From the banning of Pride celebrations to trans women being murdered in the streets, LGBT resistance and visibility has never been so important in Turkey.
Queer photographer Omer Tevfik has spent years documenting Turkey's trans community, and with a conservative government banning Pride celebrations and trans people being murdered in the street, the need for resistance and visibility has never been greater.
Being gay in Turkey is not illegal. It wasn’t illegal in 1858 when the Ottomans ruled under the banner of Islam, and it wasn’t when the Turkish Republic was established in 1923. But right now Turkey’s LGBT community is under attack, and trans people, queer people, and civil society organisations are leading the fight back against the violence and intimidation that has been sweeping the country.
The brutal murder of 23-year-old sex worker and transgender activist Hande Kader in August 2016 incensed the queer community and its allies; she was seen as a figurehead for Turkish LGBT people after being photographed standing up to the violent and oppressive policing of Istanbul’s 2015 Pride celebrations. Her violent murder led to protests in major cities throughout the country.
Since then the country’s conservative ruling party has failed to address the demands of LGBT activists who seek more legal representation and protection. Instead, they banned Gay Pride and Trans Pride last year citing “security fears”, but LGBT activists see the government’s move as a curtailment of their civil liberties, and an affront to the visibility they have gained in society.
Photographer Omer Tevfik is a queer photographer based in Istanbul, and has been documenting the LGBT community in the city during this difficult time. Turkey has a higher rate of trans murders than anywhere in Europe – between 2008 and 2015, 41 transgender people were murdered – and much of Omer’s work has been done in conjunction with this community.
When did you start documenting the LGBT community in Istanbul?
I started working with the LGBT community during the Gezi Protests in 2013. The community was very powerful then organising and staging protests. The situation has changed since then though, the state of emergency after the military coup attempt of July 2016 has added further pressure to the LGBT community. The streets are not as safe anymore, terrorism and attacks are on the rise, and violence against LGBT people has increased too.
Gezi was a reaction to society’s politics and government policies. But also, Gezi Park was a space for LGBT people to socialise. That park was one of the rarest places where LGBT people met with people like themselves, like us. It’s why we fought so hard in defence of our living space.
Can you tell us about your project?
The Trans House was my first project; I started in 2014. The Trans House is an apartment building that exists through the support of the community for vulnerable trans people. It holds about 20 people at anytime who are mostly isolated from friends and family.
During the year I documented the Trans House, I met homeless people, those who have mental health problems, others who have tried to commit suicide and who need someone to look after them.
Was it difficult gaining access to the Trans House and wider community?
When I worked with trans people they expected me to be trans so they could feel close to me. Some understandably needed someone to be like them so they felt comfortable speaking, and one or two of them rejected and avoided speaking to me because I am not trans.
It was a process and an achievement for me. At the beginning I didn’t know I would immerse myself so deeply, but we made connections. I let them get to know me.
They met me as a photographer because they knew I wanted to take photos of their lives and their challenges, but I was not only taking their photos. I was there supporting them, being a part of their community. I helped pay the bills sometimes, I took them to the hospital if they needed treatment, I did house repairs. I shared the house, my work, my food, everything.
What kind of pressure is the LGBT community under in Turkey today?
The banning of our Pride Parade is a major one, but there is also intense pressure and violence in everyday life. For example we are not served in cafes, and when we go to the doctor they can humiliate us.
Trans people can be harmed with rude remarks in the streets or fined by the police for “disturbing social order”. Muhammed Wisam Sankari, a Syrian refugee who was threatened, kidnapped, rapped and stabbed to death in Istanbul, was killed for being gay. He was beheaded and his body mutilated, and the perpetrators haven’t been found. We have to live secretly, pretend and maintain a role in our lives as if we are heterosexual.
Most of us live at night because can be attacked during the day, not only physically but people can humiliate and harass us.
What signs of violence did you encounter in the community?
The system we live in violently ignores LGBT people, especially those who identify as trans. Now when we become visible, we are subjected to danger.
Do you call yourself an activist?
I see my work as a kind of activism, but I don’t know if it will bring change. Change is a big word, but even if nothing changes maybe my work can help raise awareness.
In this country we can’t openly express ourselves as activists; we are not allowed to react, to take to the streets and protest. We can only react on social media, and even online we are under pressure. All dissidents are under some kind of pressure. The government took the streets from us when they cancelled our pride parade, but we’re continuing to fight back against this. We won’t let anybody take the streets from us. We will continue to resist.