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A Dramatic Turning Point: Turkey’s Last Pride Parade

On the same day that the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, US diplomat Chuck Hunter witnessed police forces violently crack down on a peaceful celebration of LGBTQ+ rights in Istanbul—essentially Turkey’s last legal pride parade.

The annual pride parade in Istanbul, which had been going for decades, had been the largest in the Muslim world—notably attracting thousands of people celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer social and self-acceptance, achievements, legal rights, and pride.

Pride Parade, Istanbul (2012) Wikipedia Commons
Pride Parade, Istanbul (2012) Wikipedia Commons

However, the pride parade in 2015 turned out differently, ending with police shooting water cannons, tear gas, and rubber pellets at the peaceful marchers to disperse the annual celebration, which that year coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ever since that year, the parade has been banned by the local authority citing security concerns and the need to uphold public order. In 2018, 2019, and 2021 people nevertheless showed up to celebrate LGBTQ+ rights, only to be met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests by the police.

These brutal police crackdowns are a part of a series of authoritarian measures introduced by the democratically-elected ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ever since the party’s transition to power in 2002, several human rights organizations have raised concerns over Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian agenda—including incidents of suppression of democratic values, the freedom of speech, and the rule of law. The recent years’ ban on pride parades comes amid all of this.

Unlike many other Islamic countries, homosexuality is legal in Turkey. Despite this, homophobia is a brutal reality. AKP has not hidden their hostile attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community, with President Erdoğan calling journalists, Armenians, and gays alike “representatives of sedition.” Hence violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is increasing and often unpunished.

Chuck Hunter served as consul general in Istanbul from 2013 to 2016, and he became a first-hand witness of the increasingly conservative and hostile environment towards the LGBTQ+ community. In this moment in U.S. diplomatic history, we recall his experience of celebrating pride in Istanbul in 2015 with a performance by the Boston Gay Men Chorus at the consulate and attending with his same-sex partner the parade that was disrupted by the police force.

Chuck Hunter’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 2, 2020.

Read Chuck Hunter’s full oral history HERE.

Read about Jan Krc’s fight against LGBT discrimination within the foreign service HERE.

Read more about the State Department’s effort to track down gay people in the 1950s and ‘60s HERE.

Drafted by Elise Agdestein

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Excerpts:

“Interestingly the Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexual acts in the nineteenth century, long before any Western country did.”

Celebrating same-sex marriage in Istanbul:
One that I particularly remember was on June 26, 2015 to be precise. The reason that that date stands out in my head is that it was the day that the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. That was the decision by virtue of which same-sex marriage became legal across the United States. The reason that was significant is that that very day the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was due to arrive in Istanbul. There’s a story I’ll tell about that visit in just a moment, but on a personal note it also happened to be the six-month anniversary of my own marriage to my Turkish same-sex partner in California. So it was kind of a trifecta to have the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus arrive for a reception at my place that had already been planned on the day that that momentous decision was handed down in Washington. So you can imagine what a joyous celebration we had there. And I should note—

Q: How was this received in Turkish society?

HUNTER: Well, that will be a segue into the story that I had to tell about the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Turkey as a whole is a fairly conservative country, especially when you get outside the major cities. There is no recognition for same-sex marriage; no kind of civil union for same-sex partners. By the same token, same-sex relationships have been around since time immemorial and certainly during the Ottoman period that had been a feature of life. Interestingly the Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexual acts in the nineteenth century, long before any Western country did. So there was an interesting tension that existed between that liberal outlook that the Ottoman Empire had had and the underlying conservatism of the society.

(…)

Long before my arrival, a tradition of Gay Pride parades in Istanbul had begun back in the 1990s. My first summer there, my first June in country in 2014, my then-partner, now spouse, attended but just watched. We didn’t march or try to draw attention to ourselves. That next year, 2015, we did intend to march. The parade was due to happen a few days after the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus’s arrival.

