Political homophobia and the making of a rainbow criminal in Turkey

In the past months, Turkey witnessed the unlawful prosecutions of students who have been taken into custody for unfurling rainbow flags in Istanbul. Prosecutions against those who exhibit the rainbow flag indicate a pattern of state-induced political homophobia that uses LGBTQ symbols as markers of its enemy to justify state violence against marginalized groups and to delegitimize the political opposition in Turkey and elsewhere. Against this background, in this contribution I offer some reflections on the recent events surrounding the university protests in Turkey, with a brief note on the 2017 rainbow arrests in Egypt.

Artwork by Gülin Erkan about the Boğaziçi Protests (Istanbul 2021), People as sunflowers with rainbow and trans flags, standing opposite to police at demonstration

On October 23, 2021, a group started to gather on Berlin’s Oranienplatz. As the cold morning breeze swept across the square, the group began to form a circle. The colorful banners they held bore the names of two students who had recently been arrested in Turkey: Berke and Perit. As students of one of Turkey’s leading research universities, Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Berke and Perit were part of the Boğaziçi Resistance movement. The movement had been initiated in January 2021 by students and professors to condemn the politicized installation of a pro-government university rector. The demonstration of solidarity on Oranienplatz marked the 293rd day of the protests. Waiting in the cold, murmurs were exchanged, as we updated each other on the most recent news from Turkey. The anxious quiet was interrupted when one of the spokespersons turned on the microphone to announce:

The attacks on Boğaziçi University are part of the Turkish state’s hegemonic attack upon Turkey’s youth and universities. Yesterday, on October 22, 45 students who tried to protest on campus were taken into detention. We stand here in solidarity with all the students and condemn the system that targets our resistance.

The Boğaziçi Resistance is believed to be one of the most influential student protests and represents a key site of resistance to authoritarianism in Turkey. Distressingly, the severe cases of police violence and unlawful prosecutions against the protestors have marked the Boğaziçi Resistance as a testing ground for the Turkish state’s increasingly repressive policies and strategies to delegitimize the opposition in Turkey. Among these strategies, the Turkish state’s homophobia was brought to the center of the political debate when a Boğaziçi campus artwork featuring the Kaaba and LGBTQ flags was circulated widely, presented by the pro-government media and public authorities as evidence that the protests were nothing but an “ugly attack” that “mocked Turkey’s religious beliefs”. These allegations were followed by a criminal investigation, which resulted in the detention of four students on the grounds that they had insulted religious values and precipitated the conditions of what became known as the rainbow detentions.

Prosecutions against those who exhibit the rainbow flag indicate a pattern of state-induced political homophobia that uses LGBTQ symbols as markers of its enemy to justify state violence against marginalized groups and to delegitimize the political opposition in Turkey and elsewhere. Against this background, in this contribution I offer some reflections on the recent events surrounding the university protests in Turkey, with a brief note on the 2017 rainbow arrests in Egypt.

The rainbow detentions

The term refers to a series of unlawful prosecutions of students who have been taken into custody for unfurling rainbow flags in Istanbul. Neither holding the rainbow flag nor being LGBTQ is illegal or considered an offense according to Turkish law. Rainbow detentions, however, are made possible through the arbitrary interpretation of chargeable behaviors, such as hindering security forces in their duties or for violating the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations.

To raise awareness of these recent events, on the same day of the solidarity event, Berlin Boğaziçi Solidarity Group organized a screening of Alaimisema: a documentary on the series of events that took place before and after the Bogazici Resistance protest rainbow detentions. The film takes us to March 2021: a student named Nazlıcan is under administrative investigation for carrying the rainbow flag. We see her heading towards a meeting, accompanied by friends who are also holding rainbow flags. While passing the public street that divides the university campus, the group finds itself facing a small army of police officers. The police quickly encircles the group and orders them to put down the flags while threatening to carry out ID and criminal record checks if they don’t comply.

When the students refuse and request an explanation, the police officers forcefully lead a few of them to their detention van and command the others to leave the site. Although the police claim that they are only doing a standard ID check, the students who are taken to the van are subsequently detained. Despite police ordering people to keep back, the students refuse to follow orders and say they will stay until they know that their friends are safe and will be released. This is when the riot police (cevik kuvet) arrive on the scene.

The documentary shows the faces of men in uniform as they push the students forcefully with their shields. I myself saw the face of Perit, one of the two students who is currently in custody, for the first time in the documentary; he was among those taken to the van that day. In the documentary, he recalls the police violence: “When they took me to the van, blood was dripping from my face”. Eventually the students retreat to the campus, the university’s turnstiles forging a border between safety and violence.

In the final scenes of the documentary, we see the students who were pushed back to the campus. They refuse to disperse, and announce that they will wait until their friends are released. The testimony of Sera Kadıgil, a member of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, underscores the absurdity of the situation: “What does it even mean to be taken into detention because of the rainbow flag?” As the tension rises on campus, the documentary shows the crowd of students screaming: “LGBTQ rights are human rights,” surrounded by a sea of blue uniforms of the police officers.

What is political homophobia?

The public controversy over the rainbow flag in Turkey is not new. In a sermon in 2020, the President of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, blamed homosexuality for ‘bringing illnesses’ and warned the Muslim community to protect itself from “such evil” while insinuating a hidden connection between the HIV epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. The public controversy over the rainbow flag grew to such a height in Turkey that even LC Waikiki, one of the country’s flagship clothing brands, decided to withdraw all its items with rainbow colors in order to avoid becoming embroiled in the Turkish state’s stand against the rainbow.

