Photo credit: Flickr / Luca Di Ciaccio

Banned colours: Istanbul Pride

Last week we enjoyed a whole week full of workshops, conferences and panels during the Pride Week in Istanbul. However, when it came to the closing Pride March , the most visible event, the government declared a ban just the day before, just like last year and the year before that. The ultranationalist groups threatening LGBTI+ people were considered ‘sensitive and worried citizens’ by the state, since the march coincided with the first day of Eid. Looking back, trans sex workers in Turkey were among the first ones who supported women wearing headscarves who were denied education under the rules of the time. They were the ones demanding equal rights for any woman regardless of their job, religion or clothing because they experienced oppression first-hand and most of the time, very violently.

On Sunday, thousands of police officers were already waiting on Istiklal Street around noon, even though the march was intended to start only at 17.00. Without any official explanation, the police started blocking the entrance to the street from several points, deciding who could and could not enter the most popular shopping street in Istanbul on the first day of Eid. When asked on what grounds they were deciding on who could enter, the police answered: ‘According to our intuitions.’ Naturally, these ‘intuitions’ excluded anyone who could be read as trans, queer, lesbian or gay. One person was not let through because they had ‘a colourful shirt’ and colours were banned as well! After trying to explain to the officer that, as citizens, they had every right to walk in the city, they gave up and changed their strategy. Instead of talking rationally,  they pointed out the green colour in the shirt, and suggested that there is no green in the rainbow, therefore the shirt was ‘innocent’ and had nohing to do with Pride. To their surprise, the police let them in after this absurd joke.

Anyone with a rainbow flag was denied entrance. People were also asked to leave their badges, bags, t-shirts, jewelry or socks behind if these objects had rainbow colors on them. In all this absurdity, people found ways to ‘perform’ the cis-heteronormativity that was expected of them. Gay men held hands with their lesbian friends to give a heterosexual impression in front of the police barricade. Activists hid their belongings in construction sites to pick them up after the march. One man took off his t-shirt because of the little rainbow on the front. I, personally, walked the parallel streets of Istiklal with my partner, examining gaps in police surveillance to enter the area. There were none. We had to hide our colourful bracelets, and the rainbow spring rings we just got from a toy store. In the eyes of the state, threats from radical groups against LGBTI+ people were not as dangerous as rainbow toys. After all, the ultranationalists were only voicing what the government could not say openly: they hated us and wanted us to be invisible if not dead.

Unsurprisingly, trans women had the worst experience. Some were not let through, because they looked ‘not normal’ according to police, some were detained on their way to have dinner and were kept long hours in hot police cars, denied water or the right to use the bathroom. Volunteering attorneys have said that LGBTI+ activists detained in police vehicles were made to listen to Quran over an hour. I wonder what that means. Do the police use Quran as a method of torture as they do with loud music in order to prevent the detainees from falling asleep or do they rather try to ‘convert’ queers? What about the Christians among the LGBTI+ in Turkey? And what about those who already know the Quran by heart but are still beaten up by the police simply because of their existence?

After hours of running away from tear gas and rubber bullets, a large group of activists managed to gather and read out their press statement in Cihangir, close to Taksim Square. Smaller groups opened their flags and read the statement from their smart phones in other spots throughout the Istiklal Street. All detainees were let go during the night. Although scared and exhausted, we went to the big closing party of Pride week that night. Some of us were scared of radical Islamists or nationalists attacking the bar. We were afraid of becoming the Turkish Orlando. It didn’t happen. Not yet. We survived, danced and celebrated our identities. We were indeed proud.