Now the story concerning them. In Istanbul when I arrived there was construction going on for a commercial and residential complex in a very prominent location, perhaps a mile or a little bit more from the consulate general, called the Zorlu Center. Included in that complex was a state-of-the-art performing arts center. The Zorlu Center was completed and opened to the public in late 2014 and started booking different acts (….) They put on their schedule a performance for the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus in June 2015 during Pride Month.

“The rector agreed that that would be an appropriate thing to do. She came under enormous pressure from the government in Ankara not to take that step.”

           
Protesters marking Pride, Istanbul (2018) Unsplash
Protesters marking Pride, Istanbul (2018) Unsplash

A high-security concert:
At some stage it came to the attention of the Zorlu family that this group was an ensemble of homosexual men who embraced their identity. I don’t know the details of conversations there may have been within the family or with officials in Ankara, but in any event the decision was made that the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus could not perform at the Zorlu Center. This was after contracts had been signed. The chorus was informed of that well in advance of the planned trip. But the Zorlus, to their credit, decided to uphold the contract by saying that they would pay for the travel expenses and all the production expenses provided that the chorus could find another venue at which to hold their performance. So that became their challenge, to figure out where they could perform.

The LGBT student group at Bogazici University, the pre-eminent Turkish university, decided to approach the university’s leadership to propose that Bogazici be the venue for the concert. The rector agreed that that would be an appropriate thing to do. She came under enormous pressure from the government in Ankara not to take that step. She didn’t share explicitly what threats were communicated, but in any event, she stood her ground and the concert went forward a day or two after the group arrived and had the reception at my place.

It was a terrific event even though there had been threats from various rightwing groups that there might be problems at the concert venue. There was a lot of security laid on. The university was very careful about screening attendees, so there was a full house for this outdoor concert and it went off without a hitch. The chorus called me up on stage to sing their last number with them. As I think I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve had a chance to be involved in music in most of my postings, and Istanbul was not an exception. That’s another story, but it was a wonderful conclusion to what had been a really fraught few weeks leading up to the chorus’s trip to Turkey.

“I reached out to the deputy governor who handled security affairs, and pointed out that there had never been any incident in prior parades, that people were gathering peaceably to advocate for human rights and their identity as a community.”

The surprising tomas:
They hoped that they were going to cap off that tour by marching in the Pride parade, but things didn’t quite work out that way. The concert was on a Saturday. So the next day, Sunday, was to be the Pride parade. We had no indication that there was going to be any issue. As I mentioned, it had been going on without interruption and without incident since the 1990s, but as my partner and I were in the car on the way toward the kickoff point in Taksim Square—the parade always went down İstiklal Avenue from Taksim down to the Tunel area in Beyoglu—my partner began seeing things on social media saying that people weren’t being allowed to gather; that there were police and riot troops there in full gear; that what the Turks call tomas, these large tank-like water cannons were being massed in Taksim. So we were concerned that something was up. We kept on driving and I heard from a couple of the American staff from the consulate who had planned to march with us that the tomas were launching into operation and using these water cannons to disperse people from Taksim; that there was tear gas and people were being driven down the side streets away from Taksim.

Nonetheless, we were able to arrive to Taksim and to walk to what was to have been the point where the parade kicked off. At that point the square had been cleared. The riot police were still there in several lines and my bodyguards, who were Turkish police, talked their way into having me and my partner get between two lines of these riot police where we waited. There were already a few members of the European parliament who had also been there intending to march with a couple of leaders of LGBT non-governmental organizations. So they were also standing there, both waiting to see what would happen and starting to make phone calls to see if there was some way to salvage the parade. After a time I was joined by my British counterpart and I joined in the phoning. I reached out to the deputy governor who handled security affairs, and pointed out that there had never been any incident in prior parades, that people were gathering peaceably to advocate for human rights and their identity as a community, and that if there were to be any trouble it would be by others outside that community who were coming to stir up trouble.

