Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric intensifies

During this year's election campaigns, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vilified the LGBTQ+ community in an attempt to strengthen his support among conservative voters and drive a wedge between the parties of the opposition alliance. Now the government wants to introduce constitutional amendments that rights groups fear would further marginalise LGBTQ+ people. By Ayşe Karabat

By Ayşe Karabat

The rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community have been on the political agenda in Turkey for some time now and played a central role in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's campaigns in the run up to Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections in May.

It all began with the issue of the headscarf. In October 2022, the leader of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for a new law that would safeguard women's right to employment in the public sector, regardless of whether or not they wear a headscarf.

The bill prepared by the CHP was widely interpreted as being an attempt to take the "headscarf card" away from Erdoğan, who often accuses the CHP of banning the headscarf in the public sector and universities in the 1990s – an issue of importance for conservative voters.

Erdoğan initially dismissed the CHP's proposal, saying that the headscarf is not currently on Turkey's political agenda. However, he later suggested amending the constitution to anchor a woman's right to wear headscarves in civil institutions, schools and universities. He went on to say that the constitutional amendment his party would propose to parliament would also strengthen the definition of the family by clarifying that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses supporters during a campaign rally in the Sultangazi district of Istanbul, 12 May 2023 (photo: Ozan Kose/AFP)
Speaking publicly on 22 October President Erdogan asked: "Can there be LGBT in a strong family? No!" From that point on, accusing the opposition of supporting the LGBTQ+ community was a feature of his campaign speeches

From defence of the headscarf to an attack on the LGBTQ+ community

Speaking publicly on 22 October, he went one step further, saying, "Can there be LGBT in a strong family? No!" and adding "You know which political parties are working with these circles". From this point on, accusing the opposition of being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community was a feature of his campaign speeches.

Although the constitutional amendment regarding the headscarf and the protection of the family was not supported by the opposition at the time, it passed the related parliamentary commission in January 2023. Its preamble stated that "It is the primary duty of the state to protect the family structure, which is the foundation of Turkish society, and to protect the family against all kinds of dangers, threats, attacks and deviances."

At the time, rights groups claimed that the term "deviances" referred to the LGBTQ+ community and warned that if the amendment passed parliament, it would be used to shut down LGBTQ+ organisations and other relevant associations.

But before the amendment could be ratified, devastating earthquakes hit southern Turkey on February 6, killing more than 50,000 people. The government's focus shifted to dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe.

The public does not see LGBTQ+ people as one of Turkey's main problems

According to Prof. Mustafa Aydın of Kadir Has University, the public does not consider the LGBTQ+ community to be one of Turkey's main problems. Prof. Aydın has been conducting Turkey's Trends research since 2010.

A Turkish policeman detains a demonstrator during a Pride march in Istanbul, 26 June 2022 (photo: Kurtulus Ari/AFP)
Turkish police forcibly intervened in a Pride march in Istanbul, on 26 June 2022, detaining dozens of demonstrators and an AFP photographer. The governor's office had banned the march around Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul but protesters gathered nearby under heavy police presence earlier than scheduled

Every year, as part of this research, he and his team ask participants what Turkey's main problems are. "Until now, no one has said LGBTQ+. It is true that we did not include LGBTQ+ as one of the options, but there is open-ended option, too, and no one wrote LGBTQ+ there," he told

Prof. Aydın went on to say that participants are also asked whom they would like as neighbours. "To make sure that everybody understands the question, we use the term 'homosexuals'. In 2022, 10.3 per cent answered 'Definitely, I am OK with being neighbours with homosexuals', 41.7 per cent said they would not mind. The rate of those who are absolutely against the idea or don't want them as neighbours is 48 per cent."

Aydın pointed out that although this means that 52 per cent of those surveyed don't have a problem living beside members of the LGBTQ+ community, this group topped the list of the most unwanted neighbours, followed by atheists and alcohol users. This, he said, indicates that LGBTQ+ issues could be politically relevant for a certain segment of society.

A hot-button election campaign issue

Throughout the election campaigns, Erdoğan targeted the opposition parties in every campaign speech, claiming that they were pro-LGBTQ+. This was not always the case with the AKP. Less than a decade ago, it was possible to wave a rainbow flag in the front row of an AKP rally. Moreover, in its election propaganda leaflets in 2015, the AKP said that it would not interfere in any citizen's lifestyle and said that Turkey was exemplary in allowing Pride parades to take place during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

This year, things were very different. Former Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu jumped on the bandwagon, taking his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric so far that he claimed members of the community wanted to legalise marriage between humans and animals. He also claimed that all pro-LGBTQ+ groups are under the influence of the US and Europe.

People take part in an anti-LGBT rally organised by pro-Islamic NGOs in Istanbul, 18 September 2022 (photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP)
Although the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric intensified during Turkey's recent election campaigns, anti LGBTQ+ sentiment was already strong in some sections of society. The demonstrators who attended an anti-LGBT rally organised by pro-Islamic NGOs in Istanbul on 18 September 2022 (pictured here), for example, demanded the banning of associations for the defence of the rights of homosexuals and transgender people

An attempt to crack the unity of the opposition

The opposition alliance actually kept its policies on the LGBTQ+ community quite low key and did not mention them in its joint declaration. It also made no promise to return Turkey to the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing and combating violence against women. The reason behind the opposition's hesitancy in this respect was that it did not want to lose conservative voters, many of whom oppose the convention because they think it is pro-LGBTQ+ and harms the family.

Prof. Dr. Pınar Uyan Semerci from Bilgi University, who has extensively studied political polarisation, said that by constantly referring to LGBTQ+ community and labelling the opposition as its supporters during the election campaigns, Erdoğan was able to consolidate his voter base.

"In summary, the government has used the language of 'protecting and glorifying the family', which is one of the most important values for the conservatives, to 'other' the opposition alliance by claiming it was pro-LGBTQ+," she told

Now, Erdoğan and his party are indicating that they want to return to the issue of constitutional amendments regarding the headscarf and family, hoping that conservative MPs from opposition parties will now support it. If they do support it, the unity of the opposition alliance, which lasted throughout this year's election campaigns, would be broken.

In the meantime, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has intensified and the atmosphere has deteriorated since the elections in May. On 25 June, police arrested 113 LGBTQ+ protesters, right activists and journalists at Istanbul's 21st Pride Parade, which had been banned by the authorities. All of this shows that life for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Turkey remains very difficult indeed.

Ayşe Karabat

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