Turkey is a predominantly conservative country, where morality is based primarily, although not exclusively, on Islamic beliefs and traditions, especially when it comes to sexuality. A secular outlook on life, however, and related libertarian concepts of ethics and individual rights also have a history in Turkey going back more than a century. It is because of this that gay pride pageants, unthinkable in other preponderantly Muslim countries, can be held in Istanbul without the kinds of homophobic attacks one sometimes sees at such events, including in some conservative Orthodox Christian communities in the region.
This does not, however, mean that there is broad social acceptance of homosexuality or that life is easy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Ekin Keser and Emrullah Tuzun, two gay men in their 20s, found this out the hard way after they decided in early September to publicly “marry” in Istanbul. It was not going to be an official marriage, of course, because Turkey is far from accepting such marriages, let alone providing legal protection for members of the LGBT community.
Some minor changes have recently been introduced to amend a blatantly homophobic article in the penal code after a case was lodged with the Constitutional Court. It is also true that technically speaking, homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, although statutes relating to public morality and obscenity are often used against gays.
Despite this difficult environment, Keser and Tuzun nevertheless wanted to go through with a public wedding ceremony, where they would exchange vows, expressing their love and commitment to each other. In a September interview in KaosGL magazine, which focuses on issues pertaining to Turkey’s LGBT community but also deals with other human rights issues, Keser revealed that he had felt very special the day Tuzun proposed to him. “When I came to Istanbul four years ago, I had two dreams: an art education and marriage. At the moment, I'm studying in the fine arts faculty of a university. Together with my marriage, my dreams have come true,” he said.
Keser described himself as being of Arab origin, and his partner as being of Kurdish origin. Keser said that after they met in Istanbul three years ago, they never felt the need to hide their love for each other in public. “We showed our emotions. We touched each other, hugged each other, and never held back from walking hand in hand,” he said. His immediate family members are aware of his sexual orientation and, he said, have accepted it because they did not think it was a long-term situation. Keser also said, however, that other relatives were not so tolerant, with some openly making death threats. He said that although Tuzun’s family took longer to come to terms with his situation, there was in the end less animosity among his relatives.
Keser gave that interview not so long after he and Tuzun took their vows on Sept. 2 in a private ceremony aboard a yacht on the Bosporus to avoid homophobic attacks. The event was attended by a close circle of friends, a cousin or two and members of the media. It did not take long, however, for the dream to turn into a nightmare for the two men. In an Oct. 13 interview with the daily Hurriyet, Tuzun said that even his family members, particularly his brothers, were now threatening to kill him.
“The reactions came after our marriage appeared in the press. Our landlord told us to vacate the house we lived in. I was working as a waiter in Kadikoy [a district of Istanbul] and was fired. Because he is a university student, Ekin is not working. We ended up without a source of income and in a very difficult situation,” Emrullah said.
Keser said he was also receiving threats over social media and could not go to the university to attend classes. “I am originally from Antakya. I am accused of giving Antakya a bad name and am getting death threats because of this. My family knew I was gay, but they reacted very angrily to my getting married,” said Keser. He said they had gotten married to break down taboos and that now all they wanted was for their families and others to leave them alone.
I asked Rozerin Seda Kip, a member of the Istanbul Bar Association and human rights lawyer who has made a name for herself defending members of the LGBT community, if she was surprised by the young men's ordeal. Predictably, she told Al-Monitor she was not, asserting that the establishment in Turkey wants “a Sunni, heterosexual and white country,” to use her words.
“These two young men have been living together for some time. They tried to bring some kind of legitimacy to their relationship, according to their own understanding, through a wedding ceremony that was a first for Turkey. But their families, who are under religious, political, social and cultural influences, opposed this,” Kip said.
Asked whether Keser being of Arab origin and Emrullah of Kurdish descent made a difference, given that honor killings are prevalent among Arabs and Kurds, Kip said it did not. “Arab, Kurd, Turk, they all react the same. I am of Kurdish origin myself and often see more tolerance among the families of Kurdish members of the LGBT community than I do among Turkish family members.”
Kip believes that it will take a very long time, if at all, for gay marriage to be recognized in Turkey, where circumstances for members of the LGBT community, she says, are getting worse under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots.
“Just in the past 2½ months, 25 attacks, including murder, have taken place against gays and lesbians. There is impunity in this regard, encouraged by official statements. Police protect the perpetrators, and families do not help,” Kip said.
Given the dire situation, she explained, officially recognized marriage is not a priority for the LGBT community, which is currently more interested in gaining basic rights, including the right to life, to work and to inheritance. “Topics such as gay marriage and child adoption for gays are for the future,” she said.
When asked to compare the situation of gays and lesbians in Turkey with those in other Islamic countries in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Kip pointed out that gays and lesbians from these countries seek refuge in Turkey, which they see as a relatively safer place to be as a stepping stone for moving to the freedom of the West.
Kip characterized as particularly woeful the situation of LGBT members who have fled the crises in Iraq and Syria. While life for gays and lesbians in Turkey is difficult in absolute terms, and fraught with dangers, conditions for the refugees in Turkey are still 10 times better than, for example, conditions in Iran, Kip explained.
“At least they have a voice in Turkey through various support groups and magazines. We also have a gay pride week, which is attended by LGBT members as far afield as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran and the Arab world,” Kip said. Turkey may indeed be a relatively better place for gays and lesbians compared with these countries, but this has not made life any easier for Keser and Tuzun. They just want to be left alone, in peace, and to get on with living their lives as a happily married couple.