We waited and waited—I don’t know whose communication with whom had this effect—but after a time the second line of riot police on Istiklal that were in front of us stepped aside and we were able to start walking. There were still a few brave souls on the periphery of Taksim hoping that there would be a parade after all. And when we began walking, they followed us and others began to rejoin, those who hadn’t been driven completely out of the area. So we walked. At about the midpoint of Istiklal is a French lycée, and at that point we were joined by the French and Dutch consuls general who walked the rest of the way with us. Ultimately we were able to complete the full route of the parade. I went with my consulate colleagues.

I should say that throughout this time I was keeping in touch with our DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in Ankara to make sure he was apprised of the situation and to avoid any surprises. I was not told to leave the scene and I was grateful that they had confidence that we’d reach the right judgment on our own if things looked like they were headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately they didn’t, at least at that point. Once the parade concluded, those who made it down to the Tunel area gathered at various watering holes, danced in the streets. So my team and I had a bite to eat and I treated them to a round of drinks to celebrate. But just after I left, the police swept in and again cleared the area. So it was a disappointing finish to what we’d managed to salvage of the Pride parade day.

The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus I think wisely decided to remain in their hotels and not try to force the issue, so they unfortunately did not have the pleasure of being among the people celebrating there. But all the same they did have a very memorable time.

“The early years of the AKP [Justice and Development Party] featured a lot of talk about democracy and openness, providing opportunities to segments of the population that had felt marginalized when under the rule of more Western-focus elites for some decades.”

Towards a conservative public morality:
Q: What was the threat? Turkey had had parades before; there’s no pressure on the gay community from what I gathered you were saying, so what was the problem?

HUNTER: I wish I had an answer for you. During this time, Erdoğan, who by that time had been elected president—he was no longer prime minister—had been increasingly successful in consolidating his power and seemed to be bent on turning the country in a more conservative direction than people had initially thought he was inclined to do. The early years of the AKP [Justice and Development Party] featured a lot of talk about democracy and openness, providing opportunities to segments of the population that had felt marginalized when under the rule of more Western-focus elites for some decades. That leveling of the playing field made sense from the standpoint of Western values; however, at a certain moment it became apparent that Erdoğan’s hope was not to have a completely level playing field but to tip things in the opposite direction. He made reference, for example, for wanting to raise a pious generation. So the concern was that the real intent, implicit if not actually stated, was to have a religiously conservative group dominate the country to the disadvantage of people who embraced a more liberal and Western concept of personal and individual rights.

So what happened was very much in keeping with that intent. Whether there was one single thing that triggered the decision to prevent the parade from going forward, or whether it was simply the continuation of this gradual trend toward a more conservative public morality, that also included things like raising taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, banning advertising for alcohol, which had a ripple effect that included prohibiting Efes Beer and other alcohol companies from sponsoring concerts as they had typically done.

So there was a gradually rising tide of this stricter public morality that also encompassed the quest for equality for LGBT citizens. And since 2015, there has not been another parade down Istiklal during Pride Month. In 2016 we salvaged things a little by having a boat or a couple of boats parade, so to speak, in the Bosporus with rainbow-colored balloons and so on. Not quite the same, but better than nothing. But since then, there’s not been anything, unfortunately, and no indication of when that may return. A lot of the then-leaders of NGOs working for LGBT rights have gotten discouraged and moved on to other things. I think there are a number of people who are wanting to step up and continue the fight, but it’s not an encouraging environment in which to operate right now.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
MA in French and Humanities, Stanford University, 1984–1986
PhD in French and Humanities, Stanford University, 1986–1989
Joined the Foreign Service 1990
Muscat, Oman—Public Affairs Officer 1995–1998
Jerusalem—Public Affairs Officer 2002–2005
Damascus, Syria—Chargé d’Affaires/Deputy Chief of Mission 2009–2011
Istanbul, Turkey—Consul General 2013–2016