Campaign speeches targeting Turkey’s LGBT community during last month’s election have left some living in constant fear of police raids and even planning to leave the country.
Ahead of the first vote and runoff, which President Tayyip Erdogan won, he repeatedly attacked “perverse” LGBT groups and vowed to strengthen and protect traditional family values.
Some worry that such intimidation will be amplified during Erdogan’s new five-year term, including a possible legal crackdown. Detentions are again expected at Sunday’s Pride parades, which draw hundreds of people onto the streets despite being banned.
Bekir, 21, a law student, said that unlike in previous years he and his gay partner now lived in fear that a complaint by a neighbour in their apartment complex could lead to a police raid.
The discrimination faced by the LGBT community has convinced the couple to plan to leave Turkey, he said.
During the campaign, Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AK Party accused the opposition alliance, which pollsters had tipped to win, of being “pro-LGBT”.
“The opposition lost and our fears came true. Fleeing looks like the only solution, which is so upsetting,” said Bekir, who declined to give a full name.
Reuters spoke to seven other people recounting similar plans to leave and citing LGBT friends who had already left.
AK member of parliament Rumeysa Kadak said LGBT people were protected in the country.
“When it comes to LGBTQ people living in Turkey, we have never interfered in anyone’s lifestyle or personal choices, which is also guaranteed by the constitution,” she said on television after the runoff vote.
However, some rights defenders say that hatred against Turkey’s LGBT community has grown since 2015, the year that the Istanbul Pride parade was banned over what the authorities called “security and public concerns”.
More people are leaving due to increased government pressure, feeling their lives are in danger, said Mahmut Seren, a lawyer and LGBT rights defender, without giving detailed numbers but citing anecdotal evidence from his work.
“Turkey has never been the perfect country for the LGBT community but now people feel insecure,” Seren said.
Community members and activists who Reuters spoke to said discrimination had never been so intense and open.
On June 7, police shut down the screening of the film “Pride”, about solidarity between gay activists and striking miners in 1980s Britain, by cordoning off the Istanbul street where the Science Aesthetics Culture Art Research Foundation had invited people to view it.
Cuneyt Yilmaz, a rights advocate, was preparing to make opening remarks that day when he said he found himself trapped inside the building. He said police officers threatened to arrest him and three others when they wanted to exit.
Outside the building, eight were detained, Yilmaz said.
The district governor said that the screening was against “national and moral values” and could damage the public peace.
Matthew Warchus, the British director of “Pride”, said he felt solidarity with Turkey’s LGBT community.
The film, he told Reuters, “is a hymn to courage, compassion, and tolerance. My message to those opposed to it being viewed is simply ‘There is nothing to fear except fear itself'”.
Rights advocates said the campaign rhetoric amounted to hate speech and they worry about possible legal changes that could criminalise LGBT activism, as well as more physical violence against the community – despite no attempt to revamp legislation since Erdogan’s win.
Last year, authorities blocked hundreds of people from gathering for Istanbul Pride and detained dozens.
Istanbul Governor Davut Gul said on Twitter this month that any activity threatening the traditional family structure would not be allowed.
A picnic organised by UniKuir, an LGBT group opposed to discrimination based on sexual orientation at universities, was banned and two students were detained this month in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.
The New Welfare Party, a small Islamist party that endorsed Erdogan in the election, targeted the event on social media. Melih Guner, its youth branch leader, said it would stand against all “deviant structures” and “never allow this immorality”.
Some pro-government media outlets call some LGBT organisations “terrorist groups” and criticise the European Union for funding them.
Any closure of LGBT organisations is a “real threat” for Turkey’s civil society, a European diplomat told Reuters.
Yilmaz, the LGBT rights advocate, said they had never been targeted like this before. “We are frightened but we will not leave the streets,” he said.