street and Ülker Street. Şevval Kılıç remembers the “golden age” when Ülker Street became a trans ghetto by the 1990s and says she would see “surreal types who would go to the store in the morning in their nightgowns and 3 meter-long eyelashes” likening the street to “an Almodóvar set”. Trans women led a protected and collective life on the street and approximately 70-100 trans sex workers lived and worked there.

Süleyman Ulusoy, dubbed Suleyman the ‘Hose’, worked as the Head of Teams in Beyoğlu Police Department in 1992 and 1996. He tried to force trans women out of Ülker Street through beatings and torture.

Demet Demir and many other Ülker Street residents remember hundreds of police raids to the street, their houses’ doors getting knocked down, telephone lines being cut off, days of detention and torture, trying to escape through their homes’ back windows in the years when Alaaddin Yüksel served as the Istanbul Police Chief. Demir says that even the stores in which trans women shopped would be closed down with the orders of the Beyoğlu Municipality Mayor Nusret Bayraktar.

In June 2000, CNN Turk released videos of Ulusoy beating people with hoses during detention and daily Radikal newspaper carried the headline “Süleyman the Hose” on June 1. At that time Ulusoy was working as the Head of Teams in Fatih Police Department.

8 trans women, including Demet Demir, filed a lawsuit against Ulusoy. The trial started in 2001 in Beyoğlu’s Sixth Criminal Court of First Instance. According to a story published on 20 October 2001 in the daily Milliyet newspaper, Human Rights Association President Eren Keskin stated that he had seen Ulusoy beat certain people with hoses.

At the hearing, Ulusoy stated that they had to undertake “wide security measures” due to the United Nations ‘Habitat II’ Human Settlements Program hosted in Istanbul in June 1996. He claimed that the detentions were undertaken to make sure “foreign guests were not bothered”. He also claimed that the torture videos presented by the media were faked.

The case was closed on 18 February 2003. The indictment put forth a sentence of imprisonment for up to 27 years. However, the judge delayed the final sentencing on the basis of the Law on Conditional Release. In the end, Ulusoy benefited from a pardon and did not receive any punishment. He continued in his post as the Head of Teams in Fatih Police Department until 2004.

In a 2005 interview, Ulusoy stated the following:

“Maybe there was an event and I did not have my club with me. Maybe a hose in a parking garage came handy”, “Our people need to stand against homosexuality together”, “Only clean water comes from my hose… We cleaned the mud and the dirt on the street”.

Demet Demir, who resisted expulsion from the street with a few other trans women, was awarded the Felipa de Souza Award by the US-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. As one of the leaders of the LGBTI rights struggle, Demir ran as a candidate for the Beyoğlu Municipal Assembly in 1999 and became the first LGBTI individual to run in local elections. She ran as a candidate for the Isparta parliament in the 2007 general elections. In both elections, Demir worked with the Freedom and Solidarity Party, which was the first party in Turkey to include LGBTI issues in its by-laws in 1994.

‘Kaos Rising’

Kaos GL activists hung posters on Ankara’s bus stops and commissioned an ad in Express magazine’s April 1994 issue. The statement entitled “Call to Gays, Lesbians, and Anti-Heterosexists” shared that Kaos GL had rented a postal box for “creating a communication network and meeting” and said “if you think you are alone, you are wrong”. In 1994, with the involvement of Kaos GL activists, the Human Rights Association formed a gay and lesbian commission in its Ankara Branch.

On 20 September 1994, Kaos GL magazine published its first issue with the cover “Kaos Rising”. Ali Özbaş, who defines himself as “Kaos GL magazine’s first copy editor, graphic designer, and writer”, says he worked on the first issues using the Word Art program he learned at his work computer and that he spent hours trying to put the text in the cover’s reversed triangle. The first issue of 16 pages was photocopied and stapled at home.

In the 25th issue from September 1996, Kaos GL activist Atilla Karakış wrote, “We still have not been able to start printing in the printing press that we long for. We fold every single page; make every magazine by hand… The sales that started in Ankara and Istanbul have now expanded to İzmir, Eskişehir, Bursa, Mersin, Adana, Antalya and Denizli”.

The group’s first street demonstration was to attend the 1996 March 8 World Women’s Day in Ankara’s Tandoğan Square with the lesbian organization Venus’ Sisters. The March-April 1996 issue of Kaos GL magazine said the slogans chanted in the demonstration were “Land, Commune, Freedom”, “Kaos, Kaos, Kaos”, “It’s not Fag, it’s Homosexual, Gay, Lesbian and we are here”.

