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Istanbul Pride lights cut after ultra-conservative backlash

Turkish ministry cancels 'rainbow lights' display on Bosphorus bridge after opponents complain of 'perverted propaganda'
The diplay last only one evening (screengrab)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A celebration of LGBTI culture in Istanbul was cut short after just one evening after a vicious backlash from ultra conservatives over "perverted propaganda" and threats against the planned Istanbul Pride march. 

Istanbul’s first Bosphorus Bridge, renamed the 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge after last year’s failed coup attempt, was lit up on 18 June in the colours of the rainbow, a symbol adopted by the LGBTI movement.

The lighting of the bridge was seen as a nod to Istanbul Pride Week, starting on 19 June and running through 25 June, although no official statement to this effect was released by any department in charge of the bridge.

The backlash against the move was swift and vicious, particularly on social media.

One user wrote: "May Allah punish whoever engaged in this Perverted Propaganda on the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in the name of LGBT during the month of Ramadan."

Another wrote: "Last night the Bosphorus Bridge was lit in the colours symbolically used by the LGBT perverts. Pity.

The Istanbul municipality was quick to respond and deny responsibility for the lighting. In a series of messages on Twitter, the municipality stated the bridge is not part of its jurisdiction, including its lighting.

The Istanbul municipality said the bridge falls under the responsibility of the national highway authority, which operates under the transport ministry.

In its final message, the municipality said the issue had been resolved.

Translation: The subject has been discussed with the Highways general directorate and the lighting has been changed as depicted in the images.

Debate raged on social media and in the media over the weekend as to whether lighting up the bridge in rainbow colours was intentional and the motives behind it.

Some were quick to point the finger at Gulenists, followers of the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen whom the authorities accuse of being behind last July’s coup attempt.

One prominent Turkish columnist even asked if this was retaliation by Istanbul’s beleaguered mayor who on Friday saw his son-in-law arrested for the second time for alleged financial links to Gulenists.

Others said the bureaucrats in the highway administration probably had no clue that the rainbow colours symbolised the LGBT movement.    

From applause to condemnation

The Istanbul Pride march started being held in 1993 but really took off in 2003, reflecting Turkey’s growing acceptance of diverse views and lifestyles.

Although unimaginable in most of Anatolia, the event flourished in Turkey’s major urban centres with the Istanbul march drawing ever larger crowds in the city’s most famous gathering spot Istiklal Avenue since 2003.

Istanbul Pride events attracted tens of thousands of participants from 2010 to 2014, with the Turkish authorities even earning praise from the European Union in 2014 for ensuring that the large gathering was held without incident despite it coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ramadan falls on different dates in the Gregorian calendar each year since the Islamic Hijri calendar is based on the lunar cycle.

In 2015, the Istanbul governor’s office denied permission for the march. Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse marchers who had gathered regardless.

Permission for Istanbul Pride events continues to be refused.

Observers say the denial of permission to hold Pride events and the increasing vitriol against the LGBT community on social media reflects the increasingly intolerant nature of the country’s current leadership.

In the last few years, Turkey’s fall from being highly praised to strongly criticised has been drastic.

In terms of LGBT rights and issues Turkey was the recipient of high praise until 2014 for being the host of the biggest gay pride event in the Muslim world. The government has never officially sanctioned these events but was lauded for ensuring the safety of participants.  

While homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, homophobia remains widespread.

Istanbul Pride organisers had not commented on the lighting up of the Bosphorus Bridge.

They have, however, vowed to defy this year’s ban as well and make themselves heard and seen on the streets.

The Pride Istanbul website is currently running a crowd funding programme to finance its events this year and using one of its popular slogans: "We are here, we are not leaving, get used to it!"

Meanwhile, the Istanbul chief of an ultra-nationalist group has threatened to attack any pride participants.

"Whatever happens we will in no way allow this march to proceed. We have to prevent such immorality or else it will seriously spread," Kursat Mican of the Alperen Hearths group 

told a local broadcaster. 

"We will not allow this, we won’t let them march even if the state allows them to."

"We will go to whichever area they go to stop them. If we want to we will find 200,000 people to stop them."

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