Homosexuality is not against the law in Turkey, yet most homosexuals live in the closet. LGBT people face discrimination and harassment within the family, at work and in society at large. After years of important steps forward, the LGBT community is being affected by the systematic silencing of all those who are considered “others” because they don’t conform to traditional values.
Sedef Çakmak is so far the first and only openly gay politician elected to a position in Turkey. She has been an LGBT activist since 2004. After the Gezi protests, she decided it was time for LGBT people to be in politics with their open LGBT identities, so she became a candidate for the main opposition party, the CHP, in the 2014 local elections and was elected as a council member for the Beşiktaş Municipality in Istanbul. Sedef believes that she would have never been elected, had there not been the Gezi movement. The first thing that she did as a council member was to establish an equality unit within the municipality to build strategies for all minorities, not just the LGBT one, to make sure that they are represented in the municipality and in society. Thanks to the example set by the Beşiktaş Municipality, there are now equality units in various municipalities in Istanbul and even in Bursa.
How is the situation in Turkey for the LGBT community?
In Turkey, there used to be just one LGBT association back in 2004, now there are many associations, but it is still true that most people within the community feel safer in the closet, because as much as LGBT associations try to help, they cannot replace nor have the same capacity the state can have in addressing the LGBT issues. Policies are needed and, once there are policies, they need to be implemented: in order to do this, you need budget and professionals; you cannot just rely on volunteers from various associations. Most of the LGBT people are afraid of going to state institutions and only go to LGBT associations, but the help they receive there is of course limited.
What about your personal story?
My parents are kemalist, they are modern, they consider themselves modern but they also identify themselves as Muslim. They raised me as a modern woman, they believe me and my older sister should get a good education, that I should have a driver’s license, that I should have a job and not depend on my husband: that’s how they brought me up, they even sent me to the US when I was 17. But there is a limit to how modern you can be and having a lesbian daughter was something too modern for them. Of course they weren’t forcing me to marry or they weren’t trying to find me a guy to marry, as it is the reality in Turkey, but for many years, although they knew I was an activist for LGBT rights, it was hard for them to accept that their daughter is a lesbian. For them, my sexual identity is still something they would not talk about with neighbors or strangers, but I campaigned and I am currently a council member with my open gay identity: I still have a relationship with my parents and this is enough for me. I believe it is the neighborhood pressure on the parents that makes it a lot harder for parents to accept their children. For my parents, and for many other parents, the only concern is what others will say and this is what keeps them from accepting their own child. We still need some time to work on this.
Does Turkish society have problems with minorities?
I believe that if you leave society alone, we don’t have too many problems with minorities. Historically, it has always been Turkish politics that has made minorities “other”, especially religious and ethnic minorities. And now we also have the LGBT minority, which is a sexual minority and here we don’t like talking about sexuality. Sex is a huge taboo that we need to break but I don’t know how to break it.
What about the situation in Turkey after the attempted coup?
I was so afraid on the night of the coup, because I was afraid it would escalate into a civil war and I am so glad it didn’t happen.
The thing is that many people living in Turkey don’t trust the military nor the police, nor the politicians, nor the government, nor the opposition parties, nor the courts and it is of course hard to live in a place where you cannot trust any state institutions. Such an environment encourages people to have their own rules and in that respect, if you are a gay man, if you run into trouble, if you don’t feel that someone will protect you, there is no chance for you to survive psychologically: this is what is happening and this is why we need to keep on reminding how important it is to have the rule of law and to have laws for everyone, not just for one part of society. Laws should guarantee everyone’s rights and the state should be a democratic entity and its ultimate responsibility should be protecting its citizens. Our mission is to keep reminding this to the institutions.
How do you see the future of Turkey?
I am hopeful. We are at a crossroad: either we will become more democratic or we will become more authoritarian, but whichever road we choose, we will always need to struggle for democracy in this country. If you ask ten different people in the streets what democracy is, you will hear ten different answers: we must start with basic definitions, such as what the state is for, what democracy is, we should really start from the basics. Personally, I am not thinking of going to another country, which I could easily do, because what I want is my country to become more democratic. Of course I cannot criticize who is fed up and wants to leave and just enjoy life, but for me what is important is to fight for my country to become more democratic.
What is still alive of the Gezi spirit?
There were so many emotions in the Gezi movement that nobody thought of analyzing them and turning the movement into a political movement. Nobody cared about it, people were just enjoying the moment, which was beautiful in itself. However, as an activist and as a politician, I think of how this movement can be turned into a political movement, because we need this: we need a change in the way we do politics in this country. Politics in Turkey is extremely male dominated. This is one of the problems. The second problem is that politics is made with a language that spreads hatred and is contributing to the polarization of society, which is not OK, as it has gone already too far. In politics of course you have rivals and you will use polarizing methods and tend to create a “we” and “them”. But in Turkey this has started to damage the coherence in society, it is becoming dangerous for our society. And the government is becoming more and more authoritarian and is only ruled by one person: the political system and the entire society are being designed according to the political needs of this one person.
We really need to change the leadership-based political understanding into a more democratic political understanding, which was the case in Gezi. Even back in the Seventies and Eighties, even in the leftist and labor movements, in Turkey there was always a leader. Only women movements and LGBT movements never had a leadership system, so for the old generation it is very hard to understand how there can be a social movement without a leader, how one can tackle a social movement without a leader. Imprisoning a few people cannot stop social movements with no leaders, this is not how things go in these movements. For the Gezi people resisting against police and pepper spray was acceptable, but once the bombs started to go off, once the suicide bombers started, everything changed: we don’t know how to deal with this, how to fight against this. Now people are scared about their lives and I value this fear more than the wish to be a martyr, because we already have a cult of martyrs and martyrdom, but if you die you cannot continue with your cause, that’s why we must keep living and that’s why we need to be mentally strong.
We need to fight against our own fears and worries and the way to do that, at least this is the way I found for myself, is to be more in contact with social groups one doesn’t have contact with in their daily life: I should be more in contact with more conservative people about how they are feeling. We need to understand each other rather than demonizing each other, we need to try to understand each other’s emotions instead of labeling each other as enemies, and try to show respect and together with everyone, not excluding anyone but including everyone, we need to think about what society we can build so that we can all live together despite our differences, because the general tendency of everyone in Turkey is wishing the end of the other social groups. First and foremost, we need to conquer our own fears so that we can have the strength to build a more democratic and inclusive society. Despite the difficulties, I am hopeful about the future, because Turkey is a strange country and you cannot guess what will happen in ten days. Also, I have met a lot of kindhearted, beautiful people in this country and I believe in them, I know that they will do everything they can to make life better for everyone.