The Rise of Anti-LGBTI+ Politics in Turkey and Eastern Europe – An Interview with Belinda Dear

The Rise of Anti-LGBTI+ Politics in Turkey and Eastern Europe – An Interview with Belinda Dear 900 450 HM-Berlin

The Rise of Anti-LGBTI+ Politics in Turkey and Eastern Europe – An Interview with Belinda Dear

Date published: 05.05.2021

The walls are closing in on civil society in Europe and globally. Human rights violations are part of the day-to-day life of many citizens. These regressions of fundamental rights and attacks on civil society increasingly diminish the democratic space for activism and threaten the safety of its defenders. In this interview series, Hafiza Merkezi Berlin wants to highlight the struggles for human rights and against the shrinking civic space by interviewing the people on the frontlines. In these national and transnational cases, we find patterns of attacks, but also examples of local, national, and transnational solidarity that empower and equip civil society in the struggle.

When the government of Turkey declared the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on March 20th 2021, one key argument against the Convention was the claim that it was “hijacked to promote homosexuality”. The framing of the decision is a sign of a larger development unfolding not only in Turkey, but also in Poland, Hungary and other European countries, in which the LGBTI+ community is scapegoated in an attempt to solidify the power of the ruling governments. In all these countries, we see patterns of nationalist arguing against “Western” ideology that is used to dismantle anti-discriminatory laws and weaken the impact of international human rights mechanisms protecting minorities.

Burçin Tetik talked to Belinda Dear, advocacy officer at ILGA Europe, about the recent smear campaign of the Boğaziçi University against LGBTI+ students, the similarities and differences between the anti-LGBTI+ policies in Turkey, Poland and Hungary and why women’s rights groups should not abandon the LGBTI+ community in the fight for the Istanbul Convention.

My first question is inspired by a recent event at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. A rector was assigned directly by the government, and students have been protesting. And the first thing the new rector has done was to shut down the LGBTI+ club. Students afterwards organized a seminar with Judith Butler to show solidarity and raise hope. Butler said, attacks on LGBTI+ people are becoming the norm of authoritarian regimes. It’s like a signature. And then they compared Turkish Government to Hungary, Romania, and Poland. Why do you think that anti-LGBTI+ politics are on the rise in these countries? Do you see some parallels?

Belinda Dear (BD): Definitely there are parallels between Turkey, Poland and Hungary when it comes to thinking about authoritarian states and how they are formed. I think the situation is a little bit different in Romania. But for sure, Poland and Hungary have been orchestrating from the state, on the government level, a form of destruction of democracy. Both countries are very clearly attacking media freedom, and Poland is also attacking judicial freedom, to such an extent that the EU is investigating Poland under the Article 7 procedure for it. The EU are also investigating Hungary under Article 7, for breaching EU law regarding media freedom. 

They are both also attacking the independence of the equality bodies. I don’t believe that that’s the case, at least for now, in Romania, but it was already not the best situation in Turkey. And certainly, Orban in Hungary is doing the same, because the abolishment of the equal treatment authority in December was also quite rushed through. And also with the recent legislation against LGBTI+ people, they were really pushed through under the COVID emergency situation. And of course, in Turkey, you’ve got a situation where critics are being labeled as terrorists. We haven’t seen that yet in Poland and Hungary. I do believe that they are learning from each other. What happened at Boğaziçi University was a massive smear campaign. It just completely derailed what was a protest for academic freedom and has also created a huge problem with hate speech and hate crime against LGBTI+ people. There has been a similar acceleration in terms of anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric in Hungary since the autumn of 2020.

In Turkey, lots of activists interpret this as a way of being recognized, since they have become a threat. They are now criminalized by the government because they have been taken seriously as political actors. Do you think that’s also the case in Eastern Europe?

BD: It’s interesting, because it’s clear with Turkey. Very quickly, as soon as the rhetoric accuses them of undermining the state, then that community has been taken seriously and it’s being removed. I think with Poland and Hungary, it has more to do with gaining power. These governments already have it, but it’s a combination of genuine LGBTI+phobia and sexism, as well as gaining and retaining power. Another reason could be the rise of feminism since Trump’s election and the internet, Netflix, etc. I find it very interesting how Turkey censors Netflix because of the gay characters. Hungary also has been censoring TV shows and books with LGBTI+ characters. So in fact I hadn’t thought about it before, but you may be right. It’s a small link under many other huge links. There is this feeling of a threat. And some governments frame it in a very nationalist way, that LGBTI+ people are a foreign import, which is not true. There is an emboldening of LGBTI+ people because of that connection and solidarity with each other across the internet.

When President Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, the official statement included a reference to Eastern Europe, “Six members of the European Union (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia) did not ratify the Istanbul Convention. Poland has taken steps to withdraw from the Convention, citing an attempt by the LGBT community to impose their ideas about gender on the entire society”. How do you interpret Turkey’s justification of leaving the convention?

