Drawing on the words and stories of queer Turkish activists, this book aims to unravel the complexities of queer lives in Turkey. In doing so, it challenges dominant conceptualizations of the queer Turkish experience within critical security discourses.
The book argues that while queer Turks are subjected to ceaseless forms of insecurity in their governance, opportunities for emancipatory resistance have emerged alongside these abuses. It identifies the ways in which the state, the family, Turkish Islam and other socially-mediated processes and agencies can expose or protect queers from violence in the Turkish community.
In this chapter, I argue that queer participation in the 2013 Gezi Park protests constitutes a ‘line of flight’ – a rupture in the assemblage of control that is queer identity, which I refer to as the queer common (Deleuze and Guattari, 2008, pp. 8–10). A queer common, I argue, is an injunction against the state’s governance of queer bodies, one which takes the form of diffuse, horizontal protest. Processes like the state, religion, family, and religion can often work to marginalize queer and trans lives. In opposition, activist events like Gezi Park both expose these negative relationships and create opportunities for change. I draw upon interviews and media around the queer activism surrounding the Gezi Park protests to demonstrate resistance to oppressive Turkish institutions. I show how the state and concomitant institutions (including the family, Islam, and the media) have narrowed the scope of what constitutes ‘good citizenship’. This entails constrictions of freedoms of speech, assembly, and association for some. Yet the queer common represents an interruption of the governance of bodies as per usual, enabling queers to assert their own demands to govern. Within the queer common, queer affects, language, and relationships create an ontological disturbance that alters party politics, identity categories, and the public perception of queer and trans individuals.
I begin by establishing the context for the Gezi Park protests. I define Turkish governance of queer bodies as reflecting a particular national identity, which compelled many to organize against it. I reflect upon some of the particularities of how the government works with other institutions to normalize the exclusion of queer bodies.
In this chapter, I explore the genealogy of Turkish governmentality. I explore a genealogy that continuously produces a heteronormative, nationalist identity that disciplines unfitting subjects. I explore the formation of this governmentality in the context of the birth and development of the Turkish nation-state. Turkish governmentality, I will show, can be scrutinized along the lines of Dean’s analytics of government (understanding how governance depends upon visibilities, technologies, populations, and knowledge-productions (Dean, 2010, p. 33)). I argue that this governmentality in its current manifestation is heteropatriarchal, enforcing compulsory heterosexuality in contrast to a distinctive concept of an ‘other’, queer identity.1 There is not an essential body that precedes relations with the state and other socialities (Butler, 2011b, p. 382). Rather, bodies are unknowable outside of these processes. Such a hierarchal organization of the heterosexual/queer binary may correlate to other academic work in Queer International Relations, which seeks to understand how states, local, and transnational entities work together to materialize heterosexuality as normal in empirically visible acts and discourses (Berlant and Warner, 1998, p. 553; Wilcox, 2015, p. 26).
By looking backwards in time at specific key moments of the creation of Turkish governmentality, we can see that this is not an inevitable state of affairs. In witnessing the genealogical evolution of the heteropatriarchal-national governmentality of the Turkish state, and by highlighting specific points of change, resistance, and fluctuation, I show that these encounters between social entities, institutions, and Turkish citizens normalize a certain kind of heteronormativity, but that this governmentality is contingent and historical demonstrates that what is taken for granted is not the only possibility for sexual belonging.
Hevi, the name of Asya Elmas’ organization, means ‘hope’ in Kurmanji Kurdish. Before I spoke to her, I had heard the new Kurdish-LGBTQ activist group referred to once in a focus group, where some gay Turkish men were discussing the phenomenon of LGBTQ supporters of Erdoğan’s conservative AKP government. The idea of a Kurdish queer consciousness grates at the majority’s desire for an all-encompassing Turkish national identity – and some gays in the community itself share that desire. I wondered and still wonder about this phenomenon, wherein some minorities cheer fiercest for the majority that denies them (we certainly have this in the US with our Twinks for Trump). I sent a message to Hevi’s Facebook page on 14 April 2014, telling whoever was on the other side that I was researching LGBTQ rights in Istanbul and asking if I could meet them for an interview. It was Asya who accepted, asking me to meet that Saturday.
I did not expect to end up in an Armenian cultural centre. At the time, I knew little about Armenians in Turkey, beyond the fact that the government is consistently reluctant to account for the Armenian Genocide. It became clear to me, however, that Armenians, like the Kurds, like the gays, like the Roma, like the Alevis, like the Circassians, like trans, like the Jews, like the environmentalists, and so many social, political, ethnic, and religious others find comfort in the collective discomfort they feel, together, among the other others.
