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Gay activists in Turkey are staging a Pride parade — despite a real threat of violence

Riot police have used tear gas and water cannons to break up the parade in the past two years

A picture of two men kissing under a pride flag at Istanbul’s pride parade
Istanbul’s Pride parade drew over 100,000 in 2014
Ed Ou / Getty Images

Despite threats from right-wing groups, LGBTQ rights activists in Turkey are pressing on with plans for a Pride parade in Istanbul this Sunday. Yes, a Pride parade. And yes, in Turkey, a country that has adopted increasingly conservative social policies in recent years.

If it goes ahead — admittedly a big if — the parade would be a milestone for Turkey’s LGBTQ community, which has had its past two Pride events violently disrupted by government forces.

The biggest threat to the event may come not from hardline President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who has taken on even more power by declaring a state of emergency in the country — but from far-right groups like the Alperen Hearths, which has links to ultranationalist and neo-fascist organizations in Turkey.

“If the state allows it, we will not. We will not allow them to walk,” Kürşat Mican, the head of the Alperen Hearths, said on national TV. “Wherever they march, we’ll also go. We will close down that street and they will not be able to go there. If we want, our numbers can reach 200,000.”

Threats like these were cited by the government when it blocked the parade in 2015 and 2016.

"Such a meeting and demonstration march will not be allowed to take place by our governorate, taking into account the security of our citizens, in particular the participants, as well as the public order,” the government said in a statement last year.

LGBTQ activists have tried to push on with the march in the past two years, without success. In 2015, riot police used water cannons and rubber bullets to drive hundreds of participants away, and in 2016, tear gas was used on those who tried to march.

The timing of Sunday’s march could complicate things further. It comes during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a period of fasting that started on May 26 and will end June 24.

That makes this weekend a major test of the ongoing clash between Turkey’s secular past and its increasingly religious present.

A picture of a woman shouting at a Turkey pride parade in 2016
In 2016, riot police used tear gas to break up hundreds of activists.
Ozan Kose / Getty Images

Turkey used to be surprisingly friendly to its LGBTQ community. Now, not so much.

It wasn’t always like this. Activists have gathered in Istanbul for LGBTQ pride since 2003, and until two years ago, they did so in peace. The event, which attracted more than 100,000 participants by 2014, was a vibrant and crucial moment of visibility for the LGBTQ community not just in Turkey but in the Middle East.

For years, Israel and Turkey were the only countries in the region that had Pride parades. Lebanon organized its first one this year, but by and large, the public profile of the LGBTQ community has been low in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and in places like Indonesia.

So why, after a decade of peaceful Pride celebrations, was the event banned in Istanbul in 2015?

Ever since major anti-government protests in 2013, the Erdoğan government has been clamping down on demonstrations, even those without an explicit anti-regime agenda. In addition, even though Turkey is one of the few countries in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a crime, there has been a worrying spread of homophobia throughout the country in recent years that could be linked to the rise of conservative Islamic forces.

The ruling AK party is rooted in conservative Islam and has made it clear it’s not an advocate for LGBTQ rights; in 2015, Erdoğan called gay people “members of the sedition.” This has only been made worse by pressure from ultra-conservative groups like the Alperen Hearths, whose positions on the LGBTQ couldn’t be less subtle, or less menacing.

“Dear state officials, do not make us deal with these. Either you do what is needed or we will do it,” wrote Mican in 2016. "We are ready to take any risks.”

Anti-LGBTQ attitudes also seem to see a spike during Islamic religious holidays such as Ramadan. Last week, the Turkish transport ministry scrambled to turn off rainbow lights on a highway bridge after receiving a flurry of criticism from conservative residents who thought the display was done in support of LGTBQ rights.

On Twitter, one user wrote, “May Allah punish whoever engaged in this Perverted Propaganda on the 15 July martyrs Bridge in the name of LGBT during the month of Ramadan,” reported the Middle East Eye.

Flashing rainbow lights count for little compared with an entire Pride parade. There’s no saying how conservative groups in Turkey will react to people marching through the streets of Istanbul dancing, waving flags, and asserting their identities on the first day of Eid al-Fitr.

Possibly even more worrying is what the government might do to stamp out conflicts. Turkey is still under a state of emergency, which means police can arrest and jail people without usual due process. It remains to be seen if authorities will exert these powers on Sunday. If they do, an LGBTQ community that was once largely left alone will find itself back in government crosshairs.

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