By Cihan Tekay and Jay Cassano
In May, when Turkish middle classes poured out on the streets in numbers rarely seen to protest against the internet “filtering” system, we came across a short but strong statement from the LGBT community of Istanbul. This statement called for the Turkish LGBT community to join the demonstration against internet censorship.
While many protestors out on the streets interpreted the censorship plan as an attack of their personal freedoms, the LGBT activists framed it as a part of the systematic violation of their rights and as another way to render their community invisible.
The statement referenced many aspects of how internet censorship affects the lives of LGBT people in Turkey. For example, even prior to this new internet censorship plan, it was impossible to access certain LGBT websites at internet cafes. This is significant to the LGBT community because these cafes are frequented by youths who either do not have personal computers with internet access at home or do not want to browse LGBT sites on their family computers.
Bearing in mind the legal attempt to shut down Lambdaistanbul in 2007, a volunteer-run LGBT organization in Istanbul responsible for organizing the yearly pride parade, we stopped by Lambdaistanbul’s headquarters and interviewed a volunteer who wished to remain anonymous.
Q: Could you start by telling us what Lambdaistanbul is and what it does?
A: Lamdaistanbul is an association which defends LGBT people’s rights. Turkish laws don’t include non-discrimination policies toward LGBT people. Thus, the LGBT minority can be subject to discriminating situations. Because of that, Lambdaistanbul was established approximately in 1993. In 2007, there was an attempt to shut down Lamdaistanbul. It was not accepted by the courts and Lamdaistanbul continues to operate legally today.
The most important goal of Lamdaistanbul is to foster lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people’s self-confidence. We organize coming out meetings, we inform people about their political rights, we make sure they are not ashamed of who they are. I don’t want to use an orientalist discourse, but, as you know, in a place like Turkey, gays have problems with how they are represented in the media. RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council) takes certain decisions. For example, those TV series that openly broadcast homosexuality or gay characters are penalized on the ground that it is against morality and the Turkish family structure.
Q: How has internet censorship affected Lambdaistanbul specifically?
A: BTK (The Information Technologies and Communication Authority) has determined some banned words from domain names. “gay” and “lesbian” are on this list. Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) Association, an LGBT organization in Ankara, has been warned by their web hosting company saying their website might be shut down. There is no pornographic content whatsoever on Pembe Hayat’s website but they have been warned just because they use those words. [Editor's Note: In May it seemed that the banned word list would definitely go into effect. Now it is looking like BTK is backpedaling from the decision to implement the banned word list. See yesterday's article for more recent information.]
Why wouldn’t the same thing apply to us? There is no difference whatsoever in terms of content between Pembe Hayat and Lambdaistanbul’s websites. Half of the content on these websites consists of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual. And these words have been banned at the moment and there has not been a retraction. This will affect us directly. Bianet has filed a lawsuit against the proposed filtering system, and maybe when the court is in the process of deciding, Kaos GL, Lambdaistanbul and other LGBT organizations can co-file. This is how we are are affected by censorship.
On the other hand, Lamdaistanbul’s website is already not accessible from public spaces. For example, the filtering that is used in internet cafes does not allow access to Lambdaistanbul or other LGBT organizations’ websites. Internet cafes already have to apply a mandatory filtering system, which is why there is no access in those spaces. We already have a problem of access, and now it will be topped off with all these new censorship rules.
Q: Outside of internet cafes, is Lamdaistanbul’s website currently censored in any way?
A: There is no other censorship on Lambdaistanbul’s website as far as I know. But websites such as gay romeo and gabile, which gay men use to find friends, are completely banned. You cannot access them from anywhere in Turkey without changing your DNS settings. Actually, nowadays, you can’t even access them if you change your DNS settings.
Q: Outside of the issue with the filtering package, a website can have its hosting canceled simply because of the banned words list?
A: This is what happened with Pembe Hayat: the host received a warning either from BTK or TIB (the Telecommunications Directorate), I don’t know which one. One of them has sent a secret warning to the host. The host did not have to let their client know, they could have just stopped hosting the website on August 22nd. But they chose to let Pembe Hayat know. Because they did, what happened has come to the surface. However, we don’t know if it is always going to work this way.
Q: Why is free internet access important for LGBT people in Turkey?
A: It’s very important because in Turkey, LGBT people don’t have enough public space to socialize. For this reason, the internet is very important, it’s the primary way through which LGBTs socialize. Most people think that homosexuality is a kind of sickness, a bad thing, or a sin. This makes LGBT people scared of coming out. So there is only one option: to use internet to socialize. Of course we try to change reality off-line: at Lambdaistanbul we try to provide confidence, we try to come out, but sometimes coming out remains dangerous. The case of Ahmet Yıldız proves it: he was murdered by his father after his coming out.
Q: As you know there were protests on 15 May. What is Lambda’s position on internet censorship and BTK’s plan?
A: Actually we joined this demonstration. We joined it with our flags and banners, which was very good. Of course we try to contribute and we look at this positively because we’re against all kind of censorship.
Q: Isn’t it disappointing to see that so many people came out to protest on Sunday and didn’t do anything when LGBT people in Turkey were struggling and Lambda facing shutdown?
A: Yes, it does bother me but this is a reality on the ground. In general, our existence as LGBTs is ignored by the state. There is no law about this issue, whether it be good or bad. There is no penalizing law either. We are not recognized in any way. There is simply no legal recognition whatsoever. The consequence of this situation – constantly being ignored by the state – is that a large majority of the Turkish society, about 60 or 70 percent of it, sees homosexuality as a sickness or as abnormal. This is no surprise under these conditions. Of course it is very disturbing but this mentality against LGBTs in Turkey has become ordinary. One transsexual is killed almost every day.
Q: Is there anything you want to add about this issue?
A: I think the exposure in international media is really important, especially if you can also mention the TV censorship. Because right now, the state of gays on TV is dire, especially since last year, we have disappeared from the screen. Homosexuality cannot even be talked about on TV. This is a reality that people live through in a country that hopes to join the European Union.