Turkish LGBTQ Activists Counter Oppression With Art, Solidarity and Radical Hope

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08/15/2021

Activism came to Hazar Kolancalı like a thunderstorm, at first a rumbling in the distance and then upon her all at once. The constant — and often violent — oppression of LGBTQI+ people in Turkey, a country that is increasingly hostile toward them, manifested suddenly for Kolancalı in a brutal arrest at the hands of Istanbul police. “I knew trouble was coming on the day I saw smear campaigns against us being pushed by pro-government media,” she told Truthout. Despite her attempts to avoid conflict with police, government-executed violence and oppression is always lurking just around the corner for queer activists in Turkey. In addition to health and economic crises, 2020-21 brought a sharp rise in government homophobia to Turkey, manifesting as hate speech from top government officials, the barring of “LGBT symbols,” withdrawal from the “Istanbul Convention” on the grounds of it “normalizing homosexuality,” and arrests of LGBTQI+ activists like Kolancalı. On January 30, 2021, such government oppression was waiting for Kolancalı just outside the gates of her university campus. “We exited the campus and right away there were police everywhere, cars, sirens, and they were screaming our names. I was shocked. They came for me immediately and then there was chaos. The police used brutal force against us.” Kolancalı, 22, a psychology student, artist and openly bisexual activist, found herself on the front lines of Turkey’s struggle for LGBTQI+ rights. Two months prior, situated in a grassy field on Boğaziçi University’s campus, solidarity-seeking students mingled at an art exhibition of anonymous contributions organized by Kolancalı and fellow artist-activists. The exhibition was part of the protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of a pro-government party member as rector to their university and the subsequent closure of the school’s LGBTQI+ student club. One piece of art, however, caught the disapproving eye of a passerby, and soon, the eyes of top Turkish officials, who demanded punishment.

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