by Tunay Altay
On 14 April 2021, a group of students from Turkey’s Middle East Technical University (Ortadogu Teknik Universiversitesi, ODTÜ) gathered at a staircase on campus in Ankara. This staircase was no different from any other staircase on the 11,100-acre campus, yet this was the third time in a fortnight that the students had met at the same point, carrying buckets of paint to color the stairs in rainbow hues. Their previous attempts to paint the stairs had been vandalized by the school administration, the colors the students aspired to see on their campus covered in gray and painted with the colors of the Turkish flag. After applying what was now the third layer of paint, the students left the staircase feeling accomplished. Little did they know that the next day, the staircase would be vandalized again.[i]
The story of the ODTÜ’s rainbow staircase is emblematic, especially in light of broadening and unrelenting university protests against the Turkish government’s authoritarian policies and its repression of basic human rights and freedoms. LGBTQ activists’ fight for social justice since the 1990s has granted the rainbow flag identification in Turkey with a variety of local meanings, both representing resistance against and repression from the government. Recently, however, the public controversy over the rainbow in Turkey grew to such heights that on 25 March 2021, 12 students in Istanbul had been taken into custody for unfurling rainbow flags in public.[ii] The students in question were part of the Boğaziçi University protests which had brought thousands to university campuses to oppose the politicized installation of a pro-government university rector.[iii]
The Boğaziçi University protests quickly elevated to the center of political debate when an artwork from the Boğaziçi campus depicting the Kaaba and LGBTQ flags circulated widely and was used by the media and government officials as evidence that the protests were nothing but an “ugly attack” that “mocked Turkey’s religious beliefs”.[iv] During a speech in February 2021, President Erdogan addressed the public about the Boğaziçi protests and instead of talking about his controversial appointment, Erdogan decided to set the record straight, both literally and figuratively: “There is no such thing as LGBT”. He continued: “We don’t accept these young people as the youth of our country who truly embody national and spiritual values.” The stigmatization of the LGBTQ people and their basic right to protest went so deep that Erdogan addressed the protestors by comparing them to terrorists: “Are you students, or are you terrorists who raid the rector’s offices and attempt to occupy it?”[v]
Who is afraid of the rainbow? Turkey’s Islamist and ultra-nationalist coalition
Against the intensifying attacks, LGBTQ activists and allies united under a social media campaign: #GökkuşağımaDokunma (in English: #DoNotTouchMyRainbow) to condemn the government’s acts and the criminalization of LGBTQ people and their symbols in Turkey. Scrolling through the #GökkuşağımaDokunma thread, I see posts of people gripping their flags with the caption: “Who is afraid of the rainbow?” The question appears almost rhetorical as the clear answer for many is President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). In recent years, however, AKP had to join forces with the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) to form the 2018 coalition government: the People’s Alliance (Cumhur Ittifaki, AKP/MHP coalition). This coalition, on top of the schisms within the AKP, forces us to revise our assumptions about Erdogan’s singular hold on power in Turkey.
Once bitter rivals, the coalition between the Islamist AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP signals a shift, if not an expansion, within the parameters of Turkish politics, and represents an even more alarming environment for minorities and marginalized communities in Turkey for several reasons. MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli, who is in the coalition government, adheres to an ultra-nationalist ideology shaped by Euroscepticism and the ideology of Turkish-Islamic synthesis. He has been a fierce opponent of the pro-minority, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) and an advocate of invasive and interventionist military actions in southeastern Turkey and neighbouring countries. Within this political alignment of ultra-nationalism and religion, the scapegoating of LGBTQ people is also not a new phenomenon for MHP. We can see this with the open threats against the Istanbul Pride March in 2016 and 2017 made by Alperen Ocakları, an ultra-nationalist organization connected to MHP. Taken as a whole, some of these views are not foreign to AKP, of course, but they are certainly sharpened and heightened with the MHP’s increasing role in the government and its wide-spread network of ultranationalist organizations.
Beyond the fear: Political homophobia as a tool for social polarization
Since the first public case of COVID-19 in Turkey, the AKP/MHP coalition has suffered major blows due to their mismanagement of the crisis, a series of political scandals, and Turkey’s growing economic turmoil. Their waning popularity among voters has had direct consequences: the growth of grassroots and political opposition. Under these circumstances, the AKP/MHP coalition has shown an increase in their profound political polarization by picking battles against Turkey’s underrepresented and misunderstood identity groups. Similar to other far-right leaders, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Vladimir Putin in Russia, they have also invested heavily in political homophobia by using anti-LGBTQ discourses and practices for political gain and nation-building purposes (see Weiss and Bosia, 2013). Political homophobia stems from fear and prejudice, but ultimately aims to manipulate the public against LGBTQ people, their representation, and their allies. Through the calculated use of political homophobia, President Erdogan and Bahçeli call upon a deeply rooted logic of stigmatization of the “other” (see Çaǧaptay, 2017) in Turkish politics, which has targeted numerous groups and ideologies: communists, the ‘West’, Kurds, religious minorities, Kemalists, secularists, looters, and, recently, feminists and LGBTQ people.
