May 29, 2024

Homosexuality and Bisexuality

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People in a crowd waving Turkish flags and looking upward.When Yasemin Oz, a lesbian lawyer in Istanbul, heard President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming victory after a runoff election on Sunday, she said she feared for the future. In his speech, he declared “family is sacred for us” and insisted that L.G.B.T.Q. people would never “infiltrate” his governing party.

They were familiar themes, heard often throughout Mr. Erdogan’s campaign for re-election: He frequently attacked L.G.B.T.Q. people, referring to them as “deviants” and saying they were “spreading like the plague.” But Ms. Oz said she had hoped it was just electioneering to rally the president’s conservative base.

“I was already worried about what was to come for us,” said Ms. Oz, 49. But after the speech, she thought, “it will get harsher.”

The rights and freedoms of L.G.B.T.Q. citizens became a lightning-rod issue during this year’s election campaign. Mr. Erdogan, facing the greatest political threat of his two decades as the country’s dominant leader and seeking to woo conservatives, repeatedly attacked his opponents for supposedly supporting gay rights. The anti-Erdogan opposition mostly avoided the topic for fear of alienating some of its own voters.

That left many L.G.B.T.Q. people fearing that the discrimination they have long faced by the government and conservative parts of society could worsen — and feeling that no one in the country had their backs.

“People are scared and having dystopian thoughts like, ‘Are we going to be slashed or violently attacked in the middle of the street?’” said Ogulcan Yediveren, a coordinator at SPoD, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group in Istanbul. “What will happen is that people will hide their identities, and that is bad enough.”

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state, does not criminalize homosexuality and has laws against discrimination. But in recent conversations, more than a dozen L.G.B.T.Q. people said they often struggled to find jobs, secure housing and get quality health care as well as to be accepted by their friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrating his victory in Istanbul on Sunday.
An aerial view of a mosque and an election poster for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kayseri, Turkey in April. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state.

In recent years, they said, they have encountered new restrictions on their visibility in society. Universities have shut down L.G.B.T.Q. student clubs. And since 2014, the authorities have banned Pride parades in major cities, including in Istanbul, where crowds in the tens of thousands used to participate.

That tracks with Mr. Erdogan’s vision for Turkey.

Since the start of his national political career in 2003, he has increased his own power while promoting a conservative Muslim view of society. He insists that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and encourages women to have three children to build the nation.

Rights advocates say that as Mr. Erdogan has gained power, his conservative outlook has filtered down, encouraging local authorities to restrict L.G.B.T.Q. activities and pushing the security forces to crack down on gay rights activism.

Anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric was more prominent during this election than in past cycles, even though there are no looming legal changes that would expand or limit rights. No political party is trying to legalize same-sex marriage or adoption, for example, or expand medical care for transgender youth.

Instead, Mr. Erdogan and his allies use the issue to galvanize conservatives.

“What they want to impose on society in terms of other values is full of hatred and violence toward us,” said Nazlican Dogan, 26, who is facing legal charges related to participation in pro-L.G.B.T.Q. protests at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It was really ugly and it made us feel that we can’t exist in this country, like I should just leave.”

A group of people laughing around a table.
Bambi Ceren, right, and other members of a Pride week organizing committee gather in an apartment in Istanbul.
Nazlican Dogan, who is facing legal charges related to pro-L.G.B.T.Q. protests at a university, in Istanbul last week.

During his campaign, Mr. Erdogan characterized L.G.B.T.Q. people as a threat to society.

“If the concept of family is not strong, the destruction of the nation happens quickly,” he told young people during a televised meeting in early May. “L.G.B.T. is a poison injected into the institution of the family. It is not possible for us to accept that poison as a country whose people are 99 percent Muslim.”

In April, his interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, went even further, falsely claiming that gay rights would allow humans to marry animals.

SPoD, the advocacy group, asked parliamentary candidates during the campaign to sign a contract to protect L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Fifty-eight candidates signed, and 11 of them won seats in the 600-member legislature, said Mr. Yediveren, the coordinator.

His group has also tried to expand legal protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people.

