Resistance against sexual orientation equality and the LGBTI+ movement

Ebru SoytemelMustafa F. Özbilgin

Cis-Gender Privilege, Heteronormative Fragility and Compulsory Heterosexuality

Politics of sexual orientation equality, and the resistance against it again have come to centre stage in national politics across the world. Reflecting on the particular case of Turkey and other international examples we argue that we should explore how and why sexual orientation equality threatens the cis-gender privilege, exposes the fragility of heteronormative cultures and institutional structures and the compulsory nature of heterosexuality.

Since the Stonewall riots in the US, there has been a sea change, albeit highly uneven across countries, in social, political and legal recognition of LGBTI+ rights internationally. However these changes in legal and social acceptance of LGBTI+ individuals and relationships in some advanced democracies have also received some backlash and resistance. Drawing on the case of the exclusionary “don’t ask don’t tell” policies of the US army, Bell et al. (2013) demonstrated that sexual orientation inequality, lack of voice among LGBTI+ individuals  and resistance to equality have negative consequences for the individual, organisational and the social wellbeing at large. In this short blog piece we frame resistance to sexual orientation equality as a form of cis-gender privilege, heteronormative fragility in contexts of compulsory heterosexuality.  We focus on the heightened case of heteronormative fragility in Turkey and provide international examples to discuss the resistance to sexual orientation equality.

Turkey is a country which legalised gay sex as early as 1858 with Ottoman reformations, much earlier than any other European country. After the formation of the Turkish Republic sexual orientation issues were suppressed to medical science in terms of sex change operations and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. LGBTI+ life and relationships were largely limited to underground venues with such as bars, sex cinemas, bath houses. In mid 1990, the sexual orientation rights were demanded through organisations such as Lambda, Kaos GL, Sisters of Venus, Pink Life and some others. The awareness raised by these groups culminated in the first Pride March in 2003 in Istanbul and a general increase in visibility of gay venues and art in Turkish media. However, concurrently with these progressive developments, the national reactions to the visibility has garnered bans on working class LGBTI+ venues and visibility (Ozbilgin 2016), when middle and upper class gays retained some venues and visibility. The support for the ruling party AKP has grown in this period, AK-LGBT was formed in support of the leading party.

When the pride marches gained participation of approximately 100 thousand participants and received much visibility, and the LGBTI+ movement supported the Gezi Park protests in 2013, government responses became hostile towards the LGBTI+ equality movement. The Pride March was initially banned for security reasons, as the government claimed that they cannot protect it against extremist attacks. Around the same time, the LGBTI+ networks and organisations started receiving threats from religious extremists.

In the last two years, the antagonism and backlash have grown against the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey and internationally. The Ministry of Religion In Turkey has declared that homosexuality is responsible for world disasters.  Netflix was criticised for having the LGBT genre in its film selection in Turkey. The president of Turkey, who supported the LGBTI+ rights in his speeches in the early 1990s, recently stated that the LGBTI+ identity is not a good fit for the religion and culture of Turkey. Even the leaders of opposition parties jumped on the bandwagon of backlash and started making unfortunate statements about LGBTI+ which were less than supportive.

At the same time as Turkey, in countries where there are laws that support and legitimate LGBTI+ life, work and relationships, we have seen the emergence of backlash and resistance. We attribute the backlash and resistance against sexual orientation equality to a number of reasons. First, despite years of social movements and progressive legal developments, heterosexism, transphobia, biphobia and homophobia are still evident in Turkey and internationally. Antagonistic nature of political discourses reflect the overall conservative nature of public perceptions which will take a long time to change if ever.

Second, cis-gender privilege sometimes divides progressive movements and mobilises some segments of them against the sexual orientation equality. For example the emergence of TERF (trans exclusionary feminist) movement with prominent examples such as JK Rowling is an international example. KADER (a women’s charity in Turkey) reported recently that they do not recognise nor condone LGBTI+ movement signal intersectional tensions between women’s movements and sexual orientation equality movements in Turkey.

Third, there is growing fragility of the heteronormative system and the compulsory heterosexuality across social institutions across all phases of social, economic and political life. With the expansion of sexual orientation rights, demands for change towards equality across institutions which are steeped in history, belief and culture are met with resistance. In fact, one journalist from a mainstream newspaper that supports the state line in Turkey suggested that LGBTI+ movement should be more actively resisted as it is threatening and corroding the fragile institutions of family, work and social life in Turkey. He called for organising along biologically deterministic (human nature) lines, assuming that excludes any possibility other than heterosexuality, in order to combat the progress of demands for sexual orientation rights equality.

Fourth, the nature of the LGBTI+ movement Is rather fragmented as the different interests represented in this broad collective also has tensions. For example, a group of lesbian women. In London Pride two years ago marched against trans women protesting that trans women steal the limelight and divert attention from lesbian women’s issues. Similarly politically conservative gays in Turkey do not support pride marches or public displays of affection (Kamasak et al 2019).

In this complex context, the traction that the LGBTI+ movement has garnered is met with resistance from a number of intra- and extra-movement forces. In the main, the cis-gender privilege continues to divide the movement, as many LGBTI+ individuals remain closeted with the fear of losing the heteronormative privileges of passing as straight which is afforded to them  in a heteronormative world order. The visibility that the LGBTI+ movement has gained also received intersectional hostility from exclusionary segments of other progressive movements such as the feminist movement and within its own sub divisions. Added to this adversarial picture the heteronormative fragility, the so-called fear that heterosexuals experience in advancement of LGBTI+ rights, presents a significant political and social barrier on the way of achieving sexual orientation equality.

In fact despite the extreme oppression and arbitrary bans to LGBTI+ movements in Turkey,  and the political hostility against the LGBTI+, we can still see this backlash as the success of the LGBTI+ movement, which has become difficult to ignore. Although much mainstream discussions note the dismal conditions of LGBTI+ organisations and politics in public, their very oppression and the subsequent social interaction seem to have penetrated almost every aspect of society and politics, forcing major political figures, including President Erdogan, to express their support or objection to LGBTI+  politics, visibility, and identity. In fact, ongoing discussions in Turkey on TERFs forced not only the pro-government women’s organisations but also feminists, feminist philosophers to take a self-critical position about the LGBTI+ rights. It seems that one of the powerful slogans of the LGBTI+ “we are everywhere, get used to it” is now echoing in different political circles and attracting resistance at the LGBTI+ movements continues to gain power through coalitions with other social movements.

We contend that in order to overcome backlash and resistance and to advance the human rights agenda for sexual orientation equality, there is a need to move from identity politics towards coalition politics (Syed and Ozbilgin 2020). Such a movement would require the LGBTI+ movement to take stock of and build bridges with other progressive social movements and overcome its own infighting in order to develop common future agendas. Such a progressive stance is possible only through building intersectional solidarity within the LGBTI+ movement and to strengthen ties with and to expect reciprocal support from progressive social movements such as #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, #occupy, and #gezipark.