How LGBT+ individuals were criminalized with the withdrawal of the Istanbul Convention?

A calculated policy: the resurgence of anti-LGBT+ measures following the withdrawal

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"During the process that led to the withdrawal from the Convention, the rainbow flag became an foe and was banned. LGBT+ individuals' entire existences were criminalized, and they were subjected to threats of violence. With the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, LGBT+ lives and the right to live were disregarded."

Thus stated Att. Seher Duygu Çildoğan, director of the LGBT+ Rights Centre at the Ankara Bar, during her address to the Council of State. As the president of the panel of judges, Yılmaz Akcil, stated, "it was his first in the history of the Council of State." Çildoğan did in fact attain a first. That is, it was the first time in the Council's history that the names of slain trans women and LGBT+ individuals were mentioned. Çildoğan spoke directly to the panel about LGBT+ rights in the large courtroom, describing how LGBT+ individuals were targeted both before and after the Convention's withdrawal, and argued the assertion that "the Convention legitimizes homosexuality" was false.

Why did she feel the need to submit such a defence? To provide an appropriate response, one must investigate how LGBT+ individuals were systematically criminalized prior to the withdrawal from the Convention. 

Through a Presidential Decree published in the Official Gazette, Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on March 20th, 2021. This decision, bearing the signature of Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was based on Article 3 of Presidential Decree No. 9. While legal arguments as to whether the said Article entrusts the president the power to withdraw from international treaties remain on the agenda and the matter is now before the Council of State, it would be useful to look back and see what happened prior to the publication of this decree.

One year before the withdrawal: Religious Sects' Statements Targeting LGBT+

Long before the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, it had become the focus of the government as well as conservative right-wing parties, religious sects, and organisations. The Islamic Ismailağa Sect, commonly known as "Ismailağa Congregation," was among them.

During a meeting of his party's Central Executive Committee in July 2020, Erdoğan reportedly remarked, with reference to the convention, "if the people request it, then we will withdraw from it." Immediately following this alleged statement, on July 6, 2020, the Ismailağa congregation published a manifesto on its official website, alleging that the agreement includes "the license to wage war" against Islamic ideals, and demanding that the government withdraw from the convention.

"Content-wise, this Convention paves the way for vices such as homosexuality, which is condemned by Allah (May He be glorified) and His Prophet (May Allah's peace and blessings be upon him), imposes missions on women that are antithetical to their purpose of creation, and so seeks to destroy our moral structure and the family-based civilization that our ancestors handed down to us."

It is important to note that Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, a member of the congregation known as "Robed Ahmad Hodja," also targeted the Convention, while KADEM (The Women and Democracy Foundation), an institution whose founders include Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, the daughter of Pres. Erdogan, opposed withdrawal. Ünlü, on the other hand, cited a call from the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), another foundation with close government ties, dated July 9, 2020, which asserted: "Ye Muslims! Never use the eid, summer, or holiday as an excuse. If we fail to act against the Istanbul Convention now, we will be unable to protect our children against homosexuality and will be unable to absolve ourselves of this sin. In this context, I find the following statement from TÜGVA to be extremely significant." 

That summer, Pres. Erdogan carried out a series of visits to the congregation and announced that Turkey should withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on the grounds that it "ruins the family, disregards traditional values, and legitimizes homosexuality." The Turkey Thinking Platform, whose honorary president is Hayrettin Karaca, a preacher and Islamist columnist, and whose members include Abdurrahman Dilipak, another prominent Islamist figure, was drafting a 10-page study to "explain to Erdogan" why the government should withdraw from the Istanbul Convention at precisely this time. The Platform's executives announced their disengagement from this study in a statement issued on August 4, 2020, in which they said, "We recognize that we have entered a minefield, and we are drained."

Associations, clubs, parks, and streets ... A string of restrictions

In the following couple of months, while the initial tempest appeared to have faded, the number of government proponents supporting the withdrawal grew and discussions continued into the following year. In a January 2021 television broadcast, Oğuzhan Asiltürk, the head of the High Advisory Board for the conservative Islamic Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party), with whom Pres. Erdogan was negotiating an alliance, stated, "Mr. President is also in favour of withdrawal. I am also aware that he said it. We will certainly withdraw from it." According to him, there were two key reasons for this choice: "The Convention destroys the family and legitimizes homosexuality."

LGBT+ individuals, who were targeted just a year earlier by numerous political and religious figures, including the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Interior Minister, and other members of parliament, as well as media outlets like Yeni Akit, an ultraconservative Islamist tabloid, became the primary reason and target of those seeking to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention in 2021.

In February 2021, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu committed hate speech on Twitter, labelling all LGBT+ individuals as "deviants" and added, "we are all liable for protecting our family institution." After this tweet, anti-LGBT+ policies began to emerge in public parks, streets, and rallies around the country.

Overnight on March 20, 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, which provided a legal framework for the fight against male violence against women and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. After this, there was an upsurge in attacks against the women, feminist, and LGBT+ movements. LGBT+ individuals who had been subjected to hate speech in relation to the convention for nearly a year faced a spike in hatred following the convention's withdrawal.

Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the Felicity Party, which had advocated withdrawal from the beginning and made an open appeal to Pres. Erdogan, greeted the decision with glee and declared, "normalization of homosexuality is intolerable." In a subsequent statement, the Head of Communication for the Presidency defended the withdrawal decision on the grounds that "the Convention was manipulated by a number of individuals attempting to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values."

Consequently, hate speech aimed at LGBT+ individuals became centred on the Istanbul Convention.

“Bogazici” as the pinnacle of hate speech and “Istanbul Convention”

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, according to Kaos GL's 2021 Report on LGBT+ Human Rights, hundreds of LGBT+ individuals were denied their right to liberty and security and were violently detained during Bogazici demonstrations, March 8th parades, protests in support of the Istanbul Convention and Pride Parades. In addition, their right to assembly and freedom of expression were curtailed, and calls were made to dissolve their organizations.

Yıldız Tar, a journalist, observed that the most virulent anti-LGBT+ rhetoric occurred in the context of journalistic coverage of the Istanbul Convention and the Bogazici demonstrations. With their coverage of the Istanbul Convention, mainstream media or, to say the obvious, pro-government media published assertions such as "Articles 3 and 4 of the Convention on gender equality granted vested legal protection to homosexual couples, and this undermines the social structure."

Because the Convention, which was drafted with a focus on gender, aims to encourage the establishment of protective and preventive mechanisms at points where domestic regulations fall short, thereby making progess in efforts to safeguard women, children and LGBT+ individuals from male violence, the explanation was straightforward. “Domestic violence” is defined by the Convention as any act of physical, sexual, psychological, or economic violence that occurs within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, regardless of whether the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim.

It was precisely the Convention’s inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity that created fantasies that LGBT+ individuals, with backing from the Istanbul Convention, would “demolish the sacred institution of family” and “legitimise homosexuality.”

Requests denials for restraining orders, a hike in hate crimes

Why did they dread the Istanbul Convention's force? What prompted this ruckus? Article 122 of the Turkish Penal Code, which addresses "hate and prejudice," does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds. Despite the absence of such protection in the code and in a country where the Constitution fails to recognise sexual orientation and gender identity in its provisions on equality and non-discrimination, the Istanbul Convention served as a safeguard for LGBT+ people. The Convention also required State Parties to protect individuals from gender-based violence, discriminatory speech and conduct, and hate crimes.

The outcome? As a result of the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which afforded protection to discriminated children, LGBT+ individuals, and women, obliged authorities to issue restraining orders against the perpetrator. It also functioned as a safety net when domestic legislation failed, as at least eight hate-motivated killings have occurred. Applications submitted to police stations in accordance with Law No. 6284 on Protecting Family and Preventing Violence Against Women were not processed, and the vast majority of LGBT+ applicants were turned away at the doors. In addition to pervasive hate speech, the number of hate crimes also climbed, and the mere possession of an LGBT+ flag became a basis for arrest. Hate speech in the media also became entrenched.

The women's movement, the feminist movement and the LGBT+ movement, in sustaining their struggles against the withdrawal’s devastating impact on women and LGBT+, filed more than 200 lawsuits with the Council of State seeking a stay of execution and annulment of the decision authorizing the withdrawal from the Convention. The first hearing of the first 10 cases was held on April 28, 2022. The courtroom was crammed with hundreds of women and LGBT+ individuals who fought for their lives as both an audience and an agent.

Attorney Seher Duygu Çildoğan, director of the LGBT+ Rights Centre at the Ankara Bar, made history with her address to the Council of State. When I contacted Ms. Çildoğan for this piece, I asked her to describe how LGBT+ individuals were targeted after the withdrawal from the Convention and how this action opened the way for a very perilous path.

The political nature of defending the Istanbul Convention for LGBT+

According to Çildoğan, the withdrawal from the Convention is an attempt to legitimize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as these are explicitly mentioned in the provisions. "These rights that the state is obligated to preserve were invoked as reasons for withdrawal, and a certain segment of society was demonized," Çildoğan said, recalling that ministers and other official bodies have promoted hate speech. She added:

"After Turkey left the Convention, the very presence of LGBT+ people was criminalized. There was an increase in news articles containing hate speech as well as threats of violence on social media. The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention jeopardized the lives of LGBT+ people and disregarded them. This poses a grave threat. We must further emphasize that, with the withdrawal from the Convention, our demands presented under Law No. 6284 on Protecting the Family and Preventing Violence Against Women, which had previously been approved, are now routinely denied with arbitrary decisions."

Çildoğan feels that these arbitrary denials and the simultaneous lapse in protection and protective measures are the result of a deliberate policy. Every injunction rejected and every measure not implemented endangers the lives of LGBT+ individuals because the deliberate, ideological and systematic expansion in anti-LGBT+ policies translate into an increase in hate crimes.

Whereas, the case of Ahmet Yldz, who was murdered by his father because of his sexual orientation, remains a black mark on Turkey's face. This was followed by the murders of Hande Kader, Hande Buse eker - who embraced the name of the former in her remembrance - and Mira Güneş, along with countless more queer and trans individuals. "Trans and LGBT+ murders are political in character." Just as this slogan was not in vain, so is the defence of the Istanbul Convention, which has the potential to prevent such atrocities.

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