Understanding political homophobia as a calculated political manoeuvre, it is probable that the coalition aims to rekindle their popularity among voters by binding ideas about (hetero)sexuality with easily exploitable symbols about religion, morality, and nationalism. This way, the coalition aims to target, politicize, and claim victory over a marginalized group.[vi] However, political homophobia serves another strategic purpose for the AKP/MHP coalition: fracturing the opposition. In this divisive strategy, if the opposition parties defend LGBTQ rights, the AKP/MHP coalition marks them as “degenerates”, even as conspirators with “foreign powers” who are trying to undermine Turkey’s (hetero)morality and “growth”. In this discourse, the AKP/MHP coalition relies on the support of socially conservative voters which, they hope, will draw a red line against their twisted representation of LGBTQ as a “Western degeneracy”. On the other hand, if the opposition parties do not defend LGBTQ rights, they become failed human rights defenders and risk losing the support of Turkey’s liberals and pro-democracy voters, who are vital if the opposition is to obtain power. We can see this in Bahçeli’s remarks following a supportive comment on LGBTQ people made by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of the main opposition party: “You cannot talk about nationalism or moral values, nor even walk on the streets and call yourself a man. Our only advice to you is to cover yourself in rainbow and continue your protest”.
Waving our flags
Covering ourselves in the rainbow and continuing our protest might be a way to imagine our next steps, but Bahçeli’s intention was definitely not to encourage us to show our colours. On the contrary, his comment aimed at the opposition by pushing Kılıçdaroğlu away from the center of politics, which is shaped by the Islamist and the ultra-nationalist views of the AKP/MHP coalition. President Erdogan and Bahçeli treat the rainbow as an easy target, clear evidence of supposed “degeneracy” and the ultimate excuse for political and social polarization. In this sense, the rainbow and LGBTQ people become convenient rhetorical fodder against which the AKP/MHP coalition seeks to define their role as the protectors of socially conservative values and the “national will” (milli irade). Merged with the ultra-nationalist politics of MHP, political homophobia under the AKP/MHP coalition is proved to be sharpened by anti-Kurdish and anti-minority views, militarism, and increased police violence.
Photo credit: BOUNSERGI student collective, republished with permission.
Amid the state ideology which treats the rainbow as a “weapon” or as a boundary object defining the limits of acceptability in Turkish politics, the layers of paint covering the streets, passageways, and staircases in Turkey hint at a larger history that is, sometimes, submerged under the gray paint. Similar to the story of the ODTU staircase, during the Gezi Park uprising in 2013, the residents of Cihangir – a popular neighborhood near Gezi Park – woke up one day to a public art intervention: a public staircase painted in rainbow hues.[vii] In a precursor to what would later become an established state response to the rainbow, the police painted over the stairs. Yet days later, the local community struck back and re-painted the stairs, chanting the slogans “Colorful life against fascism” and “Everywhere is rainbow, everywhere is resistance”. The rainbow might be carried to the center of politics with the AKP/MHP coalition’s hope to fracture the opposition, yet the colors that keep appearing, despite their attempts, can be considered a sign of people’s persistence and will to retain possession over their narratives, which are misrepresented and stigmatized by the AKP/MHP coalition.
Tunay Altay is a PhD candidate in Humboldt University’s Department of Diversity and Social Conflict. His research and teaching focus on citizenship, migration and sexuality. As part of his cumulative dissertation, Tunay is investigating the historical, socio-economic, and institutional factors that affect the lives of marginalized people and their responses to discrimination in Germany and Turkey. His previous work involved qualitative studies of the experiences of queer people of colour and Bulgarian sex workers in Berlin. Tunay’s work has been published in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and international blogs and newspapers including My.Kali Magazine, Bianet, Boas Blog. Tunay is a board member of the European Network for Queer Anthropology (ENQA) and one of the organizers of SVR Gender Studies at Humboldt University.
[i] During this time, this back-and-forth between the students and the administration had even inspired a Twitter account dedicated to sharing the latest news from the staircase to over 1,200 followers patiently waiting to see what would happen next.
[ii] In the days following the detention of the students on March 25, more gathered with rainbow flags to protest and were faced with more police brutality, with the number of people detained over the flags rising to 42.
[iii] The protest was sparked as early as January 2021. The appointment overstepped institutional customs and was seen as part of the AKP’s attempt to undermine academic freedoms and to further its control over the opposition, in this case, students and academics.
[v] This comment recalls previous cases involving rainbows on Turkey’s campuses. When students from the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) used rainbow flags in 2018, the university administration opened an official investigation, explicitly suggesting that the rainbow flag was criminal, and shouldn’t be used in protests.
[vi] A recent case from the US illustrates political homophobia in practice. By issuing an alarming number of anti-trans laws, the Republican Party (GOP), it is argued, is taking the following strategy: targeting a marginalized group, convincing voters that they pose an existential threat to society, and claiming victory by crushing and penalizing the group’s rights and existence.
[vii] LGBTQ organizations and activists played a crucial role during the Gezi uprising (see Cabadag 2020, Zengin 2013, Unan 2015, Ova 2017) and, as they waved the rainbow flag alongside other opposition groups, the rainbow gained a new level of recognition nationally.