No one can kick us out of the municipality at this point

Sedef Çakmak, advisor to the mayor of Beşiktaş, and Boysan Yakar, advisor to the mayor of Şişli, are the first openly gay people to advance to these positions. Yakar made news when he was physically assaulted at the municipal building: “No one can kick us, LGBTI individuals, out of the municipality at this point.”

Source: Aydil Durgun, “Bu saatten sonra kimse bizi belediyeden atamaz” (“No one can kick us out of the municipality at this point”). Milliyet.com.tr, 17 January 2015, http://www.milliyet.com.tr/-bu-saatten-sonra-kimse-bizi/pazar/haberdetay/18.01.2015/2000113/default.htm

Sedef Çakmak and Boysan Yakar have been involved in the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex) struggle for years. I crossed paths with them for the first time before the Pride March in 2013. In the same year, I met with Boysan again; this time through the LGBTI Political Representation and Participation Platform that they launched before the local elections. In the elections, they had already started seeing the benefits of the platform. Boysan was a candidate for nomination as a city councilor for the district of Şişli, and Sedef, for Beşiktaş. Boysan made it to the reserve list and Sedef seemed to have made it all the way to the council, but it fell through, and she currently remains as the first reserve candidate. Throughout this lengthy process, Hayri İnönü, the mayor of Şişli, and Murat Hazinedar, the mayor of Beşiktaş, must have been so pleased with their work that they appointed them as their advisors.

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Boysan and Sedef now hold the highest public office held by openly gay individuals in Turkey. This is a big achievement in a country like Turkey, and as they emphasize strongly, it is the result of a long fight for which they made big sacrifices.

I met with Boysan and Sedef to discuss what they have been doing since they assumed office. Boysan also talked for the first time about the physical assault he experienced at the municipal building.

It is clear why you would like to be in the political arena. But why did municipal governments and parties want to reach out to the LGBTI movement? Why now and not before?

Sedef Çakmak: Honestly, I believe that it has to do with our determination. We had been thinking genuinely that our party had to adopt LGBTI politics. To speak about CHP in particular, there have been a number of MPs in the recent past who advocated for LGBTI rights. They have paved the way for us. The party was able to think positively about LGBTI candidates thanks to the LGBTI discussions they introduced into the party’s agenda.

Boysan Yakar: There is something that both of us experienced. After our membership to the party went through, they told us about the displeasure of not having had dealt with this subject before.

Sedef Ç.: They said, “We should have come to you, not you to us.”

Boysan Y.: This is how politics works in Turkey: if you’re not there, your rights are not there either.

You have assumed advisory positions as LGBTI individuals. One could react in two ways: “I’m not here just for LGBTI rights, I will be fighting for other rights as well,” or “We have barely made it this far. And we are only two people. Of course, we will be fighting for LGBTI rights. No one else works for us anyway.” Which one applies to you?

Boysan Y.: Fighting for LGBTI rights in particular is one of our goals, but it’s insufficient to only fight for LGBTIs. Every struggle we pursue for marginalized people yields mutually shared and equally important benefits. Advocating for LGBTI rights becomes advocating for women’s rights, for the rights of the disabled, for environmental rights…

Sedef Ç.: Being LGBTI is not our only identity. You can be LGBTI and Kurdish, Alevi, disabled, poor… If you look at our struggle of 22 years, we have been discussing the income gap, the effects of gentrification, and the effects of violence. As far as these three issues go, LGBTIs are among the first groups to suffer. When you talk about LGBTI rights, you have to expand the discussion to other subjects: employment with no benefits, discrimination in health care, deprivation from the right to education…

“Has a trans woman ever come to the municipal building?”

What have you done in the municipal government for LGBTIs so far?

Sedef Ç.: I have seen that municipal employees are very open-minded about our situation. There was only one problem: since they didn’t know what kinds of problems LGBTIs experience, they couldn’t tell what they could do as a municipal government. What was mainly said was: “We are already a modern municipality, we welcome everyone.” When I would ask “Has a trans woman ever come here?,” they would say no. This is the fundamental problem: why is a trans woman reluctant to go into a public building? We know that there are trans women who live in Beşiktaş. In that sense, we have focused on awareness work, and we have organized training in cooperation with the SPoD Association.

What do you explain in these training sessions?

Sedef Ç.: Most people tell us we are the first gays that they have seen. And of course, we correct them: “First to your knowledge…” They haven’t thought about this subject at all, so what we do is to make them think. We tell them our stories: people who lose their jobs because they are gay, trans women who cannot get on public buses, the nonsense that happens when a trans man goes to a public office and shows his ID, lesbian women who get kicked out of women’s shelters… There is a new women’s shelter opening in Beşiktaş and it is very important for this shelter to be gay- and trans-friendly. We’re also going to open a trauma center. We have founded an equality unit too. This unit will help the municipal government come up with policies that have a gender perspective and attend to the needs of, not only LGBTIs, but all the disadvantaged groups that have a hard time benefitting from municipal services.

