Turkey: Turkey's homosexuals come out for their rights

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AFP
The movement in Turkey is still in its fledgling stages, but gays and lesbians are increasingly outspoken: they are expanding their networks, organizing conferences and film festivals and taking part in May Day marches.
Long oppressed in a largely conservative society, Turkey's homosexuals are timidly coming out for their own share of freedoms as the country's bid to join the European Union spreads the gospel of human rights and tolerance.
Ali Erol recalls the days back in 1994 when a group of aspiring homosexual activists went to the Human Rights Association, one of Turkey's leading rights groups, to seek support for their newly-found organization, KAOS GL. "They showed us the door, saying, 'Your fancies and indulgences are of no interest to us'," he said in the KAOS GL office in downtown Ankara. "Today, we work side by side."

The homosexual movement in Turkey is still in its fledgling stages, but gays and lesbians are increasingly outspoken: they are expanding their networks, organizing conferences and film festivals and taking part in May Day marches.

KAOS GL's Umut Guner believes Turkey's drive to improve human rights in line with EU standards is also forcing officials -- albeit slowly -- to overcome prejudices against homosexuals.

Some time ago, he says proudly, government agencies invited KAOS GL alongside other civic groups to work in commissions on health care and AIDS prevention.

In a milestone move earlier this year, gay and lesbian activists were for the first time received in the Turkish parliament to convey their appeals for legal protection.

Their main demand -- to make discrimination "on the basis of sexual orientation" a jailable offense -- was first included in the draft of a major reform overhauling Turkey's penal code, which the EU was pressing for.

The amendment would have marked the first political victory here for the movement and made Turkey the first Muslim nation to guarantee legal protection for gays and lesbians.

But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative grouping with Islamist roots, dropped the plan -- making homosexuals happy at a time when the government has yet to deliver on promises to its own religious electorate might have been a step too far.

"To blame the AKP alone would be misleading," Erol said. "There cannot be real progress as long as society does not openly face the issue of homosexuality."

For Kursad Kahramanoglu, the Turkish co-head of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), Turkey is far ahead of other Muslim nations when it comes to tolerance for homosexuals.

Most Muslim countries punish homosexuality, some with death, whereas in Turkey, homosexuals today figure among the country's top singers, television personalities and fashion designers.

Still, prejudice is strong in daily life.

Activists say most of them risk their jobs if they disclose their sexual identity and there are no laws to protect their rights.

The Turkish army, they complain, is the only NATO force to still consider homosexuality a psychological disorder, and the police are notoriously harsh with transsexuals and transvestites.

Kahramanoglu, a former philosophy student based in London, believes Turkey's bid to join the EU is an opportunity for homosexuals to integrate the mainstream human rights movement.

"The EU process is encouraging people to speak out and it is changing official attitudes," he said. "It is a pity, however, that so many things in Turkey change not because the people demand it, but because they are EU criteria."

by Sibel Utku Bila, AFP, originally published 5 October 2004