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Istanbul student protests are a new frontline for the LGBTQ community

Demands for academic freedom have grown into calls for solidarity with an increasingly embattled community

Outside Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University, hundreds of students gathered throughout January chanting slogans calling for independence and academic freedom. The words that rang across the campus included “We do not accept, we do not give up!” and “Boğaziçi is ours, it will be free with us!”

The demonstrations, which have made headlines around the world, began peacefully, with students demanding the resignation of the institution’s new rector Melih Bulu — a former politician with the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), handpicked for the role by the conservative government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Then, in early February, police scattered the crowds using riot shields and pepper spray.

What started as a series of on-campus actions against an undemocratic appointment has now morphed into a protest movement in solidarity with Turkey’s increasingly embattled LGBTQ+ community, which has spread to cities including Ankara and Izmir. 

Over the past five weeks, the protests have taken many forms, from mass meditation and yoga sessions in front of the rector’s office to free open-air lectures by professors. They even included the collective singing of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” after students discovered Bulu’s love of the band.

But, at the start of February, an art exhibition held by students shifted the dynamic of the demonstrations. One of the works on show was a digital collage depicting the Kaaba, the Muslim holy site in Mecca. Superimposed upon it was a basilisk or serpent king — a representation of evil in Anatolian folklore. Rainbow flags associated with the LGBTQ+ movement were also pinned in its corners. 

The image caused uproar on social media. After the final day of the exhibition, on January 29, five students were detained by police. Two of them were placed under house arrest and two more taken into custody.

In a Twitter posting now restricted by the platform according to it rules governing hateful conduct, Turkey’s Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu called the detained students “perverts.” His statement prompted calls for the demonstrations to widen their focus in defense of LGBTQ+ rights in the country.

“You can’t just call students perverts. These are students who are fighting for other students’ lives and education, to express themselves freely,” said Willie Ray, who is enrolled at Boğaziçi University’s western languages and literature department.

Speaking by telephone, Willie Ray, who identifies as queer and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said that they now live in fear of leaving home, believing that such rhetoric renders members of the LGBTQ+ community particularly vulnerable to reprisals and discrimination.

A large number of students and university professors have, however, returned to the streets, campus and courthouses. Such shows of defiance have led to an increasingly hardline approach from the state. In the first week of February, snipers were positioned on buildings outside Boğaziçi University’s campus in the Beşiktaş and Sarıyer neighborhoods. The city governor’s office issued a ban on public assemblies in those neighborhoods, but failed to deter the protestors, prompting police to open fire on them with rubber bullets.  

On February 2, the students and their supporters moved the protests to Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. They were greeted with helicopters flying overhead and further police aggression on the ground. The governor’s office then issued a further ban on gatherings there. 

By the end of the week, more than 600 people had been detained across the country since the demonstrations began, the vast majority of which in Istanbul. Most have now been freed, though 11 remain  imprisoned and 25 more under house arrest.

Yaren Bozar, a third-year sociology student who has participated in the demonstrations, believes that Erdogan’s government is worried that the gatherings will grow and spread at a time when its popularity appears to be waning. 

That fear is not unfounded, given the enduring memory of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which also underwent their own transformation. Beginning in opposition to a development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a violent police raid ignited nationwide demonstrations calling for freedom of expression and assembly, and highlighting the government’s erosion of Turkey’s secular values.   

“They see that the students are not giving up, and we are resisting the police brutality on our campus — people who are just 20 years old — I think it’s a scary atmosphere for the government now,” Bozar said. 

Alongside fellow faculty members, political science professor Dr. Zeynep Gambetti was part of the campus demonstrations. She believes the LGBTQ+ community is being deliberately leveraged by Erdogan’s administration, in order to stoke anger and resentment against progressive groups. 

“In Turkish society, gay rights or freedom of sexual orientation is still pretty much a taboo,” she explained. “That is one of the fault lines the government can abuse.”

While Turkey has long been a secular and diverse country, the AKP has, over its 18 years in power, asserted an increasingly conservative Islamist vision of the nation.

On February 3, Erdoğan stated that there is “no such thing” as the LGBTQ+ community. He added that: “This country is national and spiritual and walking to the future with these values,” then compared the protesters to terrorists. 

Willie Ray believes that the students had no intention of offending the cultural and religious sensibilities of others.

“Right now we are the target and we always have been the target, because we are minorities. We aren’t privileged and our voices aren’t heard,” they said. “It’s tragic to see the officials don’t see that.”

In common with nations from Eastern Europe to Africa, many religious conservatives in Turkey view the LGBTQ+ movement as a liberal western campaign to undermine traditional values. Recently, Soylu made televised remarks claiming that, until now, no one in Turkey had ever identified as LGBTQ+. “It is something completely marketed and introduced by the West,” he said.

The AKP’s current vision of Turkey was not apparent when it first came to power in 2002. Back then, it was still lauding the European Union and trying to gain credibility in the West. As it consolidated power, though, the party’s liberal wing began to fade. 

A failed coup attempt in 2016 and a subsequent state of emergency allowed Erdoğan to tighten his grip on the country. Those steps included giving himself the power to appoint politically sympathetic trustees to universities and dismiss thousands of academics from their positions. 

The first move Bulu made upon his appointment in January was to close Boğaziçi University’s LGBTQ+ club. Willie Ray described the action as “unlawful” under current policies, which stipulate that strict procedures must be followed in order to open and close university societies. They also believe that there should be room in academic institutions for the discussion of controversial artworks. 

“Art has its purpose. You can criticize it, you can like it or not like it, you can be offended by it. So why, instead of creating such a platform for debate and objectively trying to listen to each other’s voices, do people just start targeting, threatening and generalizing?” they said. 

That position has won allies across the student body. Following the crackdown on protestors and the discriminatory language used against LGBTQ+ people, a group of Muslim students put out a statement calling for the immediate release of individuals who had been detained. 

“Even though the artwork is hurtful for Muslims, it is never acceptable to resort to violence, threats, lynching and punishment in the resolution of such disputes,” it read. “In light of both the tolerance taught by Islam and the traditions of Boğaziçi University, we think that such problems should be resolved through communication.”

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Tessa Fox

Tessa Fox is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker focusing on war and conflict, humanitarian affairs and human rights in the Middle East.