Boysan Y.: We have added a couple of clauses to the strategic plan of the municipal government. One of them entails opening a new shelter for LGBTIs. We would like to start an anti-discrimination unit. We are also addressing the subject of health. When it comes to trans people, there have been situations that fly in the face of the Hippocratic oath, such as doctors refusing to touch them. To prevent these situations from happening, we have started a campaign for equal health service to stay in effect indefinitely. About 50 people who work in health departments have been trained on understanding LGBTIs. They have been informed about the homophobic situations that are often encountered. We can tell the positive feedback from the demand that we receive.

SEDEF ÇAKMAK: “Someone came out after I started working at the municipality”

Has anyone been encouraged by you at the municipality and come forward with the LGBTI identity?

Sedef Ç.: People from the party and the municipality have said “I’m gay too, but of course I won’t say in this environment.” But someone from the Beşiktaş municipal government came out. They had come out to close friends before, but not to the municipality in general. They say it was easier to come out being encouraged by my nomination for candidacy for city councilor.

“They thought it was an insult to call me gay”

And about the assault…

Boysan Y.: People worried about losing the administration to us based on how the meeting was going and they tried to take away our right to protest. Then, a very serious case of assault took place. Later, a lynch campaign was conducted on Twitter to the point where it became a trending topic. Mainstream media attempted to make it look like my homosexuality came up after I started working at the municipality. There were a couple of bad articles written thinking that it was an insult to call me gay. I’m already working in politics with my open identity, I’ve never hidden it. Despite that, I still faced awful accusations.

Why do you think you were assaulted?

Boysan Y.: First, it is a fact that I was assaulted as the mayor’s advisor. And it happened while expressing the policies that our position as the opposition necessitates. A friend of ours from the Maçka Park forum and another from an NGO was assaulted too. One of the main reasons is that the people who occupied those seats for years and saw themselves as Şişli’s representatives were not aware that they were in a democratic space. In addition, Gezi’s legacy is important. We are people who have internalized [the importance of] local policies. As far as I hear, many city councils have been run with inert structures for years now. City councils are the places that need tolerance most. In Şişli, democracy was not functioning at the city council level. This is how it all broke out. We were assaulted by a group of unidentified men who didn’t have anything to do with the city council. The case was taken to the prosecutor’s office. We will see where the process takes us…

You have mentioned threats…

Boysan Y.: Especially after this assault and the media lynch campaign a couple of days later, I have received a lot of threats on the phone. It’s usually sexual harassment.

How was the aftermath of the news article on Sabah, “The colorful advisor to the mayor of Şişli”?

It was a first in Turkey in the sense of the mayor’s support. It was a glimmer of hope for thousands of people who have lost their jobs because of their gay identities. His gesture will help overcome termination of employment with the excuse of homosexuality, especially in CHP-run municipalities. It was suggested that someone who has had such pictures of themselves taken couldn’t carry out public service. No, they can. We can even do it better.

Your co-workers hadn’t seen you like that. Did those pictures have an impact?

I know that a lot of staff members started going to the LGBTI Pride March after I started working at the municipality. Us being and breathing there triggered certain things.

Hayri İnönü [mayor of Şişli] must have known that you participate in Pride, but did he not comment at all on those pictures?

He didn’t. There was an emphasis like “that’s your private life,” but no, everything is in the public space. Everyone has a holiday, and for LGBTIs, the last Sunday of June is holiday everywhere in the world. Celebrating is our most fundamental right, and we accept the risk posed by the police, the government, our employers, and even our families if necessary, to celebrate that day the way we are.

“It’s a serious risk to try to thwart us”

As far as I understand, you haven’t been intimidated and deterred by the assault and the threats…

Boysan Y.: No. The mayor and our administrators are happy about me being there. The way I was featured in the newspapers, the way things turned into a Twitter operation overnight, the fact that things happened simultaneously and with guidance, raise questions about the organized nature of it, but I don’t know. I think it was done so that I would resign or be kicked out. But I’m still doing my work at the municipality. So, I can say that no operation to deter me has been successful.

Sedef Ç.: It may seem as if Boysan is alone, but he is part of the LGBTI movement; so he may have received a lot of threats, but he has also received a lot of support messages.

Boysan Y.: I think everyone has come to see that where we are today is irreversible and unstoppable. This is a process that has taken years, that has been paid for with lives and forgone happiness. It’s a nice message in that regard: we have gotten our friend in there, we have come to this point, no one can kick us out of that municipality at this point. My friends who live in Şişli said “We’ll raid that place if necessary.” There is a significant LGBTI population living in Şişli. The same goes for Beşiktaş. It’s a serious risk to try to thwart us as there are friends who work there and seek out their rights. Especially after Gezi, it is audacious to take that risk.

Sedef Ç.: We see that it is impossible now to do politics without taking LGBTIs into account, not only at the municipal level, but also in Turkey in general.

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