BD: Clearly, the concerns of the other countries were not a concern for Turkey, until very recently. I do think it’s just an excuse. Of course, it has an impact on LGBTI+ people too. But this rhetoric being used in the other countries, has had some feminists tempted to remove any possible references to LGBTI+ people, in order to proceed with ratification. It’s definitely a trap. In terms of the attacks on LGBTI+ people, it was really intense in Poland and then they also stepped up attacks on the right to abortion. Years ago, when the anti-gender movement began, we saw this rhetoric attempting to split feminist activists from LGBTI+ activists in a number of countries, and urged activists to stick together. Gender is a fundamental word from feminist theory, it was not imposed by LGBTI+ people. It describes the link between the two because there’s an undeniable link. That’s why, if they go after the LGBTI+ community, then the next community will be the women. And even those women seen by conservatives as “well-behaved” will suffer.

If they go after the LGBTI+ community, then the next community will be the women. And even those women seen by conservatives as “well-behaved” will suffer.

Before the 2019 elections the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, had told a gathering of lay Catholics that “these ideologies, philosophies, all of this is imported, these are not internal Polish mechanisms.” How come are LGBTI+ seen mainly as “imported” from other countries, especially from the “West”?

BD: They know that they’re lying. They know that LGBTI+ people have always existed in every land. What they’re saying instead, is “LGBTI+ ideology”. And then they link that back usually to basically the culture or ideology of giving us equal rights. The concept of the “Western import” is partly to do with the enlargement policy, because it set minimum standards for human rights for countries to join the European Union. Governments adopt legal protections for LGBTI+ people, often due to the fact that it is a requirement to join the EU rather than actually believing in it. So that would have felt like an imposition. In reality, it is a choice they make, as part of the overall economic benefit of joining the EU. I also think it’s quite interesting that the major international human rights institutions are based in Western Europe. And actually if you look back into history, and you look at Western European countries, and how some of them actually changed their laws to protect LGBTI+ people in various areas, a lot of it was thanks to judgments from the European Court of Human Rights or Court of Justice of the EU. In the case of the UK, a number of legal protections for LGBTI+ people up until more recent history were implemented after UK citizens took the cases to international courts. 

But this narrative of a “foreign imposition” is given too much deliberate importance by some governments. There is actually a lot of local activism now and also way back into history. I was once conducting research on Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans and what they had as an alternative to pride, because pride is argued to be a Western thing. There have been so many examples of queer festivals that were organized at a really grassroot level in these countries. Those realities are never given any attention by these governments. So, it’s a strategy.

What action is the EU taking at the moment?

BD: The EU is becoming more of a player at the moment, because the attacks on LGBTI+ people are becoming more widespread – they need to show their support publicly. But it’s also important not to reinforce that concept of the EU imposing these values on national people. It’s a delicate balance. There’s always diplomatic bargaining and human rights are usually lower down on the list of priorities, and LGBTI+ rights can be perceived even more controversial within those human rights. So far we haven’t seen any legal action being taken against what’s happening in Poland and Hungary. We’ve been calling for infringement procedures against both Poland for their local anti-LGBTI+ resolutions and Charters, and Hungary due to their ban on legal gender recognition. The European Parliament is really vocal, and there is also support from a number of smaller EU institutions. But the Commission itself, as the guardian of the EU Treaties, has not yet taken legal action.

There's always diplomatic bargaining and human rights are usually lower down on the list of priorities, and LGBTI+ rights can be perceived even more controversial within those human rights.

Far-right groups and politicians in Bulgaria and Hungary as well as other Eastern-European countries continue to use LGBTI+ issues to incite fear and use it as a scapegoat for their election campaigns. Does LGBTI+ being often depicted as the “enemy” have any function of misdirecting the focus from other issues such as economic insecurity or a governments’ struggle with a global pandemic?

BD: It’s the designation of an enemy of the nation. When you look at how these constitutional changes have been made, especially in Hungary and Poland, they receive the support of more than two thirds majority. And they get that two thirds majority by basically turning the majority against a minority. That’s the easiest way of getting power: if you create hatred and fear among the population. Hungary was previously focused on migrants or refugees. And it started turning towards LGBTI+ people in the past year, or a year and a half. That’s the tactic they’re using and that’s why I think there’s a link between the anti-democratic forces and attacks on LGBTI+ people. And it’s working very well, unfortunately, for the time being, but what I like is the solidarity and the strength that we see among citizens and activists, especially clearly in Turkey and in Poland as well.

Some academics and activists believe that using the English word “gender” in the Bulgarian translation of the Istanbul convention caused strong reactions amongst those with more conservative views. After that, “gender-ideology” supposedly became a slur. Do you think if the convention were explained or translated in other ways, it could have been ratified by the Bulgarian government?

