Sexuality and Solidarity after Gezi

On 28 June, the inhabitants of Kayacık village gathered to protest the ongoing construction of a kalekol (a high-tech military post with automated weapon capabilities) in the Lice district of Diyarbakir, located in Turkey’s Kurdistan. Lice district had been repeatedly burned down by “anti-terrorism” operations of the Turkish state in the 1990s—operations that claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives buried in undisclosed mass graves to this day. This time, the brutal military response to the protest—in the middle of a peace process currently underway between the Turkish state on the one hand and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerillas and the larger Kurdish movement on the other—left nine people wounded, and claimed the life of an eighteen-year-old protestor, Medeni Yıldırım. The news of the deadly military response spread quickly via Facebook and Twitter, and a protest march from the Galatasaray Square to Taksim Square was called at six pm the following day. This day also happened to be the sixth day of the Twenty-First LGBTQ Pride Week in Istanbul. In light of these calls for protest the “Alliances and Oppositions” panel, aimed at discussing the LGBTQ communities’ solidarity with other oppositional groups after Gezi, was immediately postponed.  All participants at the event were subsequently encouraged to join the ranks of the protestors at Galatasaray Square.

photo 1 taksim square march

Photo Credit: Serra Akcan/NarPhotos

When the LBGT individuals joined the march towards Taksim Square with their rainbow flags, the slogans protestors chanted included, “everywhere is Lice, everywhere is Resistance!” and “Resist Lice, ‘same-sexers’ (eşcinseller in Turkish) are with you!” Shortly after the march started to dissipate after a sit-in protest at Taksim Square, the second and biggest dance party organized under the auspices of the Pride Week got under way at Garaj Istanbul, a concert hall also located in Taksim. After deliberations about canceling it altogether in the midst of another atrocity committed by the Turkish state, the show, featuring an unplugged performance by the brilliant Kurdish vocalist, Aynur Doğan, went on. Protest chants in solidarity with Lice repeatedly interrupted, or rather provided the choir to, the performance.

In the midst of overwhelming news reporting and political analyses of the “resistance” from a variety of perspectives,  the LGBTQ community’s presence at Gezi Park has at best been reduced to a quirky footnote—a footnote indexing the “liberal” and “open-minded” nature of the nascent alignment of resistance at Gezi Park. At worst, these analyses presented the LGBTQ community as the miner’s canary for the nefarious plans of the Erdoğan administration: one marking the moralizing thrust behind the government’s urban renewal project of the red-light and entertainment district of Beyoğlu at large, of which the demolition and “redevelopment” of the Gezi Park was only a small part. With their rainbow flags and creatively sarcastic slogans and banners, of the LGBTQ community’s strong presence at Gezi was taken as a mere visual embellishment to serious analyses of other things and communities assembled under the banner of “resistance:” From analyses of the changing cultural outlook of Marxist and socialist political formations and shifting parameters of class relations in Turkey, to those of the sustainability of the “resistance” movement in the near future, their presence without exception escaped critical scrutiny in English- and Turkish-language media alike, when it was not deliberately sidelined to the fringes of the analytical frame reserved for more “pressing” matters and more “sizeable” communities.

Contrary to this overwhelming tendency, I want to situate the LGBTQ individuals and their collective political action at and beyond Gezi at the center of my analysis. If we approach them as political subjects to be reckoned with, I suggest, we could learn a few lessons about the connections between sexuality and solidarity. Such lessons could help us rethink the allegedly modular alignment of modern state power and (homo)sexuality beyond familiar frameworks that either posit the latter as an effect of (neo)imperial cultural forms making their way into the Middle East, or present its “protection” or “toleration” as the latest litmus test of how “liberal” and “democratic” a state is.

