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Turkey elections: LGBTQ+ community used as a political football as polling day nears

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly accused LGBTQ+ people of threatening the 'sanctity of the family'
An activist holds a rainbow banner during a demonstration in Ankara, on 25 November 2022 (AFP)

The LGBTQ+ community in Turkey is increasingly being used negatively as a campaigning issue in the run-up to next week's elections as conservative politicians seek to shore up their "family" credentials by attacking it.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is running for re-election on 14 May alongside his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has repeatedly referenced LGBTQ+ people during his campaign.

Speaking at a rally last month, he called the opposition parties pro-LGBTQ+ and said he and his allies believed in the "sanctity of the family".

“Don’t listen to these LGBT people. You shouldn’t stand against the family. The CHP is pro-LGBT, the IYI Party is pro-LGBT and the HDP is pro-LGBT," he told an audience in the western province of Bursa.

The CHP (Republican People's Party) and IYI Party are part of the National Alliance running against Erdogan and the AKP, and polls indicate they stand a serious chance of unseating them for the first time since 2002.

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The HDP (People's Democracy Party) is a pro-Kurdish leftist party that is supporting the opposition in the 14 May elections, although they are not formally part of the alliance.

On Thursday, Erdogan again hit out at LGBTQ+ people during a rally in the Black Sea city of Giresun.

"We are against the LGBT," he said. "Family is sacred to us. A strong family means a strong nation. No matter what they do, God is enough for us."

Damla Umut Uzun, a campaigner with the Turkish LGBTQ+ rights organisation Kaos GL, told Middle East Eye that these comments were the culmination of years of scapegoating.

"Last year there were 15 anti-LGBTQ demonstrations called ‘Great Family Meeting’ held by their conservative constituencies," she said.

"Hoping that such actions will unite the conservative voters, they started to use the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in their election campaign."

She pointed out that in the early years of Erdogan's rule, there had been more space for LGBTQ+ advocacy, with the first Istanbul Pride taking place in 2003 and members of Kaos GL holding meetings with government officials.

It was not even unheard of to see LGBTQ+ flags at AKP rallies.

However, over the past decade, the situation has deteriorated, with the banning of pride marches and, most damagingly, the 2021 withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women, which provided some protection for LGBTQ+ people (which the government cited in its reasons for withdrawing).

Hope for the opposition?

Despite Erdogan's assertions, the opposition political parties' attitudes to the issue are less than clear, with arguably only the HDP having unambiguously and openly supported LGBTQ+ rights in the longterm.

A number of high-profile CHP politicians, such as Istanbul party chief Canan Kaftancioglu, have in the past been openly supportive of LGBTQ+ rights and have celebrated Pride Week, while CHP-held municipalities have also been supportive in the past.

National Alliance presidential candidate and CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was also asked during a TV interview last month whether he believed LGBTQ+ people "corrupt" the family, to which he answered" "Not at all."

'Turkey is obviously ready to change, but because of the government pressure we cannot make progress on the issue'

- Damla Umut Uzun, Kaos GL

"Look, you have to respect everyone's lifestyle. I don't make people's lifestyles into an object of politics. Politics is a separate thing. Politics is finding solutions to the present problems. We have to respect everyone's faith and identity," he told the interviewer.

However, the joint manifesto issued by the National Alliance makes no mention of sexual orientation or LGBTQ+ rights, while other members of the alliance have also been hostile to LGBTQ+ rights in the past.

The Islamist Felicity Party, which split from the same movement as the AKP, takes a conservative position on the subject, while the centre-right IYI Party has faced criticism from rights groups over some of its member's comments.

Some have also criticised attempts by the opposition to paint the government as hypocrites by citing their own record on LGBTQ+ rights - implying that the AKP's early years of tolerance of LGBTQ+ rights was a negative thing.

However, Umut Uzun said although she had some reservations, the rhetoric of Kilicdaroglu during the election campaign had encouraged her, especially the appearance of billboards in which he promised to protect people's rights on the basis of "sexual orientation".

"The CHP’s opposition policy was so soft until the election process... but there is a huge change in their election campaign. It is so inclusive and it really gives hope about advancing human rights," she said.

"Currently we are not able to sit on the table with any government institution or any AKP MP. But the CHP and other opposition parties visited our offices and listened to our concerns. So at least they will be open to dialogue and collaboration."

She added that despite the perception that Turkey is a conservative country with still widespread homophobic attitudes, she believed that there had always been more tolerance for LGBTQ+ people than many realised. She cited the popularity of celebrities like musician like Zeki Muren and trans singer Bulent Ersoy - who even met with Erdogan on a number of occasions.

Turkey "is obviously ready to change, but because of the government pressure we cannot make progress on the issue," she said.

"With the effect of digitalisation and Gen-Z, these issues are not that 'taboo' like in the past."

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