Jul 13, 2023


BEIRUT — When Turkish activists announced they would hold their annual Pride parade in Istanbul’s main square last month, authorities put the city on lockdown. Subways and highways were closed. The square was cordoned off by police.

It had all been a ruse. With police distracted, LGBTQ people agreed to meet up in other parts of the city. It was still a celebration, if a more subdued one.

“The community is basically playing whack-a-mole at this point,” said Talya Aydin, a trans woman who ran in Turkey’s parliamentary elections this year. “And the community will win every time.”

Across the Middle East, LGBTQ communities face a growing crackdown, echoing efforts by prominent American conservatives to restrict the rights of gay and transgender people and erase their influence from society.

LGBTQ+ Americans have stronger support than ever — and fiercer backlash

In the Jordanian capital of Amman, a movie screening with a gay male lead was canceled recently on orders from the governor. In Lebanon, a beer commercial that appeared to include a gender nonconforming person was met with widespread derision online, similar to the backlash faced by Bud Light in the United States after it partnered with a transgender TikTok star. “Just like BudLight...go woke, go broke!” read one comment on Twitter, now known as X.

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have always stood out in the region on LGBTQ issues. All have queer scenes, all have hosted Pride parades or similar events. But in all three places, the community exists in a legal gray area — neither criminalized nor protected by the law. As anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment intensifies and is championed by some of the region’s most powerful figures, gay and trans people feel more vulnerable than ever.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing a tough election this year, targeted the LGBTQ community throughout his campaign. “Mr. Kemal, we know you are a supporter of LGBTQ,” he said at a rally in the Black Sea city of Rize in May, a taunting reference to his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. “We will never allow [LGBTQ people] to injure your family,” he told his supporters.

When confronted by a reporter over his divisive language, Erdogan responded: “The thing called LGBTQ is a poison, once introduced into the family institution.”

There has been similar rhetoric from his political allies, including Istanbul governor Davut Gul, who justified banning this year’s Pride march on the grounds that “no activity that threatens our family institution, which is the guarantee of our nation and state, is allowed.”

Turkish activist Marsel Tugkan Gundogdu said the inflammatory rhetoric is without precedent. “Anti-[LGBTQ] discourse has never been so much on the political agenda” he said.

And crackdowns are becoming more brutal, according to Aydin, with more than 300 people arrested at last year’s Istanbul Pride event and police “actively seeking out queer people, even if they were not going to go to the pride walk.”

Last month, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council levied fines against streaming platforms including Netflix, Disney and Amazon Prime for showing “homosexual relationships” that are “contrary to social and cultural values and the Turkish family structure.”

Although the talking points about protecting the family echo those espoused by some right-wing politicians in the United States, there are other influences closer to home, specifically Russia.

After large anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations in Turkey in September, Yener Bayramoglu, a UKRI/Marie Curie fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, began noticing a strange phenomenon: Russian videos with Turkish subtitles were proliferating on social media, promoting a new law in Russia that makes it illegal to spread “LGBT propaganda.”

“Not all these ideas come from the U.S., or from the West to the Middle East,” Bayramoglu said.

In Lebanon as well, LGBTQ issues have been seized on by political heavyweights. Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia — the country’s most powerful political and military force — claimed in a televised speech in March that the United States was spearheading a campaign to change curriculums around the world to “promote a culture of homosexuality in schools and universities.”

Last month, he went further, lashing out against cartoons that promote acceptance of LGBTQ people and telling viewers that “sodomy” should be punished by death. He warned about “children’s books promoting this deviant culture” and called on the Lebanese Education Ministry to intervene.

He also urged his followers to boycott businesses that carry Pride flags, which led to a flurry of online attacks against an LGBTQ-friendly cafe in Beirut. “Sexual Deviance” was a trending topic on Twitter.

The inflammatory rhetoric prompted Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi and trans people, to issue an alert to its users in Lebanon on Sunday — warning them to “take extra caution both online and offline right now” and directing them to a helpline if exposed to danger.

Tarek Zeidan, the director of Helem, a Lebanese LGBTQ advocacy group, told The Post of “a cloud of fear and anxiety among the community.” Last week, he said, the organization received “dozens of calls” from people asking for assistance in leaving the country and advice on what to do if they were attacked.

The climate of fear extends to Jordan, a key American ally, where the government is facing increased calls from conservatives to clamp down on the LGBTQ community — a step backward for a country where gay and trans people felt they had made real strides in recent years.

In 2014 and 2015, Amman hosted events for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. My Kali magazine, launched in Jordan in 2007, was the first LGBTQ-themed magazine in the Middle East.

“I simply struggled to find content that I could relate to or identify with as a queer teen,” said Khalid Abdel-Hadi, My Kali’s founder and editor in chief. A recent issue included a profile of an Iranian American drag queen and an essay from a prominent trans activist in Tunisia on the pain of living with HIV.

Late last year, the vice president of the Jordanian scholars association, Faiza Al-Sukkar, called on the government to enact measures that “protect society and immunize it from homosexuality.” She announced plans to start a lecture series on the “importance of the family” because “the campaigns that promote homosexuality want to destroy the family.”

In June, after the movie screening with the gay male lead was canceled in Amman, an LGBTQ activist said he received numerous messages from trans and other gender-nonconforming people about being attacked in the streets. “They don’t feel safe reporting these incidents and I don’t encourage them to,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from the authorities.

A new cybersecurity law, just passed by the Jordanian Senate, includes a “public decency” clause and a vaguely worded ban on sharing “immoral material,” which the activist worries could give the government legal cover to target the community.

“Many believe that our relations are publicly indecent, so it could be used against us,” he said.

Bayramoglu says the moral panic over LGBTQ people is ultimately a deflection strategy, “to shift the tension away from the actual problems” in a region beset by economic troubles, political stasis and climate woes.

Zeidan agrees: “It gets a lot of airtime, and it preoccupies the population when they should be asking who stole their money, why they don’t have any electricity and why they do not have any health care.”