INSTANBUL - As the Turkish government has stepped up its pledges to protect family values, members of the LGBTQ community in the country say they increasingly feel targeted.
During his United Nations General Assembly speech in New York, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that "the institution of the family" was under attack.
"Defending family and [the] institution [of family] means defending ... the future of all humanity," Erdogan said on Tuesday. "I call on all our friends to display sensitivity in protecting [the] family institution."
Having long espoused a conservative Muslim view of society, Erdogan insists that marriage can be sanctioned only between a man and a woman, and has encouraged women to have multiple children to build the nation.
On Thursday, he said he was uncomfortable with the color scheme selected to promote the U.N.'s 2023 Sustainable Development Goals on a banner near the steps of the U.N. building, criticizing them as "LGBT colors."
'How many LGBT are there in the world right now? However much right they have on these steps, those against LGBT have as much right as well,' Erdogan told reporters.
Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has toughened rhetoric against the LGBTQ community in recent years, as Erdogan has repeatedly called them "perverts" or "deviants." He also accused the opposition of being pro-LGBTQ during his election campaign in May 2023.
Increase in violations
"The atmosphere in Turkey has already turned into a witch hunt against LGBT+ people," said Yildiz Tar, editor-in-chief of KaosGL.org, an LGBTQ rights organization and news portal.
"We see that there is an increase in the number of rights violations on the streets every year, and that torture and ill-treatment are increasing among these violations," Tar told VOA. Kaos GL issues an annual LGBTI+ Human Rights Report, which monitors policies and activities targeting Turkey's LGBTQ community.
According to Kaos GL's 2022 report, there were 612 cases of torture, ill-treatment and personal integrity-related violations last year.
Authorities have banned the LGBTQ Pride march in Istanbul since 2015, citing security concerns. At least 113 people were detained in Istanbul during this year's Istanbul Pride march.
Tar said the political atmosphere "makes the LGBTQ lives much more difficult and increases violence against them while it creates tremendous disinformation about the LGBTQ existence and identities."
One example of disinformation rife in Turkey: anti-LGBTQ claims that various large Western streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix - which Turkey's media regulator, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, or RTUK, frequently fines for 'normalizing obscenity" and "undermining family values" - are promoting homosexuality via subliminal messaging.
"It's as if [they think a person] can become LGBT+ by imitating and watching a TV series," Tar said.
Last Sunday, over 200 NGOs from conservative and nationalist backgrounds organized "The Big Family Gathering" march in Istanbul to demand the closure of LGBTQ associations in Turkey and end what they call "LGBTQ propaganda and imposition."
The march was first organized last year, and the RTUK caused a controversy by allowing a public service announcement on the march. The RTUK also allowed a similar public service announcement on this year's march.
"The known lobby, which tries to cover up serious diseases like drug addiction, early ages of death, high suicide rates, and mental collapse caused by the LGBT lifestyle, will not be successful no matter what it does," the organizers said in their press statement during the march.
A video message from Alexander Dugin, a Russian ultranationalist political theorist who is often referred to as "Putin's brain," was screened at the march.
"My dear Turkish friends, I am very happy that you organized this meeting against the normalization of LGBT," Dugin said in his message. "I am very glad that people from different political parties and movements are participating here, because this is not just an issue of religious people trying to preserve traditional Islamic religious values."
Tar said last week's anti-LGBTQ march and Russia's anti-LGBTQ policies are strikingly similar.
"The slogan like 'End to the LGBT propaganda' is the exact same statement from the gay propaganda ban in Russia," Tar said.
Some have accused march organizers of inciting people to hatred and to commit hate crimes. However, Kursat Mican, the chairman of the Unity in Ideas and Struggle Platform, a leading organization behind the march, denied those accusations.
"Those people say freedom and liberty, and they make all kinds of propaganda to transform my family, to change my generation. However, when I try to defend my values to defend my family, when I try to defend my generation and children, they will say it is wrong," Mican told VOA.
"Without family, there is no nation, state or future. This needs to be seen. We are here for all families and humanity," Mican said.
Elective course on family
Days before the march, Turkish Minister of National Education Yusuf Tekin suggested in a TV interview that universal human rights declarations should be discussed and possibly amended because these texts protect LGBTQ rights.
Tekin also announced that Turkey has introduced an elective course on "The Family in Turkish Society" as an anti-LGBTQ effort this school year.
"We want to raise a generation that can reflect the values and independence of this country to future generations. In this sense, we must fight in our own way," Tekin said.
While many anti-LGBTQ groups describe sexual orientation in the context of lifestyle choices and "values," Western medical and psychiatric associations regard sexual orientation as innate and part of normal human diversity. LGBTQ rights defenders say the proportion of sexual minorities remains constant from country to country - including those with punitive laws.
Erdogan's ruling AKP prepared a constitutional amendment proposal expected to be submitted to the parliament in October, as the new legislative year in Turkey begins.
AKP proposes changing the constitution's Article 41 to legally codify the definition of family as a unit composed of a marriage between a man and a woman. The amendment aims to remove any possibility of legal same-sex marriage in the future.
Tar thinks that the "Big Family Gathering" marches are designed to set the stage for that constitutional debate.
"Rather than being organic reactions, I think these marches are several events organized to ensure the legitimacy of the legal steps the government will take from now on," Tar said.