Photo by an anonymous source published by the Boğaziçi Öğrenci Meclisi (Istanbul 2021), people demonstrating with rainbow and trans flags.

How can we make sense of this anti-LGBTQ mobilization, which clearly calls for a discussion that goes beyond morality and personal beliefs? Over the years, the increasing deployment of homophobia in political rhetoric has inspired scholars to approach political homophobia as a “…state strategy, social movement, and transnational phenomenon, powerful enough to structure the experiences of sexual minorities and expressions of sexuality” (Weiss and Bosia, 2013: 2). First coined by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, political homophobia is a cultural logic that links nationalism, sexuality, and political violence. What this growing scholarship does is to move beyond a simplified understanding of homophobia as an individual bias or prejudice against LGBTQ people, to expose it as a purposeful and strategic act of scapegoating in order to achieve domestic and international political advancement.

The rainbow detentions are an outcome of the Turkish state’s dangerous liaison with political homophobia. The students who were subjected to rainbow detentions were targeted by top-level state officials, including Turkish President Erdogan, as part of their attempt to delegitimize the Boğaziçi Resistance and to deter the political opposition by eliminating the ‘weak links’. These events exacerbate the stigmatization of the rainbow flag in Turkey and produce a new visible enemy for the public: the rainbow criminals.

A similar case in Egypt

One year ago, I stood just ten minutes away from Berlin’s Oranienplatz, at the vigil held for Sarah Hegazi. Sarah Hegazi was one of the victims of the 2017 arrests in Egypt and was subjected to torture during her time in prison prior to seeking asylum in Canada. Similarly to Turkey’s rainbow detentions, the 2017 rainbow arrests in Cairo started after photos of fans with rainbow flags taken at the Beirut-based Mashrou’ Leila concert circulated in the Egyptian media. The event led to the arrest of 76 individuals, many of whom were treated violently or were tortured. Sarah Hegazi raised the rainbow flag during the 2017 Cairo concert, a courageous act that was punished by the Egyptian state. The homophobia, discrimination, and violence Sarah experienced led her to abandon her home and ultimately precipitated the circumstances of her suicide.

Photo by Tunay Altay from the vigil titled: “Sarah Hegazy: a vigil in mourning, a protest in her legacy!” (Berlin 2020), poster on the floor saying "Sarah Hegazi I bow to your courage" with candle and flowers

Both Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have spearheaded aggressive campaigns against their countries’ minorities, including LGBTQ people and women. As in Turkey, homosexuality is not criminalized by law in Egypt. Yet, the authorities there routinely arrest people suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct on charges of debauchery, immorality, or blasphemy. What is interesting about the cases in Egypt and Turkey is how unrelated laws and regulations are arbitrarily interpreted in order to criminalize LGBTQ people or those who fly the rainbow. Both countries stand in a similar limbo: on the one hand, LGBTQ identities are not officially criminalized. Yet, political homophobia is routinely instrumentalized by top state officials.

The colors of political violence

The cases of prosecutions against those exhibiting the rainbow flag indicate a pattern of how LGBTQ symbols are used to identify targets and justify state violence. These cases of anti-LGBTQ mobilizations are not unique to Egypt and Turkey. On the contrary, the world is seeing a new culture war with rising anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist mobilization among far-right and authoritarian politics in Russia, Hungary, France, Brazil, Italy, and Poland, and many other countries. At the core of this global divide (see The Pink Line by Mark Gevisser) the LGBTQ rights are presented as one of the major sources of conflict and a symbol for far-right groups’ political protests against globalization and liberalism.

Drawing on this divide, political leaders instrumentalize homophobia to negotiate transnational alliances, to delegitimize and defame domestic opposition, and to establish their legitimate power as suppressors of ‘criminals’, ‘degenerates’, and ‘terrorists’. Political homophobia often has accomplices. The Turkish state’s staunch fight to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention – a human rights instrument that aims to protect women against violence – on the basis of the convention’s alleged legitimization of homosexuality shows that political homophobia can be concomitant with anti-feminism. Anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist rhetoric and policies fuel prejudice against LGBTQ people and women, ultimately making everyday lives unlivable with the experiences of violence, exclusion, severing of family ties, loss of jobs/income, and mental health issues.

Alaimisema and remembering the rainbow

At the end of the documentary on Turkey’s rainbow detentions, the narrator tells us what it is that keeps the Bogazici Resistance together: “What brings us together is our pain. We are sisters. We learn the sisterhood from our pain and hope. We know that no one else can help us but each other. Your hands are empty, just like mine.” As I listened to these words, I was drawn to reflect on the title of the documentary, Alaimisema (‘rainbow’ in Ottoman Turkish). The synopsis of the documentary evokes a metaphor of revival: “We know that the rains will turn into rainbows, we will continue to fight with our friends, and most importantly, we know that we will be together.” Rainbows take many shapes under Turkey’s turbid conditions: some come to face violence when they are carried defiantly by those marching the streets, some are poured as paint to quietly exert their presence in public spaces. Glimpses of rainbows twinkle from the small windows of police vans, from digital screens among thousands of supporters, and from distant locations in the hands of Turkey’s queer diaspora hoping for better days to come. Despite the pain and misery inflicted in recent events, the Bogazici Resistance remains hopeful.