While certain laws prohibit discrimination, they do not specifically mention sexual identity or orientation, he said. At the same time, the authorities often cite vague concepts like “general morals” and “public order” to act against activities they don’t like, such as Pride week events.

“This week is very important because we don’t have physical locations we can come together as a community to support each other,” said Bambi Ceren, 34, a member of a committee planning events for this year’s Pride week, which begins on June 19.

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A drag performer surrounded by a group of people.
A drag performer who uses the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight at a club in Istanbul.People socialize at Ziba, a gay-friendly bar in Istanbul.
Last year, the police prevented Pride events and arrested people who gathered to take part, committee members said.

SPoD runs a national hotline to field queries about sexual orientation, legal protections or how to access medical care or other services. The group can solve most issues related to services, Mr. Yediveren said, but most callers’ problems are social and emotional.

“People are feeling very lonely and isolated,” he said.

Transgender individuals struggle to find jobs, housing and proper medication and care. And gay men and lesbians are sometimes forced into heterosexual marriages and fear coming out to their families and co-workers.

Worrying about, “‘Will I be caught one day?’ causes a lot of stress for them,” Mr. Yediveren said.

And the threat of violence is real.

Some L.G.B.T.Q. people said they had been beaten by the security forces during protests or met with indifference from the police while being harassed on the street.

A survey last year by ILGA-Europe, a rights organization, ranked Turkey second-to-last out of 49 European countries on L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Another group, Transgender Europe, said that 62 transgender people had been killed in Turkey between 2008 and 2022.

Many L.G.B.T.Q. people fear that the demonization during the campaign will make that threat more acute.

A queer university student from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who grew up in a smaller city with no significant L.G.B.T.Q. presence, said she feared that bad days were ahead.

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People spraying painting prints on a building wall.
Members of a Pride week organizing committee spraying graffiti in Istanbul.
Berat, an openly gay architecture student, works as a hairdresser in Istanbul.

People who would not normally commit violence might feel empowered to do so because the government had spread hatred for people like her, she said, claiming they were sick, dangerous or a threat to the family. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being attacked.

Despite the increased danger, many L.G.B.T.Q. people vowed to keep fighting for their rights and maintaining their visibility in society. To deal with the fear of random attacks, they plan to look out for each other more to ensure they are safe.

In Istanbul, a 25-year-old drag performer who goes by the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight and uses gender-neutral pronouns called the new attention unsettling.

“In the whole history of queer life in Turkey, we could never be that visible,” they said in an interview. “But because of the election, everyone was talking about us.”

They described growing up in Turkey as “full of abuse, full of denial, full of teachers ignoring your existence and what happened to you, like your pals bullying you.”

At age 16, Florence accepted their sexual identity, attended a Pride parade and set up a Facebook account with a fake name to contact L.G.B.T.Q. organizations and make friends, eventually stumbling upon someone at the same high school.

They later moved to Istanbul, where they perform weekly at a rare L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly bar.

Mr. Erdogan’s win on Sunday caused Florence despair.

“I stared into space for a while,” they said.

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A woman dancing in a bar.
A woman dancing at a lesbian bar in Istanbul in front of an image of Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, who lost to Mr. Erdogan in the presidential election.

An elderly African man in a suit looks off camera

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has signed into law the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ bill, which allows the death penalty for homosexual acts.

The move immediately drew condemnation from many Ugandans as well as widespread international outrage. The UK government said it was appalled by the “deeply discriminatory” bill, which it said will “damage Uganda’s international reputation”.

US President Joe Biden decried the act as “shameful” and “tragic violation of universal human rights”. He said Washington was considering “sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States against anyone involved in serious human rights abuses” – a suggestion that Ugandan officials may face repercussions.

Early on Monday, the speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Anita Annet Among, released a statement on social media confirming Museveni had assented to the law first passed by MPs in March. It imposes the death penalty or life imprisonment for certain same-sex acts, up to 20 years in prison for “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities”, and anyone convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” faces a 14-year sentence.

