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From the Stonewall Riots to the LGBTI+ Students’ Resistance in Turkey

Osman Gönülveren

Every year, celebrations are held in June for Pride Month. The Origin of the Pride Month is based on the Stonewall Inn struggle. Stonewall uprisings are celebrated as a cornerstone of LGBTI+ resistance starting after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar, one of the few places in New York where people could freely express their sexual orientation and gender identity. But the police raid was not the main reason for this uprising and resistance that on June 28th, 1969, it was the discriminatory policies and practices that LGBTI+ individuals were systematically exposed to. LGBTI+ individuals -who revolted  against unjustified detentions and accusations without a legal basis- basically were fighting to achieve their fundamental rights.

One year after the Stonewall uprising, the first Pride March in the USA took place simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Two years after, the first Pride March in Europe was held in Münster, Germany in 1972, The first Pride March in Turkey was planned to be held in 1993, however, the Governorship banned the March. It was only 10 years later in 2003 that the prolonged prohibitions on the Pride March in Turkey were lifted.. Starting in 2011, ever growing numbers participated in the marches across Turkey under the Rainbow Flag. But in 2015, those who wanted to join the Trans Pride Parade faced the harsh intervention of the police. The March was retrospectively banned for reasons contrary to human rights after the intervention. 

Although the Pride March is prohibited, the LGBTI+ struggle continues. We know that we will surely hold the March on the streets of Turkey one day. Although we cannot walk under the Rainbow Flag on Istiklal Street;  we continue our struggle every day, at home, on the street, in the cafe, at work, at school and everywhere. 

Lubunya* on campus: Universities are not inclusive

We are in Pride Month, which has an important place in the LGBTI+  struggle. Although we cannot perform the March, we continue to make our voices heard in different ways. As Civic Space Studies Association, we interviewed LGBTI + university students.

Deniz, a student of Uludağ University, expresses being LGBTI+ on campus with the following words: “ I am a student at Uludağ University Faculty of Law. My school is located far from the main campus. The Faculty of Law is one  and a half hours away from the main campus and 45 minutes from the city center. It is hard to say that this place is a campus, because it does not have a vibrant and colorful atmosphere. This is a more uniform and heteronormative place. If I was studying here at a time when there was no internet, I would probably feel the stereotype of  ‘There is only Zeki Müren and me in this world’ in my veins. “

Deniz says that there is no possibility of socializing in the faculty where they are a student and explains their relationship with other students as follows: “I have three friends in total that I am open to, they are among the few open-minded students. I mostly spend time with them. We can definitely get along well with other students, but as long as I act straight. In this sense, being LGBTI+ on campus feels lonely.” But Deniz says they are hopeful for the future, believing that LGBTI + solidarity will strengthen the lubunya on campus. 

We asked Deniz if there is the possibility to hold LGBTI+ events on campus: “I did not have the courage to do an event on campus. Because I would probably be the only one in such an attempt, or I would have three shy close friends behind me. But I know there is an LGBTI+ student community on the main campus. They can open stands and I think they didn’t have any serious problems.”

Deniz says they do not know the school administration’s approach to LGBTI + activities: “Although I do not know the attitude of the administration, our teachers are understanding and self-developed people in every respect. I don’t think we will have any problems with them. However, this may also be related to Bursa’s proximity to Istanbul. We have highly qualified teachers and they all prefer to be here because the university is close to Istanbul. I do not think that I will have such an experience in another Anatolian city. Over there I could suddenly encounter a hate speech on a small campus where I was swinging and saying Happy Pride.

As an LGBTI + student, Deniz expresses what they think about the Pride Month with the following words: “Pride is my baby. I say ‘Happy Pride’ to all the lubunyas. Unfortunately, Pride is not with us at Uludağ [University, Faculty of] Law. Maybe I could celebrate it as I wish on the main campus. Being at the end of June is another handicap. Exams are mostly over and everyone returns to their  families. So, we miss the week of Pride, but it seems that we will only get together at  graduation.”

Finally, we asked what the LGBTI+ struggle means for Deniz: “My position in the LGBTI+ struggle is emotional for now. I cannot do anything physically yet. This is about both my special conditions and my campus life. However, in my professional life somehow our paths will cross and I will join the struggle. For now, I should state that; my opening process is still ongoing and quite new. The movement empowers me to make sense of my existence. It offers many resources for me to reach the right information and to make peace with my orientation. It alleviates the feeling of loneliness. Happy Pride Week! Wishing to celebrate our Pride freely altogether in Turkey.”