One of the most frustrating things about researching the governance of queer lives is that queerness itself means something different to everyone. It is hard to demonstrate that ‘LGBTQ’ is a coherent category, especially when you start talking to people and realize that their priorities are entirely contradictory to those with whom you last spoke. To say something resolute about how governance occurs for queers and what is to be done is, I think, difficult. This is why queer assemblage thinking has been so useful. It allowed me an ‘in’ to understanding the governance of queer lives in terms of the institutions that participants identified as being oppressive or enabling. Suddenly, the assembled nature of queer identity in Turkey became very apparent to me: queerness is produced all the time between the interactions of queers and the state, the government, the police, the media, the family, medicine, the internet, and so on. Queer assemblage thinking demonstrates that all of these institutional interactions impact people’s lives, maybe not in indicating quantifiably to what degree for each person but that they shape understandings of queer identity, nonetheless.
I believe such an approach confirms what Weber (after Enloe) refers to as ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ as a focus on how sexuality and gender is defined, attached to bodies, and performed in global politics, as opposed to sexuality constituting a kind of ‘special interest’ (Weber, 2015, p. 11). As queer assemblage thinking shows, placing sexuality at the front and centre of political research underlines the breadth of institutional marginalization upon other bodies. It also demonstrates how strategies of resistance grow in the cracks of a marginalizing governmentality.
In the planning phase of my fieldwork, in the Vice News articles I read about Turkish LGBTQ activism, I felt empathy and hope that I could participate and that my work would help bring visibility to struggles we take for granted in other parts of the world. The reality is simply more complicated. This endless trend in both media and academia of dropping into the strained political climate of far-flung minorities feels, upon reflect, rather orientalist. Can we really do things to help mitigate queer suffering in other places? I still don’t know the answer to this: it’s either that that very impulse is reductive imperialism or, in the halls of the disciplinary conference, it’s of utmost importance to get your story of them out there, preferably in an esteemed-enough press. Queer people are never one single thing; the best generalization I comfortably make about queers is how readily we are essentialized, even by ourselves.
Despite my rosy intentions, my own prejudicing of Turkish queers could not be planned away before I arrived. I do think it was important to experience being somewhat a part of this community for some time. Some of the queers I met in Turkey (and yes, many of them used the English word ‘queer’) said problematic things about other queers, about people of different classes, about women, about trans people, about different ethnic groups. However, I hope we can allow them to be problematic – allow them to be people with dynamic lives, with successes and failures and room to grow – instead of wholesale victims of an oppressive regime and culture.
In this chapter, I argue that the queer is an assemblage produced by a variety of institutions, objects, and processes. In the previous chapter, I demonstrated how the heteropatriarchal-nationalist government of the Turkish Republic has changed over time in the way that it institutes hierarchal relationships of heteronormative, nationalistic, racialized belonging over bodies. In the contemporary period, explicitly LGBTQ actors, new forms of globalization, and a changing media landscape all challenge the state’s control over queers. While I argue that queer identity is itself a special assemblage of control in part created by the state, now queers find themselves subject to other kinds of scrutiny and control by non-state actors and discourses. As Dean argues, assemblages can be thought of as a ‘regime of practices’, emphasizing their heterogeneous composition, particular historical trajectories, and polymorphous relations (Dean, 2010, p. 40). Queerness is therefore an assemblage, constituted by ideas and material circumstances located between the state, the military, non-profit organizations, progressive and conservative media, and so forth, and is utilized to shape different kinds of individuals’ actions. Yet queers also live resisting and transforming understandings of queer identity as they define their relationship to these institutions. By thinking of the queer as an assemblage, I hope to demonstrate the confluence of power relationships bound up in managing sexuality in Turkey; sexuality was and is highly regulated by the state, but continues to be so in concordance and conflict with a range of other actors – including queers themselves.
It was only online that I witnessed the Turkish government’s violent crackdown of the 2013 Gezi Park protests unfolding. At the time I was studying in New Zealand, where I was living through the prologue of my PhD. I saw the protesters confronting the government, confronting me via YouTube: the garish sea of rainbow pride flags, a Prime Minister’s grandstanding, foreheads bloodied by police violence, the linked arms of young queers in the streets, rocks thrown at cops, and impromptu dancing on the street. I understood that the activists were beckoning me. I felt I wielded the potential to do more than simply witness this moment (like so many passing social media causes) – to participate in it: to come, girl, because this is about being targeted by the government, the disinterest-bordering-disgust by your homophobic general practitioner, bored police whistling at you for a laugh, our neighbours and your families and the religious leaders that fantasize about our deviance and sin and sodomy and how if only they could throw us out of their world. I won a grant, bought an audio recorder, and came to Istanbul, darling.
I felt like this mattered personally and academically, but the interpellation –come, darling! – does not translate so simply into the heterodisciplinary realities of International Relations, the discipline I would write this work in. Depending on who you speak to in the field, queer work is either well established as a proper segment of International Relations or an embarrassing oversight, a footnote to an obscure conference paper on cosmopolitanism, a lift door closing on a career.