The Campaign Against Homosexuality in Turkey’s Elections

Only days before Turkey’s upcoming parliamentary elections, unknown gunmen shot at the campaign office of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the early morning hours of June 2 in Eskisehir, a city in northwest Turkey. More than 100 attacks have been carried out against election offices of the HDP, a left-wing and pro-Kurdish party, during this campaign season, according to Dicle News Agency. [1] Though no one was hurt in the Eskisehir attack, the HDP’s openly gay candidate Baris Sulu, who runs his campaign from that office, left the city over safety concerns.

Sulu has been receiving threats since he declared his candidacy for the HDP nomination in February. A seasoned activist, Sulu says he joined the HDP because the party supported rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) people even at its nascent stage as the Peoples’ Democratic Congress in 2011. Sulu’s candidacy is highly notable in a conservative country where prejudice and harassment against LGBTI people is a fact of daily life. The number of threats rose in April with his official nomination but the dramatic increase came in May when pro-government media outlets started targeting him.

Pro-government Sabah and Star daily newspapers have called Sulu’s campaign “vile propaganda,” criticizing his tweets such as “recognize our sexual orientation” and for wanting “people to react normally to men kissing.” [23] The Turkish daily newspaper Yeni Akit, infamous for its attacks on LGBTI people, published blurred photographs of Sulu and his partner kissing under the title “Immoral prostitution images of the HDP’s perverted candidate revealed!” [4] The article was quickly reposted by other media outlets and social media users, which escalated the online threats.

In Turkey, media attacks often go hand-in-hand with similar statements from elected officials. President Erdogan, who has led the campaign for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) despite the fact that his position calls for neutrality, lambasted the HDP on May 28 at a meeting in Ankara. “We don’t nominate so-called religious scholars in Diyarbakir [a pre-dominantly Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast] and homosexuals in Eskisehir,” Erdogan said in reference to what he sees as the HDP’s pandering to opposing sensitivities of different regions of the country. [5]

Following Erdogan’s statements, two parliamentary hopefuls from the AKP, in an effort to garner votes from religiously conservative Kurds, have criticized the HDP for nominating an openly gay candidate, arguing that homosexuality cannot be reconciled with Islam.

At a campaign stop in the southeastern province of Siirt, AKP candidate Yasin Aktay criticized the HDP’s nominations and said, “You are the child of a Muslim. The Kurds are Muslim and if there are, excuse me, 3 homosexuals on the list of Muslims who defend man’s marriage to man, then I will ask you ‘who are you?’” Aktay concluded that “it is impossible for Muslim society to affirm a man’s marriage to a man.” [6]

Former Interior Minister and AKP candidate Efkan Ala expressed fear that the HDP would give gays and lesbians “all sorts of rights” such as the recognition of same-sex marriages. Speaking to his “Kurdish brothers” on a Turkish news channel, Ala said, “We are against such things that our morality and our traditions reject.” He warned his listeners “the tribe of Lot was destroyed because of this; this is the destruction of humanity,” referring to the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a trope often used against LGBT communities in the Muslim world. [7]

Sulu says that after each public speech, he has received threats on Twitter from AK trolls, supporters of the AKP who launch large-scale smear campaigns on social media. They called him a pervert “who will burn in hell.” He blocks at least 10 accounts every day, but “systematic swearing, insults, and threats continue to come to all of my social media accounts,” Sulu said.

Sulu believes that Erdogan’s statement in 2002 that “homosexuals must also be given legal protection for their rights and freedoms” was only to appear sympathetic to the EU. [8] Now at the brink of losing a significant number of parliamentary seats to the HDP, “all their hidden fears, all the times they were being disingenuous, are coming out to the surface,” in the shape of homophobia. President Erdogan confirmed this at a June 3 rally in the eastern province of Bingol, when he said, “The Armenian lobby, homosexuals and those who believe in ‘Alevism without Ali’ – all these representatives of sedition are [the HDP’s] benefactors.” [9]

Sulu is last on the list of 6 HDP candidates in Eskisehir and, thus, unlikely to be elected into office. However, the nomination of an openly gay man for parliament is highly notable in Turkey, where 87 percent of respondents to Bahcesehir University’s 2012 survey, “Turkish Values Atlas,” said they do not want gay neighbors. [10] Since 2010, 47 individuals have been killed due to their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. [11] In May alone there were 5 assaults on transgender individuals in Istanbul. [12]

The HDP’s nomination of an openly gay candidate has created campaign fodder for the AKP. While singling out Sulu could prove dangerous for the candidate, he remains hopeful. “If we as LGBTIs are taken so seriously, then we must be succeeding in our twenty year rights struggle,” Sulu said.

Zeynep Bilginsoy is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She’s also the founder and project manager of LGBTI News Turkey, an English translation resource on LGBTI issues in Turkey.

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