Güneş: “Every march on campus is our Pride March! ”

Güneş from Okan University states that LGBTI+ students do not have a private space for themselves on campuses. “As a lubunya student, I would like to feel safe on campus. However, the university campus is not an inclusive place for LGBTI + students. I can not feel as comfortable and safe as other students due to factors such as toilets which are assigned according to the dual gender system and the  harassment regulations  that does not include LGBTI+ students.”

Stating that LGBTI+ students have difficulty in finding a space to express themselves, Güneş says that similar problems  are experienced in courses.   “Unfortunately, it is difficult to hear the voice of LGBTI+ students in the courses.  Many LGBTI+ students cannot speak openly and confidently because they are afraid of being exposed in class and the possibility of exposure to violence.” 

Güneş says that they have difficulties  in organizing LGBTI+  events at the university. “We do not have an LGBTI+ community in university. I am a board member in a student community. We can hold two events a year. After each event we organize, we hear that it was talked about the participants and the board of directors. In this situation, we do not feel safe. We do not get help from anyone except our community advisor and a few teachers. Sometimes we cannot find a hall to hold an event. Some of our friends do not want to do an LGBTI+ event because they are afraid of the reactions of the university administration. They do not want themselves  to be in trouble, which is very upsetting.

Finally, we ask Güneş what they think about the LGBTI+ struggle: “No need to be humble! We are more organized and with solidarity, likewise in the universities. They know that we will stand for liberating campuses even if they block our activities, build an empire of fear or threaten us. Every march on the campus is our Pride March. All we have to think about when we are in despair is that we are not alone. There is no salvation alone; all together, or none of us!

Arya: “We continue to struggle and it will never end. Whether you are an LGBTI+ individual  or not, whether you are visible or not,  this struggle is for everyone.

LGBTI + student Arya from Marmara University states that they are not comfortable at the university. “Marmara University is not an open-minded place. I don’t feel comfortable. There are various communities that face discrimination on campus. LGBTI+ students are among them.” 

We ask Arya about LGBTI+ events at the university:  “LGBTI+ individuals can not find a comfortable space of expression in our university. I do not want to participate in events and face the threat of violence. As far as I know, no activities can be done. The teachers at the university do not help either. When I was in the preparatory class, a teacher asked me ‘Are you male or female? Why are you wearing men’s clothes?‘ The first discrimination I experienced at the university came from a teacher. Clearly, this is how I understood the attitude of the university.” 

Saying that their favorite month has come, Arya summarizes their thoughts as follows: “We continue to struggle and it will never end. Whether you are an LGBTI+ individual  or not, whether you are visible or not,  this struggle is for everyone.”

LGBTI+ students’ solidarity grows stronger in many universities through clubs and communities. LGBTI+ clubs/ communities fight against LGBTI+ phobia with their activities and campaigns and they aim to make campuses safe for LGBTI+ students. An example of LGBTI+ students’ solidarity is the gender-neutral bathroom campaign of Boğaziçi University LGBTI+ Studies Club, which ended successfully in 2016. The same campaign was  run  by Bilgi University Rainbow Club and METU LGBTI+ Solidarity on their own campuses. 

Another example of LGBTI + students’ solidarity is the “No Hate on Campus!” project which was carried by the Ege University Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Research and Solidarity Community in 2015. The aim of this project was to increase the solidarity of LGBTI + students and to end discrimination on campus. -University of Ege (LGBTI+) students are still prevented from being an official community by the university administration.

Another example is the Kampüste Lubunya (Lubunya on Campus) solidarity network created by some university LGBTI+ clubs/communities in Istanbul. Last year, Kampüste Lubunya held the “Inter-Universities Pride Week Against the Prohibitions” events where many different topics and solutions were discussed. 

There are many more examples of LGBTI+ solidarity at universities. We believe this solidarity will increase, and make everyone on campus more comfortable. We remind you that the liberation of LGBTI+ individuals will liberate everyone. We know that the day will come when we walk under the colors of the rainbow and find our own color.

*Lubunya: Lubunya means queer in Lubunca, the queer slang spoken in Turkey.

**Names are changed and anonymized for security concerns.