MM, a gay man from Turkey, describes himself as “not a good Muslim”.
Homosexuality, he said, was a test – one that he had repeatedly failed since birth. He stands by his government’s decision, in place since 2015, to ban pride parades in the country, since “the homosexuals use discourse which provokes the Islamic world.”
MM, who asked to only be identified by his initials, has sought support for the rights for Turkey’s increasingly embattled LGBTI community in an unlikely place – the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its devout leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Our cause is to show that there are homosexuals who are fond of their country’s flag, their motherland, and nation,” said MM, who helped found a group called AK LGBT to campaign for better treatment for the community in Turkey.
Erdoğan has in recent years cracked down on LGBTI activities. The Istanbul Pride parade, which attracted tens of thousands of participants in 2013 and 2014, was then banned on security and morality grounds. His AKP also banned any LGBTI activities in the capital Ankara to avoid offending “social sensibilities,” although that decision was overturned by the courts earlier this year.
Turkey’s official religious bodies remain anti-LGBTI, with the view that gay community members should seek treatment and that same-sex relations were unnatural and illegitimate.
Yet despite the hostility towards the community, some LGBTI Muslims remain supporters of the AKP and Erdogan and their broader message of nationalistic piety.
“We founded the AK LGBT to be visible with political power,” said MM, whose group managed to raise the pride flag at an AKP rally in Maltepe in 2014, but was eventually forced to shut down due to lack of funding.
Shunned by both the official party apparatus and potential allies in the LGBTI community, MM and other LGBTI AKP supporters nonetheless argue that this is the only path towards enshrining more rights for their community. The costs can be high.
“My support for the AK Party cost me my business,” said Çağla Akalın, 36, a trans woman, TV presenter, columnist, model and singer. “I was removed from a lot of conferences; my movies were canceled because of my political views. I don’t benefit from it, yet I live in a way that I believe is right.”
Akalın, the champion of the 2013 Miss Queen Trans Pageant in Turkey and a native of the industrial city of Adana, argued that the treatment of LGBTI individuals by the state has greatly improved since the 1990s, when police routinely inflicted violence on transgender people.
She said police secured pride marches for 12 years until faced with “provocative” actions by protesters, including nudity, at a pride march during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“One cannot ask for basic rights with nudity,” she said. “No one apologized for these kinds of actions that occurred in Ramadan. Therefore, we deserved these bans.”
As for mainstream LGBTI organisations in Turkey, Akalın suggested that they received financial assistance from foreign institutions for their opposition to Erdoğan.
Nedim Uzun, a drag queen who goes by the performer name Madam Marika, agreed that the AKP had improved the lot of LGBTI members who had faced routine violence before the party came to power. The 58-year-old former English teacher said he had voted for Binali Yıldırım, the former AKP premier, during this year’s mayoral elections in Istanbul.
“I have faced such horrible things,” he said. “Therefore, when Tayyip Erdoğan said ‘religion and faith,’ I held on to him and started to perform Namaz [Muslim prayers]. We attended the meetings despite the people who try to shun the homosexuals in the name of religion and faith.”
Uzun’s friend Sümeyye, a trans woman, said she hoped the government would create more employment opportunities for LGBTI people who faced discrimination, and also blamed pride marchers for provoking the government into banning the event.
The 25-year-old picked the pseudonym Sümeyye in honour of the President’s daughter, whom she said she loved.
“It was very difficult in the past,” she said. “You can see Istanbul, no words needed. Now we walk on the streets without being assaulted. Police protect us.”
Others argue that this perception is based on the fact in its early years in government the AKP presided over a series of human rights-based initiatives to harmonise Turkish laws with those of the European Union as a prelude to accession. This process benefited LGBTI activists. But, as early as 2004, the AKP fought to remove sexual orientation from a draft anti-discrimination bill.
Oğul Can, an activist with the Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Week Committee, said that homosexuality was now excluded from the new “Turkishness,” a nationalistic identity constructed away from Ankara’s traditional western allies.
“During the first years of their rule the EU membership process was on the table, we were close to the West, there were human rights-based initiatives and the AK Party were claiming to be democrats. They managed Pride Week with the correct policies and appropriate words for years,” he said, adding, “But now the situation has changed.”