The Kaos GL Cultural Center opened in 2000. A library was founded and film screenings were started. In September 2005, the Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association became the first legal LGBTI association in Turkey.

In 2001, LGBTIs joined the May Day celebrations in Ankara as an organized group for the first time.

Fall-Istanbul, Spring-Ankara

From 1998 onwards, LGBTIs started to meet in Ankara, hosted by Kaos GL and in Istanbul, hosted by Lambda. They called the fall meeting in Istanbul “Güztanbul” and the spring meeting in Ankara “Baharankara”. Lambda activist Öner Ceylan said these meetings were mostly attended by gay men.

The other LGBTI organizations of the mid-1990s were Spartacus in Bursa, Biz GL in İzmir, and Turkey Bears and Effeminates.

University organizations

From the mid-1990s onwards, LGBTIs started to organize in universities. In 1995, students started the Community of Conscious Homosexuals in Eskişehir’s Anadolu University and in 1996, Lambda Erzurum at Ataturk University.

In 1996, Middle East Technical University students started LEGATO and in 1997, Hacettepe University students started HALEGA. These groups started a cyber communication network for gay men via Yahoo Groups called “Gay Ankara”. In 2000, Bosphorus University students also started a LEGATO. In 2000, the total number of universities in a common mail group were 27 and in 2002, 61.

Venus’ Sisters, Sappho’s Daughters

In 1994, lesbians started Venus’ Sisters in Istanbul. Kaos GL magazine’s March 1995 issue stated that the group was composed of lesbians living in Istanbul.

In May 1998, lesbians started Sappho’s Daughters in Ankara. Sappho’s Daughters called themselves “lesbian feminists” and declared their need for a separate organization when gay men became the majority at the Kaos GL Cultural Center. One of the founders Yeşim Başaran explained the process,

“When Kaos Cultural Center opened, it was always men, men, men… You go and it’s like a coffee shop, all men… Their experiences were discussed and we listened to them and even if we spoke, we talked about their experiences. So we said, let’s have our own meetings and that’s how Sappho’s Daughters started.”

Başaran explains that they were interested in organizing with feminist organizations and that feminists also wanted to meet lesbians. She communicated with the feminists publishing Missing Skirt in Istanbul and a group of 40 women met in a house for months and conducted feminist-centered discussions.

Trans sex workers and “Gacı”

Trans sex workers who organized under the name Woman’s Gate in 1996 started to publish “Gacı” magazine in 1997 with the support of the Human Resource Development Foundation. Şevval Kılıç describes the magazine as a “bulletin for communication between sex workers” and the magazine continued for a few years.

Kılıç says that trans sex workers, who had been forcibly evicted from Ülker Street, tried to organize under the name Mermaids for a year. Their close friend sociologist Pınar Selek convinced her father Alp Selek to come to the meetings as a legal consultant.

Throughout the 1990s, trans individuals could not find a space for themselves in LGBTI organizations that were dominated by gay men. Şevval Kılıç describes this situation, “Trans women were not a part of organizations like Venus’ Sisters and Sappho’s Daughters either. It’s not possible to talk about an organized trans movement until the end of 2007.”

LGBTI people write their history

Throughout the 1990s, mainstream media either ignored LGBTI issues or used a language of hate, exclusion, scandal and porn. In an interview, Öner Ceylan from Lambdaistanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association said, “Popular weekly magazines Tempo and Aktüel were using homosexuality in their covers every other week. Things like “Look at what the perverts are doing” on the one hand and provocative things on the other. They were approaching the issue hypocritically.”

The publications LGBTI people participated in and printed at the end of 1980s and throughout 1990s are:

  •    “Green Peace” magazine, 1988-1990, printed by the Radical Democrat Green Party, “Gay Liberation” a column on trans and gay issues, edited by Ali Kemal Yılmaz.
  •    Weekly Express magazine’s one-page LGBTI bulletin, starting on 25 March 1995 for a certain time.
  •    Kaos GL magazine, 20 September 1994-now.
  •    100% GL (Gay and Lesbian), February 1996-1998, Lambda’s bi-monthly bulletin. The bulletins were distributed in Kaos GL’s Istanbul copies in LGBTI-friendly places like Bilsak, Beşinci Kat, and Barbahçe.
  •    Açık Radio, 5 May 1996-1998, Turkey’s first gay and lesbian radio program called 100% GL. An article in Kaos GL states that Turkey’s media-watchdog RTÜK removed the program.
  •    Gacı, 1997-few years, the trans sex workers of Woman’s Gate.

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