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Activists from Pembe Hayat LGBTI Solidarity Association attempt to hold a press conference before being dispersed by police. | Can Eren

Surviving Istanbul Pride Parade amid teargas and beatings

This year, like every year since 2013, police broke up Istanbul's Pride Parade. And like every year, I was there to protest anyway.

Interview subject
Can Eren, 27, lives in Ankara, Istanbul, and is a psychological counselor for LGBTQ+ and transgender youth at the Pembe Hayat LGBT+ Solidarity Association. 

Eren has been attending Pride Parades in Turkey since the 2013 Gezi Park protest, which is still the biggest Pride ever held in Turkey or Eastern Europe, attracting more than 100,000 demonstrators. 

Can Eren identifies as non-binary and gay.
Background
Istanbul is the only city in Turkey that doesn’t have an explicit ban on Pride Parades but has found one way or another to break them up by force since 2013. 

This year, the parade wasn’t given a permit because of COVID-19. 

Police arrested 25 people including AFP photographer Bulent Kilic, who were all released at midnight the same day without facing charges. 

There are no laws explicitly targeting LGBTQ people in Turkey, but the loosely defined “Offence against public morality” law is often used to target the queer community. 

Turkey does not recognize same-sex marriage, civil unions nor does it have laws protecting against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — When you’ve been to as many Pride Parades in Turkey as I have, you come to expect police violence. 

But even I was surprised when I arrived at Taksim Square on June 26, 2021, at 3 p.m. to see police surrounding protesters two hours before the parade was scheduled to begin. 

No one was allowed into the square. 

I could see from outside of the police perimeter three protesters being beaten.

Cops whipped their bodies with batons as they tried to defend themselves. 

I pulled out my phone and started recording. 

A transgender woman cried out in agony as she faced the full force of the officers.

Police put their hands up and blocked the view of my video. 

Tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd and seeped into the surroundings where I was stationed. 

My gas mask kept me from coughing and the water I brought for my fellow protesters’ eyes came in handy. 

We faced more than one enemy that day

Anti-LGBTQ+ protesters, whom I call fascists, waited for us in the nearby religious neighborhood of Beyoğlu. 

They carried clubs and chanted obscenities. 

Pride Parade protesters in Taksim Square were getting pushed toward Tophane in a purposeful attempt by police to put us in danger.

In Turkey, we say that everywhere we walk, on any given day, is our own individual Pride Parade and nothing can stop that. 

On the scheduled day of the parade, however, being openly part of the LBGTQ+ community means you have a target on your back. 

My colleagues, who arrived at the Pride Parade with me, moved away from Taksim Square onto an adjacent street. 

That’s when we saw something no queer person ever wants to see

A swarm of police started running towards us, batons at the ready. We ducked into a cafe. 

The owners hid us as customers in our time of greatest need. 

Queer-friendly businesses are a savior at times like these and some get busted for serving “disreputable” members of society. 

Thankfully, we were spared a confrontation with the cops that day. 

My last run-in with the authorities had been earlier that very month. 

Pembe Hayat LGBTI Solidarity Association was giving a press conference outside a courtroom about the delayed trial of gang violence against transgender women. 

I was there holding a Trans Pride Flag while the team prepared the script and filming equipment. 

A police officer grabbed my flag and tore it down. 

When I tried to film the interaction with my phone, they beat my hands with batons. 

The team and I crossed the street and attempted once again to hold our press conference. 

We were followed by the police and their batons once again swung for our hands. We were simply trying to tell the truth about justice for transgender women in our country. 

Following the dispersal of the 2021 Istanbul Pride Parade, cities and towns around the country emerged with their own Pride events, defying local bans.

Even conservative small towns saw Pride marches in their streets  

Turkey’s welcoming approach to the LGBTQ+ community in the early 2000’s quickly reversed following the 2013 Gezi Park protests. 

The political uprising that sought to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political party from power occurred during Pride month and included a number of queer activists. 

Suppressing queer expression has become part of the government’s effort to concentrate control. 

I’m optimistic, however, that people’s opinions are changing and the new generation will usher in the end to this government by the next federal election. 

One sign things are changing, for example, is that the media has stopped calling us “perverts” and started using the acronym “LGBTI”.

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William Koblensky Varela has worked as a journalist in Toronto, Lisbon, and Waterloo, Ontario.

He’s covered community news, finance, North American politics, and viral media.

Will’s most recent experience was running a newsroom and publication house at the University of Waterloo and is now focusing on investigations for Orato.

Reach him here: news@orato.world