ISTANBUL, Turkey—At a political rally on a gusty January day, Asya Elmas—a transsexual woman, sex worker, and first-time candidate for city council in Kadiköy, a liberal neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side—stood front and center with a fellow activist who was holding a large rainbow flag high over her head. She was there to gently remind Sirri Sürreya Önder, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul and the rally’s focal point, of an increasingly vocal constituency: Turkey’s LGBT community.
Elmas, the HDP’s nominee in Kadiköy, is running on a platform of greater rights for LGBT people and sex workers. Both the HDP and its mayoral hopeful advocate for Turkey’s minorities, but at the January rally Önder, who rose to fame after his participation in last summer’s Gezi Park protests, failed to acknowledge the LGBT community. “He was on top of the bus and he mentioned every group but us,” Elmas tells me when we meet a few weeks later in her apartment. “So I yelled, ‘Sirri, LGBT protesters are here, too!’ He didn’t hear, so I yelled again.” She smiles. “Then he mentioned LGBT. It was really nice.”
Elmas is one of 10 LGBT candidates—five of whom represent the HDP—running in Turkey’s local elections on March 30. This robust representation on the ballots of major parties—10 months after LGBT activists positioned themselves on the front lines of the massive anti-government protests that were sparked by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park—is a breakthrough for the movement. “It’s the first time they’re nominated in places where they can be elected,” says Irem Koker, a reporter at Hurriyet Daily News. A decade ago “it was a completely ignored issue,” Koker adds. “By definition everyone thought that everyone else was straight. Now we are talking about the existence of LGBT people in society.”
In recent years Turkey has undergone a series of democratic openings, rooted in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ambition to join the European Union and the requisite human rights reforms. Some religious and ethnic minorities, like Kurds, have gradually attained greater (although still partial) rights, and as the economy has strengthened and education has improved, Turkish society has opened to the world. The LGBT community had some reason to hope that the AKP’s progressive outlook—whether genuine or opportunistic—would benefit them. Before Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he remarked during a televised discussion that “it is essential that LGBT’s human rights be protected before the law.” In 2003, two years after the AKP was founded, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to host a pride parade. By 2011 Istanbul’s parade was the largest in Eastern Europe.
In office, though, Erdoğan has proved unwilling to grant the LGBT community these rights, declaring the Turkish public “not ready.” Abuse and discrimination are common, and there is no protection under the law based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Some provisions within the legal code formalize discrimination in the hands of prosecutors, police, or judges, who can target citizens for violating vaguely stated laws against “public exhibitionism” and “offenses against public morality.”
In 2010, when Selma Aliye Kavaf, then minister of women and family affairs, called homosexuality “a biological disorder, a disease,” the outcry came from the public, not the government. “As a society it’s a fact that we listen to the words of our leaders,” Elmas told me. “And these people’s words about us are hateful and humiliating.”
Any optimism among the LGBT community that progress would come through the AKP quickly dissipated. Activists became self-reliant, and have managed to push for acceptance by making themselves more visible. But without the cooperation of people on an official level, there are limits to what they can achieve.
“The LGBT rights movement has been working hard to introduce anti-discrimination clauses, [but] the government constantly rejected all such proposals,” Volkan Yilmaz, the head of the Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association in Turkey, writes in an email. “Unless the current political composition of the parliament changes, I am not optimistic about the prospect of Turkey recognizing LGBT rights.” In order to push Turkey in the right direction, LGBT activists would have to run for political office. After Gezi, they are seizing the opportunity.
Elmas lives in a mostly featureless neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side. I visit her on a Friday afternoon, as she and four friends eat a late breakfast of olives, yogurt, and cheese, spread out on a thin, blue cloth on the living room floor. A large flat-screen television dominates the front of the room, and over the threadbare couch Quranic verses are tucked into a framed tapestry portrait of an Alevi mystic. Elmas is not Alevi herself, but she says she and her roommate display the portrait as a show of solidarity with Turkish Alevis, a persecuted religious minority. She is upbeat about her campaign. “It’s going well!” she says cheerily, offering me soft Kurdish cheese wrapped in a hunk of white bread shaped like an elongated football.
While they eat, the group discusses how to use footage from Elmas’ time at the Gezi protests in a new campaign video. A previous video, of Elmas standing on a street in Kadiköy brandishing a piece of garbage while complaining about the neighborhood’s lack of trash cans, did well on Facebook. This installment would be more serious. Since moving to Istanbul more than a decade ago, Elmas has worked as a prostitute. Her political awakening came only last summer in Gezi Park, where she was introduced to other activists. Securing rights and protections for Turkey’s sex workers is part of her core platform, but it’s a difficult one to address. “I define myself as a sex worker who has to be a sex worker,” Elmas tells me. “I’m one of the groups that is the most suppressed, suppressed to the bottom of society.”