Being LGBTI in Istanbul is not easy at all. The rising conservative trends and the waves of purges that often target liberal wings of the society in universities, in media and political institutions, are gradually suffocating the few rights gay and transsexual communities earned with hardships and long campaigns.
Isolation and discrimination are common things that happen daily to these people. Consequently, being openly LGBTI in Istanbul and Turkey is an act of courage that highlights some basic needs related to human liberty, especially freedom of expression.
However, what’s more amazing is seeing parents getting alongside with their LGBTI sons and daughters and advocate to their right to be what they want to be. In Istanbul, there are several LGBT NGOs such as Lambdaistanbul, Kaos and SPoD, but LISTAG stands out from the others, since it’s composed by parents of LGBTI individuals. This association has a crucial role in the LGBTI community’s integration in society, since it gives support to help parents accept their son or daughter’s sexuality, by giving advices and organizing informational meetings.
“We do it for the people, not for ourselves”
Funded in January 2008, this solidarity group is a warm lighthouse and an important reference to parents of LGBTI individuals. “We do it for the people, not for ourselves” says H. Metehan Özkan, one of the organization’s founders.
The long path of parents’ acceptation
In truth, homosexuality and transsexuality are often discriminated in Turkey and people have a poor knowledge about them, which leads to negative stereotypes and distorted perspectives. In short, having a LGBTI son or daughter is considered a great disgrace and a shame for a traditional Turkish family. The documentary produced by LISTAG in 2013, called “My Child”, shows it quite well. Parents from all walks of life had a hard time to understand and accept their son or daughter’s real nature: it’s a long and hard psychological path.
“Privileged and upper-class people aren’t more sensitive or aware than the others, I met veiled mothers that are more sensitive and clever than them,” Özkan says. Even Özkan mother had a rough time to accept her son’s homosexuality. At the beginning, she didn’t want to talk to him and she rejected him, then she said to him “you make me puke,” and finally, after working together and communicating for 6 months, she changed for the better.
But schools, universities and other social spaces aren’t places that encourage and let young people to express their homosexuality or transsexuality. Most of the parents had often argued with teachers to defend their sons and daughters and avoid the classic process of putting stereotypical labels to LGBTI people.
“To bring more awareness in Turkey, we’re organizing conferences, meetings and film screenings in universities, opposition parties and international film festivals,” Özkan underlines. Of course, this is not an easy task to do, since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is repressing each kind of expression opposed to his conservative and religious beliefs, including LGBTI activities and cultural events. “There’s less civic commitment, less gatherings, less active associations and, therefore, more homophobia”, Özkan sadly says. Indeed, the last official pride march in Istanbul was set three years ago. “Most of the latest LGBTI demonstrations are “pirate marches””, he says.
However, not all is lost. LISTAG could create a vast support network with other European LGBTI organizations, such as AGEDO, which is composed by parents of LGBTI individuals too (they produced an Italian documentary called “2 Volte Genitori – Parlano i genitori di lesbiche e gay”).
A broader civic engagement
In addition, they supported other groups opposed to the authoritarian government, such as academicians who publicly stood against Turkish war against Kurds. Needless to say, most of them were fired from their jobs and they become unemployed. “Therefore, we organized with the mothers a gathering to sell mezzes to help them financially,” Özkan says.
By doing this, LISTAG is acquiring a new level of civic activism that doesn’t limit itself to LGBTI issues and communities, but widely extends its action to defend an ideal at all cost, freedom.