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Istanbul Pride
courtesy of All Out, photography Yusuf Sayman

LGBTQ activists in Istanbul defy ban and violent police to march at Pride

‘It was like celebrating in a cage’

Last weekend, Istanbul’s police force descended on LGBTQ activists, attempting to enforce the ban on their Pride march with plastic bullets, pepper spray, and police dogs. These harrowing scenes have become commonplace over the last few years; the violent interruption of banned Pride parades is fast becoming an annual occurrence, whereas censorship in the country more generally has increased due to a violent coup attempt in 2016. The coup ultimately failed, but the consequences were lethal. Hundreds were killed, and Turkey was declared as a country in a state of emergency.

Activist Yuri Guaiana says that the state of emergency has been consistently extended since then. He works as the Campaigns Manager of All Out, a vital non-profit organisation working to spotlight global injustice and fight for the rights of LGBTQ communities in the world’s most marginalised countries. Guaiana spent last weekend among the chaos, vigilantly documenting new updates via All Out’s official Facebook page.

Unusually, signs leading up to this year’s parade seemed positive; an official ban wasn’t announced until days before Pride was due to take place, and authorities did loosen their grip  on the day slightly to allow for a small demonstration, as long as it was contained to one small area, Mis Street.

“This is what was really surprising,” Guaiana tekks Dazed, before detailing claustrophobic police presence at the original, government-approved march.

“I was in the area for hours before, and I saw hundreds of heavily-armed police officers and dozens of armoured vehicles equipped with water cannons gathering. I saw officers preventing people from accessing Istanbul’s main shopping street because they looked ‘too queer’ to them – these scenes have been common since Pride was officially banned in 2015. One activist even told me that her straight, male friend was stopped for wearing a pink T-shirt!”

Unsurprisingly, Guaiana explains that this extreme gatekeeping led to the general feeling that Pride was like “celebrating in a cage”. The small, narrow Mis Street was eventually unable to contain the parade; it was when activists began to spill out that the police responded with rapid violence.

“Fortunately, I made it out seconds before the police started chasing spontaneous assemblies with dogs, rubber bullets and tear gas,” recalls Guaiana. “When I walked out, I saw an endless line of officers coming towards me – it was a terrifying sight. To deploy that many armoured vehicles and armed officers for a bunch of people dancing in the street, and to brutalise them for doing so, is outrageous.”

He immediately reached out to fellow activists, many of whom weren’t so fortunate. “I was told that dozens were beaten by police, and eleven people were detained. One activist I reached out to was attacked by 10 police officers at once,” he says. Officials at Amnesty International corroborated these figures via Twitter, calling on law enforcement to immediately release the 11 detained activists.

These arrests are examples of the extreme censorship tactics favoured by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose reign was recently extended by a snap election. Past criticism has described him as a “dictator”, a term arguably justified by his notorious crackdown on journalism in particular; recent statistics show that more journalists are jailed in Turkey than they are anywhere else in the world. Earlier this week, Al Jazeera reported that more than one hundred media outlets have been shuttered since Erdoğan came into power, with many accused of terrorism.

This increasingly authoritarian rule means that few were surprised by the announcement that Istanbul Pride would once again be banned, least of all Guaiana, who sees the ongoing crackdown as another example of the President “flex(ing) his muscles to come down full force on (Pride), which has become symbolic.”

“To deploy that many armoured vehicles and armed officers for a bunch of people dancing in the street, and to brutalise them for doing so, is outrageous”

Turkish NGOs also face the repercussions of this harsh media censorship, which often equates to state-sanctioned silencing; earlier this year, Human Rights Watch internally translated a study which showed that 54 per cent of all articles written about the LGBTQ community contained some form of hate speech. Only 15 per cent of coverage was dedicated to human rights violations, and just 3 per cent featured quotes from charities or grassroots organisations.

“All Out has been working with Turkish partners for years, but last weekend I witnessed their unending strength and defiance firsthand,” says Guaiana, emphasising that right now, they need some global solidarity. It’s no secret that the international media too often ignores rights violations overseas, and even those it does focus on are quickly abandoned, as interest in any ongoing justice for victims of Chechnya’s harrowing queer purge, intensely covered when the news first emerged, ebbs and wanes.

This year has seen reports of local events moving to suppress grassroots campaigners; in Sheffield, organisers had to apologise for asserting that Pride participants could not bring political banners, as it was to be “a celebration”, not a political march.

In New York, Voices4 organisers wore black and carried coffins draped with LGBTQ flags to represent the queer lives lost to violence across the world. Activists spoke of the lesbian and bisexual women in Guatemala who experience and face “corrective” rape, and slain-Ugandan teacher and LGBT activist David Kato who died in a 2011 homophobic attack, as well as Roxana Hernandez, a transgender woman who feld Honduras and died in ICE custody as she attempted to enter the US.

Now, Guaiana believes it’s time for people to step up and fight to make a difference. Whether this means donating to emergency fundraisers or putting pressuring oppressive governments, it’s increasingly clear, from his point of view, that we can’t remain idle in the face of injustice. As more and more western banks, supermarkets, and other corporations attempt to cash in on the pink pound while flouting general inclusivity in their own companies, the core purpose of Pride as a protest is being screamed by queer activists.