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Thousands gather in Istanbul for anti-LGBTQ rally 

Organizers say they are rallying for family values, while rights groups protest the rally as a hate crime.
Protesters hold placards and flags during an anti-LGBT rally organized by pro-Islamic organizations in Istanbul on Sept. 18, 2022.

Thousands gathered in the conservative heart of Istanbul Sunday to urge the government to change its laws to protect the family by penalizing homosexuality and banning activities that support the LGBTQ movement. 

The Big Family Gathering, which was attended by about 150 conservative nongovernmental organizations from across Turkey, called on the government to close down LGBTQ associations; prevent any action or expression of support for homosexuality in public space; ban LGBTQ “propaganda,” particularly that which targets children on-screen; and penalize “all perverse movements that undermine traditional family values.”  

The petition, titled “Protect your family and generation from perversity,” was signed by 150,000 people, according to Kursat Mican, chairman of the Islamo-nationalist Unity of Opinion and Struggle Platform, which organized the gathering. 

The gathering in the conservative district of Fatih is the latest one in Turkey's growing barrage of anti-gay words and deeds. Though homosexuality is constitutionally legal in Turkey and it had been de-penalized in the mid-19th century during the Ottoman Empire, local and international groups express woes about growing hate speech toward the LGBTQ community, particularly in the last seven years. For example, the LGBTQ rights group ILGA Europe ranked Turkey second to last — just ahead of Azerbaijan — in its review of 49 European and Central Asian countries in its 2020 report. These include statements from Turkey’s head of religious affairs who accused homosexuals of “spreading the disease” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who told people not to listen to “lesbians-schmesbians.” 

The gathering also demonstrates the rising profile and vocality of the anti-LGBTQ lobby. Pride marches in Istanbul — once the most colorful and largest gatherings in the region — have been banned since 2015, and smaller demonstrations have been brutally suppressed by the police. Several universities, including the elite Bogazici University, have been forced to close down LGBTQ clubs, and songs or gay film festivals that allegedly advocate for homosexuality have been banned from the screen and airways. When the government announced that it was withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, the pan-European accord for combatting domestic violence, one of the arguments was that the agreement was “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Türkiye’s social and family values.” 

Sunday’s meeting gathered unlikely bedfellows together and created scenes that bordered on the absurd. Headscarved women waived banners side by side with ultra-secularist women who had long complained about the negative influence of Netflix and other digital services. Footage showed a group of participants, members of a religious sect dressed in white Islamic robes, protesting music being played. “We will walk in silence by the name of God. Turn down the music, the believers of Muhammed,” one shouted, while another shouted, “If you are here to listen to music, go to a concert instead.” 

One of the key speakers, former beauty queen Tugce Kazaz, a reconvert to Islam after changing her religion four times in the course of two decades, called on "Muslims" to fight for their values and protect the family from LGBTQ impositions in life and on streaming platforms.  

The gathering had support from the conservative Justice and Development Party government and its informal nationalist allies. Turkey’s media watchdog, RTUK, announced it in a public spot, and Turkey’s deputy Culture Minister Serdar Cam lauded the event. “Families who raise their voices to protect their children from those who want to pervert future generations … will meet today at 1430,” he tweeted on the day of the Great Family Gathering.  

Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights lawyer, said that the government support for the meeting was evident. “Big Family Gathering is openly being supported by the state. Moreover, when compared to other countries, Turkey is where more homophobic and transphobic acts of violence occur. In other words, this action has a high probability of triggering violence,” he warned. 

“I could not believe that a meeting that shows such blatant discrimination … toward a part of the society could be allowed to take place,” tweeted Defne Koryurek, an environmental activist who described herself as the proud mother of a queer child. In an open letter to Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya, Koryurek outlined her woes that the gathering would further fuel attacks on Turkey’s gay community. “They say the aim of the gathering is to protect the family. What about me, my husband and my beautiful, compassionate and smart child? What about our family?” she asked. 

LISTAG, the association of friends and family of LGBTQ persons in Turkey, said that the march should not be prevented. “Let them hold their demonstration,” their press release said. “Let us remember who they are, how they can hold meetings that encourage discrimination and hatred while peaceful pride parades have been banned for years.” 

The group invited the friends and families of the LGBTQ community to go online to watch “My Child,” an award-winning documentary by cineaste Can Candan on five families whose children were gay. One of the families interviewed was the mother and father of Irem Okan, a transsexual stabbed to death in 2010. 

As with most social developments, dueling hashtags (#protectthefamily, #LGBTimposition and #gotoHolland on one side, and #notohatemarch and #loveislove on the other) dominated the Turkish Twittersphere immediately. A rainbow that came after the rain on Sunday also became the target of controversy. “Clearly God is for the LGBTQ,” quipped several Twitter users. To those, Cam, the deputy minister for culture, tweeted a terse reply: “We are happy that God has not punished us with stones as he has done to the people of Lut. We ask pardon for widespread immorality on earth and the idiots among us.” 

Singer Mabel Matiz, whose recent hit “Copshop” tells the story of a gay man tortured by police, called for legal action against what he called the hate march. “I call on everyone to show solidarity with LGTBQ people against the anti-LGBTQ march. … Such a thing has no place in a civilized society, and discrimination is a crime,” he tweeted. 

Mican, the head of the platform, denied that they were committing a hate crime. “We want to end this trend that threatens the existence of humanity by raising awareness against LGBTQ propaganda and imposition,” he said. “This meeting is not against LGBTQ individuals — never for a moment would we support violence against them.” 

Some of the banners were around the family or protection of children from what they called gay lifestyle propaganda on-screen. But others targeted LGBTQ, calling them perverse or asking them to leave Turkey and live abroad.  

Participants say that more of these gatherings will follow. Kazaz said she plans another family rally in the future and has obtained support from various political party groups, including Dogu Perincek's ultra-nationalist Homeland Party. 

Other parties protested the gathering as discriminatory. Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) warned against trying to score points in politics by polarizing the society. The Greens and the Anti-Discrimination Committee of the Youth Branch of the main opposition Republican People’s Party also made similar statements. However, most heavyweights of the opposition remained silent. “And they would still ask for my vote?” tweeted Koryurek. 

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