Described by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, as “shocking and discriminatory”, the bill was passed by all but two of 389 MPs on 21 March. Museveni had 30 days to either sign the legislation into law, return it to parliament for revisions or veto it. He sent it back to MPs in April, with a request for reconsideration. The bill would have still become law without the president’s assent if he returned it a second time.

Among tweeted on Monday morning: “The president … has assented to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. As the parliament of Uganda, we have answered the cries of our people. We have legislated to protect the sanctity of [the] family.

An African woman in an 18th-century white wool wig, lace collar and gown sits at a desk beside a flag
Uganda’s speaker, Anita Annet Among, addresses MPs as the anti-LGBTQ+ bill was passed. She urged the courts to begin enforcing the law immediately. Photograph: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

“We have stood strong to defend our culture and [the] aspirations of our people,” she said, thanking Museveni for his “steadfast action in the interest of Uganda”.

The speaker said MPs had withstood pressure from “bullies and doomsday conspiracy theorists” and called for courts to begin enforcing the new laws.

Martin Ssempa, one of the main backers of the bill, presented it as a victory against the US and Europe and suggested Uganda needed to push back against groups working to tackle HIV. He said: “The president has shown great courage to defy bullying of the Americans and Europeans. That bullying we shall not give you money. They intimidate and threaten you.”

In a joint statement, the heads of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UN Aids and the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) reacted with “deep concern” and said progress on tackling Aids and HIV was “now in grave jeopardy”.

“The stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the act has already led to reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services. Trust, confidentiality and stigma-free engagement are essential for anyone seeking health care,” said the statement.

“LGBTQI+ people in Uganda increasingly fear for their safety and security, and people are being discouraged from seeking vital health services for fear of attack, punishment and further marginalization,” added the statement, signed by Peter Sands, Winnie Byanyima and John Nkengasong.

There has been strong condemnation of Museveni. A statement from the UN read: “We are appalled that the draconian and discriminatory anti-gay bill is now law. It is a recipe for systematic violations of the rights of LGBT people and the wider population. It conflicts with the constitution and international treaties and requires urgent judicial review.”

Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, Africa deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said: “Museveni’s signing of the anti-homosexuality bill is a serious blow to the right to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, where instead of being restricted they ought to be strengthened.

“The law is discriminatory and is a step in the wrong direction for the protection of human rights for all people in the region.”

A 2014 anti-gay bill also prompted widespread international criticism and was later nullified by Uganda’s constitutional court on procedural grounds.

“President Museveni’s decision to sign the anti-homosexuality act 2023 into law is deeply concerning,” said Steven Kabuye, a human rights activist in Kampala. “This act violates basic human rights and sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination and persecution against the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda.

“As we have seen in the past, such laws can lead to increased violence, harassment and marginalisation of already vulnerable groups. It is important that we stand together in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda and around the world and fight against bigotry and hate.”

In February alone, 110 LGBTQ+ people in Uganda reported incidents including arrests, sexual violence, evictions and being forcibly stripped in public to the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug). Transgender people were disproportionately affected, said the group.

“It is wishful thinking to assume a piece of bogus legislation will erase the existence of LGBTQI+ persons in Uganda!” tweeted Sarah Kasande, a Kampala-based lawyer and human rights activist.

Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni.
Ugandan president calls on Africa to ‘save the world from homosexuality’
Read more

“Queers are Ugandans, they belong to Uganda. No stupid law will ever change that!”

Edna Ninsiima, an editor and social critic, said: “We should all be concerned that our collective homophobia as a country has, once again, culminated in the state signing a permission slip for hate and dehumanization.”

On 17 April, a court in the eastern town of Jinja denied bail to six people working for healthcare organizations who had been charged with “forming part of a criminal sexual network”. Ugandan police confirmed that it conducted forced anal examinations on the six and tested them for HIV.

Museveni claimed in March that his government was attempting to resist western efforts to “normalize” what he called “deviations”.

“The western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people,” he said.

Activists plan to petition the court to nullify the discriminatory legislation, “Of course, we are going to march to court and contest this draconian law in every way possible,” said Kabuye.

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