BD: It does sound like there would have been less of a fuss, but I mean, more in relation to the creation of a slur. I still think that the well-understood meaning is the issue. Maybe it would have been less of a hot topic, maybe it would have been less controversial. But I still would be surprised if it would have been ratified even if the Bulgarian equivalent phrase was used. You do not choose whether or not to ratify an agreement like this based on that. Again, it’s another straw man argument.

In Hungary and Poland, they receive the support of more than two thirds majority. And they get that two thirds majority by basically turning the majority against a minority. That's the easiest way of getting power: if you create hatred and fear among the population.

What role would the convention have played for LGBTI+ people in countries like Hungary or Bulgaria that never signed the convention? Or countries like Turkey that decided to withdraw their signature?

BD: In practice, the convention, and the use of gender as a terminology, protects everyone who becomes a victim of gender-based violence. So of course, it’s women in the normative sense of the word, but also LGBTI+ people or even people who are perceived as such, and experience violence or discrimination as a result. What’s important about the use of the word gender and gender-based violence is to stop this violence based on a sexist, heteronormative, cisnormative vision of the world. The convention would allow protection for LGBTI+ people from violence. When we look at the statistics, and who committed violence against women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex people, it’s a huge majority of men. It’s always the same perpetrator. We have a common fight. People receive violence for being gay or for looking gay. Women receive violence for not being “feminine” enough. Or being “too masculine” or being “too weak”. They receive violence for being “too strong”. These concepts are all intertwined with normative, binary and patriarchal concepts of what it is to be a woman or a man. People who have diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics challenge this. It’s about those unwritten rules.

The Bulgarian court ruled that the convention’s definition of “gender” as a social construct “relativizes the borderline between the two sexes”. Reflecting a similar perspective, anti-trans groups are rising in numbers and visibility throughout the world. Groups such as LGB Alliance or trans exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) articulate the same right-wing rhetoric. Why do you think trans people have been targeted so much in the recent years?

BD: Trans exclusionary branch of feminism has existed for a really long time. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s peaking again at the moment. It’s being enabled. It’s in the interest of right-wing media to amplify it. It would be very interesting to look into how their voices have been so extensively promoted, especially when we know that they represent a minority within the feminist movement. More women are on board with the idea of feminism today, they are a sizeable portion of the electorate, therefore the right-wing has realized that they need to keep some women on their side. What’s interesting is that previously we saw the tactic of dividing the women’s movement from the LGBTI+ movement, in which first the persecution of LGBTI+ people happens, followed by the attack on women’s rights. Now we see the division of some LGB people, who are attacking trans people. But often this rhetoric then turns to attacking rights of LGB people themselves. It’s another trick. But alliances between women’s rights organizations and LGBTI+ organisations in Poland and in Turkey, as in many other countries, are really strong. I think that it will be more difficult to gain ground for transphobia. And we are also seeing trans inclusive feminists stepping up, and new alliances being formed.

Trans exclusionary branch of feminism has existed for a really long time. This is not a new phenomenon. It's peaking again at the moment. It's being enabled. It's in the interest of right-wing media to amplify it.

What do you think will happen next? Where do we go from here?

BD: I don’t know how bad it could get, and a lot depends on the political leaders at any given time. For those who can use it, freedom of movement is really key. We already see migration of Polish LGBTI+ people to other EU countries, and this gives us an indication of a longer-term anticipation. I do know, though, that this has been a crucial time for Poland in terms of a “Polish stonewall”. The hopeful part is the level of visibility reached today. Maybe this is like with the gay rights movement in the U.S,  when visibility improved, and when there was a certain amount of liberty, conservatives reacted by legislating against them, because they were worried about the proliferation of the acceptability of being gay. Then eventually, the new generations came in, who had grown up in that more liberal environment, and they removed discriminatory laws. That creates a level of hope in me. It’s like the last fight of the old conservative regime. I think, overall, the visibility will win. And hopefully, these leaders will very much be left behind on the wrong side of history.

Belinda Dear is an Advocacy Officer at ILGA-Europe. Her main area of work includes advocacy and developing policy strategies at the European level to bring about legal, political and social change for LGBTI people, with a focus on Enlargement countries, family policy, rule of law processes and the socioeconomic inclusion of LGBTI people. Belinda has previous work experience with the European Commission and the Party of European Socialists and holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies.

Burçin Tetik is a Turkish feminist writer and journalist based in Berlin. Her main focus is body politics, misogyny, LGBTI+ and women’s rights. She has previously worked in online campaigns, gave workshops and trainings against sexism and queerphobia. Her master’s thesis focused on the intergenerational trauma of female genocide survivors in literature. In 2020 she published her first short story collection named “Annemin Kaburgası” (My Mother’s Rib).


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Haus der Demokratie und Menschenrechte
Greifswalder Str. 4
10405 Berlin



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