Gezi Park was not only the biggest “cruising” spot for the community, not unlike Park-e Laleh in Tehran, the Tiergarten in Berlin, or the Rambles in New York’s Central Park. It was also the last remaining “queer” space for working-class folks denied access to the burgeoning “queer” scene of Istanbul, which was built around an increasing number of high-end bars and clubs. From sex-workers and hustlers looking for customers, to men looking to have sex with men, to the occasional romantic looking for hir lover, the marble steps of the park, themselves “converted” from the tombstones of the Armenian cemetery that once stood in its place, have seen it all: Gezi Park had been a space of seemingly “strange” encounters that cut across class, political ideology and gender identity divides long before its occupation by a variety of activists and concerned citizens. For the “LGBT Blok” with their impressive frontline struggle against police brutality, enshrined in the picture below, the struggle was squarely about the Park and more. Furthermore, the sustained presence of the “Blok” at Gezi was not peopled by seasoned activists or cruising regulars alone. On the contrary, the “LGBT Blok” in particular and other emergent factions of dissent that occupied the park pulled in previously “unaligned” or “apolitical” individuals into the protests. Not unlike pious youth at odds with the vicious capitalism of the Erdoğan administration, who became increasingly politicized through their encounters with the “Anti-Capitalist Muslims,” LGBTQ individuals encountered their community anew as a politically viable one through the “Blok,” blurring the activist/regular folk distinction even more. It was precisely this process of “politicization” and the resultant comfort of self-expression as political subjects that set the stage for solidarity among diverse factions at Gezi.

For the LGBTQ community in particular, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the decade-long Pride slogan, “Whose Morality is Public Morality?” found its most concrete footing at Gezi. As Samuel Delany describes the remaking of midtown Manhattan, in Times Square Blue, Times Square Red, the “urban renewal” project underway in the Beyoğlu aimed not only at building spaces deemed more profitable for late capitalism, but also at cleansing the district of its allegedly immoral inhabitants and practices. To paraphrase Erdoğan, in order to ensure the “safety” and “well-being” of Turkey’s youth and build his “conservative generation” through increased procreation (“at least three children” per couple, he repeatedly ordered), Beyoğlu had to be cleansed, and the LGBTQ spaces dismantled. In other words, Erdoğan’s larger “renewal” project has always been equally interested in generating capital accumulation and heterosexual procreation.

photo 2 rainbow flag on top of the barricades

Lambda Istanbul

With trans sex-workers’ homes on Bayram Sokak in Taksim and Avcılar recently raided by the police, sixty-nine trans individuals murdered because of their gender identity since 2002 alone, and the former Health Minister calling same-sex desire an “illness,” the LGBTQ community in Turkey has been under sustained attack for quite some time. The LGBTQ community, in other words, had all the reason to stand in solidarity with the Kurdish movement, and not only because the “Kurdish” Peace and Democracy Party (the BDP in Turkish) has been the sole supporter of including sexual orientation and gender identity in the new constitutional amendment addressing the equality of all citizens. It was because both communities, which are by no means mutually exclusive, have realized that it was the same political project that aimed at persecuting Kurds and queers alike.

This is not to say that there were no attempts made at rendering the aforementioned communities as mutually exclusive. On 15 July 2008, Ahmet Yıldız, a twenty-six-year-old physics student at Marmara University, was shot dead in his car near his apartment in Üsküdar, Istanbul. Five months prior to the attack, Ahmet had filed for police protection in the face of the death threats he had been receiving, yet his request was rejected on unspecified grounds. Three out of the five bullets, fired from an unidentified vehicle, ripped through Ahmet’s chest. The only son of “a wealthy and conservative Kurdish family” from Sanliurfa, who desperately tried to convince him to come back home and get himself “cured,” Ahmet’s heartbreaking murder, dubbed as the first “gay honor killing” in Turkey by The Independent, was rendered even more distressing by the fact that Ahmet’s family refused to claim his deceased body and proceed with a proper burial. Ahmet Yıldız’s body now rests in a cemetery for the nameless in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the prime suspect for the murder, Ahmet’s father, remains on the run, and the trial drags on in absentia. The protests organized and public statements released by LGBT organizations in Turkey condemned the framing of the murder as a problem of the conservative and traditional Kurds of Turkey, and instead highlighted the structural failure of the state in protecting its citizens from preventable and often deadly violence, particularly when they are women and/or LGBTQ individuals. Despite these attempts, however, Ahmet’s murder came to stand for the incommensurable divide assumed between the inspiringly (if not wholly) liberal and secular West and the conservative and pious East in Turkey.

