Taksim Square

Taksim

Taksim is Istanbul’s Times Square: its political and social heart, and the place where everyone comes to protest (Kurds for autonomy; performers for freedom of speech; teenaged girls for more Justin Bieber concerts) and celebrate (firing guns in the air after one’s soccer team wins). Big hotels want to build there, and it’s the place to hear the opera, or symphony. The Monument of the Republic, constantly featured in television footage of the Gezi Park protests, commemorates the 1923 founding of the Republic of Turkey.

The square signifies ownership – collective ownership. So when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plowed ahead with a controversial plan to raze little Gezi Park, and build a pedestrian zone, a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks and a mosque, he hit a public nerve.

“I felt that Istanbul is my home, and Taksim Square is my sitting room,” Birkan Isin, a founder of the Gezi Park environmental protest movement, told the New York Times in July. “And I felt like someone came in and bulldozed my sitting room.”

Ownership is at the heart of the 2013 uprisings in Turkey. Who owns a public space? Who has the right to build things on it, or to knock them down?

“A Resistance Full of Joy”

How LGBT People in Gezi Park Changed Lives

The rainbow flag planted into the contested ground of Gezi Park marked one small step for civil rights in Turkey, and one giant leap for the LGBT community of Istanbul.

BY JACQUELINE DI BARTOLOMEO (story and photos) and BREANNE BREZINSKI (video)

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These parade participants hold up a banner proclaiming their participation in the “resistance,” a word most commonly associated with the Gezi Park demonstrations in the heart of Istanbul.  

One day in early June at the height of the Gezi Park protests against the government, members of Çarsi (a fan organization of the Beşiktas soccer club), were standing in Taksim Square and hurling abuse at the police. “You faggots!” they shouted. The scene wasn’t all that out of character – supporters of all three big teams in Istanbul are known for their rowdiness as well as for their willingness to throw their weight behind a cause such as Gezi.

Istanbul journalist and activist Yıldız Tar, who identifies as a trans person, was reporting in the square that day. Enraged at their pejorative use of the word, Tar was on the verge of marching up to the fans and telling them off when someone else got to them first. “An LGBT activist went and said to those members of the Çarsi: ‘Faggots are here. [The police] are not faggots, being a faggot is not a bad thing,’” Tar recounts.

Çarsi apologized, and even asked for tips on how to swear, minus the homophobic undertones. “I think that this is a really huge story and there are thousands of stories in the struggle like that,” Tar adds.

Thus began an unlikely alliance – only one of many that would form in the course of the demonstrations meant to save the small green space in the centre of Istanbul and that would become the symbol of something much bigger than itself.

The day a rainbow flag was planted into the contested ground of Gezi Park marked one small step for civil rights in Turkey and one giant leap for the LGBT community of Istanbul.

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These parade participants look on as people climb up a towers at the end of Istiklal Ave. to cheer.   

Resistance to governmental plans to raze the park and build a shopping mall and Ottoman-style military barracks in its stead was galvanized when a small group of protesters halted demolition on May 28 and camped out overnight. LGBT activists lent their support early on.

At first, the camp-out in the park would not have seemed all that out of the ordinary to onlookers. Taksim Square functions as the unofficial city centre and has been the protest site of choice for decades. In a way, it was the bonds formed between the different groups converging in Gezi that set the demonstrations apart from all that had come before it. These ties are especially meaningful to the many LGBT participants.

“It’s usually like the nationalists do it (demonstrate) separately, the Kurdish do it separately, Armenians, others do it separately. However, in the Gezi Park resistance all these separate groups became one and met in the park,” veteran trans rights activist Yağmur Urania explains through an interpreter. Urania, who is a trans woman, has been involved in the LGBT rights organization Lambda Istanbul for the past three years.

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Tens of thousands marched from Taksim Square down the entire length of Istiklal Avenue, a mostly pedestrian thoroughfare, during the parade, including these participants from the Asian side of the city.  

It’s only because of this haphazard meeting of groups from different spheres of public life that the effort and involvement of the LGBT community finally was noticed. “Our flag, the rainbow flag, was one of the first flags to appear in Gezi Park. It was not a political symbol. It was the symbol of our existence, and when we were so involved in the demonstrations people started to like us more, accept us more, and support us,” Urania says.

Lambda Istanbul’s office is easily recognized by the rainbow flag below its second-floor window. It flaps in the wind as two reporters wait for Urania and two of her friends to make an appearance.

The space lends itself more to meetings and hangouts than to dull office work. For one, it’s much more colourful – posters advertising past events are stuck to the walls and a two-person purple couch has been plopped at the back of the room. Foldable chairs neatly lean against a wall. There’s a kitchen hidden in an unseen nook from which Urania’s friend Merve, produces a tray of çay (tea), the Turkish nation’s drink par excellence.

Another friend, Asya Elmas, sits with the group and says through an interpreter that this will be the last interview she gives for a while. (Incidentally, Elmas has the Çarsi logo tattooed on one ankle.) Ever since the protests at Gezi Park, she has been bombarded with media requests wanting to get her perspective as a trans woman on the demonstrations.

This sea change in public perception could not come too soon for Elmas, who, after living in Istanbul for 12 years, wanted to leave the country altogether. Gezi “was a turning point in my life, because before this resistance I felt really alienated and I was disgusted by society,” she says. “The oppression to us is in the streets, it’s on the bus, it’s in restaurants, it’s when you want to rent a house… it’s when you are living.”

“I was planning to go to Europe somewhere to live, however now I really want to live in my own country and this city and fight for different rights all together.”

For Merve, “Gezi Park resistance also has had a very important part in the LGBT community because all this time, the media has represented us in a very evil state.” She describes the way Turkish media depicts trans people: angry, aggressive, with a knife in their hand. That is, someone completely unlike Merve – who is confident, laid-back and articulate as she relates her story.

“This resistance kind of broke this image,” she says. “After the resistance, they understood that we are capable of doing very positive and big things.”

Both Merve and Elmas still regularly experience discrimination because of their trans identity. Like many trans women in Istanbul, both have had to turn to prostitution in order to survive. “You are kind of forced [into sex work], and then they call you a whore. And what can I do? What can I do in this situation? You won’t give me a job, allow me to launch my own business, you don’t even allow me to walk on the street freely, to live as a normal human being and now you call me a whore. I think this is very hypocritical,” Elmas says.

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After reaching the end of Istiklal Avenue, a couple climbs a metal tower and kiss, to the hoots and applause of the crowd below.  

And as these advances are made in Istanbul, many gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people in other parts of the country remain subject to rampant homophobia and transphobia. “Compared to Turkey’s LGBT, Istanbul LGBT is more free than the other cities,” Urania says. “There are more spaces and discourses for freedom and activism.”

Even within Istanbul’s own LGBT community, people experience discrimination at different levels. Trans people are more visible and therefore more easily singled out by transphobic Istanbullus, Urania thinks. “When trans identity people can find jobs and walk freely and feel comfortable then LGBT will have reached its goal,” she says.

Tar, the journalist, will continue to fight the good fight. “In this world, I think we have to resist this kind of oppression for our rights. If you don’t resist they will continue their attacks, they will continue killing us, so I believe in a resistance that way, in a resistance full of joy,” Tar says.

“Before Gezi Park, everyone was afraid. Maybe I was afraid too, but in the Gezi Park I saw that we are right, millions are here, our demands are right. I saw the power of us.”

 

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