Turkey targets LGBTQ activists in homophobic divide and rule tactic, researcher says

Turkey’s governing coalition has begun a campaign against the LGBTQ community in a bid to fracture the political opposition and bolter its own political unity, said Tunay Altay, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

By embracing “political homophobia”, the People’s Alliance of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is betting that it is picking a fight that wins votes, Altay said in Ahval’s Turkey Abroad podcast.

The AKP and MHP have stepped up political attacks on the LGBTQ community this year. Police broke up an annual Gay Pride march in Istanbul at the weekend with tear gas and batons.

During student protests against a government-appointed rector at Istanbul’s Bogazici University in January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated “there is no such things as LGBT” and labelled the protestors as terrorists. In March, Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty aimed at combatting gender-based violence, winning support from conservative members of his party and the MHP.

Altay said that the campaign against LGBTQ activists may also serve to bolster the unity of the People’s Alliance amid political scandals and economic turmoil.

“The AKP and MHP agree on some issues but were in opposition for many years, which means (MHP leader Devlet) Bahçeli and Erdoğan have a lot they disagree on,” Altay said.

Bahçeli has been a more vocal and aggressive critic of the LGBTQ community, particularly during the protests at Bogazici and public discourse over the Istanbul Convention. Erdoğan and Bahçeli’s shared public distaste for LGBTQ rights may also be grounded in an effort to divide opposition parties in parliament, who collectively form a block against the AKP and MHP, Altay said.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest party in parliament, has been the most strident in its public support for LGBTQ rights. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) has been more tacit in its support, refraining from openly and specifically calling for the protection of the rights of the LGBTQ community.

The CHP’s tepid approach has been “disappointing” and may reflect political divisions in the opposition that the AKP and MHP are looking to exploit, Altay said.

Turkey’s government is not alone in its “political homophobia” against the LGBTQ movement, Altay said. Like the AKP-MHP alliance, other right-wing, populist governments are adopting a firm stance against the group saying there are seeking to protect traditional values in their societies.

On June 15, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a law through parliament aimed at banning LGBTQ content from appearing in educational material and television series. The government said it took the decision to protect children, a stance fellow right-wing ministers in neighbouring Poland said should be emulated at home. The European Union and the United States have heavily criticised the Hungarian government’s approach.

Erdoğan and other Turkish politicians have not directly referred to developments in other countries to justify their anti-LGBTQ policy. Altay said it was important to understand Erdoğan’s position within the wider context of the AKP’s rule.

Erdoğan invested heavily in winning Turkey membership of the EU by enacting reforms for Turkish ethnic and sexual minorities. As late as 2013, the EU praised Turkey for its hosting of the annual Istanbul Pride march.

But as the outlook for Turkey’s EU membership dimmed and relations with the United States soured, Erdoğan embarked on a more confrontational path that oriented Turkey against the West on an ideological as well as political level, Altay said. That coincided with the steady rise of increasing intolerance and agitation against the LGBTQ community in Turkey, he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.