When the LGBTQ community and their allies took over Istiklal Avenue in Taksim by the thousands again last Sunday, the slogan of “Ahmet Yıldız is here, where are his murderers?” was not forgotten. Neither were Lice and the most recent atrocity of the Turkish state that claimed the life of an eighteen-year-old, as described in the opening of this piece. The LGBTQ individuals’ political stance and concrete actions in Turkey at and beyond Gezi point to a different constellation of sexuality and solidarity that cannot be explained away by reducing them to objects of modular discourses alone. Instead, their cruising onto the political field of Turkey, and their growing solidarity with a variety of political formations, clearly demonstrate ways in which queer politics could be imagined and practiced anew. It was thanks to this practice of queer politics, and the solidarity between the “LGBT Blok” and the women’s movements that workshops on misogynist and homophobic language were organized in Taksim to encourage protestors to think twice before resorting to such language in their slogans criticizing the Erdoğan administration.

photo 3 Ahmet Yildiz  pride

Photo Credit: Eric Politzer

The history and the present of (homo)sexuality in the Middle East have produced a plethora of scholarship recently. The most controversial example of this scholarship is probably Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs, which came to define homosexuality as an effect of Western modernity and colonialism, rendered modular through (neo)imperialism. Massad’s aim, as he explains in his recent interview with Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem in French and republished by Jadaliyya, “is not to remind us that ‘sexuality’ is experienced differently in different historical or geographical contexts, and that it has distinct ‘cultural” interpretations that shape it. Rather, what I insist on is that ‘sexuality’ itself, as an epistemological and ontological category, is a product of specific Euro-American histories and social formations, that it is a Euro-American ‘cultural’ category that is not universal or necessarily universalizable.” By extension, anyone like Ahmet Yıldız who insists on making claims based on sexuality is “complicit” with neocolonial sexualization or sexual neocolonization of the Middle East. Massad’s analysis offers us a purist and diffusionist division of the universe into two mutually exclusive realms, whereby only one of these two holds sexuality in all its forms. For Massad, in other words, scientis sexualis only emerges once and in one place — Europe — and then gets transplanted on the Middle East (and the rest of the non-European world), a place without a history of sexuality of its own, where sexual practices are only defined negatively, as that which is not the object of scientis sexualis. Such an approach assumes, rather than demonstrates, perfect subjugation of the object (sexuality) to the regime (scientis sexualis) that aims to govern that object in the “West.” It also fails to account for the sheer complexity and the productive multiplicity of meaning that emerges against a “Middle Eastern” genealogy of sexuality: a genealogy that itself gets brutally fractured and successfully rendered “foreign” to the “natives” of the Middle East themselves in their encounters with scientis sexualis, as Afsaneh Najmabadi has skillfully demonstrated in Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity.

In other words, it is only once amrad, mukhannas, köçek, and zenne are systematically displaced from the historically sedimented grammars of sexuality in the Middle East that hamjins baz, kuni, eşcinsel, as well as gay, lesbian, homosexual, and queer come to dominate the contemporary uses of a modern grammar of sexuality in the Middle East. My aim here is not to excavate an archeology of these fractured genealogies in order to redeem a sovereign field of gender and sexuality studies in the Middle East. It is rather to suggest that there is a disavowed history of sexuality, sexual practices, and, yes, sexual identities, that precedes the modularity of what Massad conceives as “sexuality and what reduces queer solidarity to “Gay International.” In other words, this disavowal itself structures the conditions of possibility for sexed subjects to articulate their sexualities, name their practices, and if they so choose, organize their politics. It is precisely due to this historical disavowal, which strips the “natives” of their “native” signs of sexuality, that these natives remain susceptible to charges of being degenerate and immoral products of Western modernity by those still armored with their intact “discursive traditions.” Therefore, it is of critical importance that we examine what people do on the ground with “signs” of sexuality, or parole of sexuality, as opposed to getting caught up in its semantico-referential grammar à la Saussure. The “LGBT Blok” in particular, and the LGBTQ community at large in Turkey more generally, might give us a few clues as to how it is done.

Emrah Yildiz is a Joint PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. His research interests include historiography and ethnography of borderlands, anthropology of Islam and pilgrimage, political economy and contraband commerce, as well as studies of gender and sexuality in the Middle East.

Emrah Yildiz is a cultural anthropologist and Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. His research lies at the intersection of historiography and ethnography of borders and their states; anthropology of pilgrimage and visitation in Islam as well as the study of currencies and contraband commerce in political economy.