ÜniKuir: the LGBTQI+ organizing at universities is getting stronger despite hate politics

This interview was first published on our Turkish website on April 20, 2023 and translated into Turkish by Ezgi Epifani. This version was edited by İlker Hepkaner.

It’s time to give coverage to university organizations in our dossier “The Election of LGBTQI+ People,” in which we cover the Presidential and 28th Term Parliamentary Elections to be held on May 14 in Turkey. Hazan Özturan talked with Mahmut Şeren from ÜniKuir, an association that aims to establish free and safe spaces at universities for LGBTQI+s.

Let’s start with talking about ÜniKuir and what you do. ÜniKuir introduces itself on its Instagram profile as, “combats discrimination, violence, and hatred against LGBTQI+ people at universities and aims to establish free and safe spaces for all university students.” So how did ÜniKuir organize? How did LGBTQI+s from different regions come together? Can you talk about your activities?

ÜniKuir was founded on February 14, 2020, by activists mostly organized by the METU LGBTI+ Solidarity which had fought for LGBTIQ+ rights at universities for many years and tried to multiply solidarity areas between other universities. Many previous experiences at the university level were based on the idea of ​​establishing an umbrella organization, but perhaps due to the nature of the movement, these efforts did not produce results. ÜniKuir did not emerge as a mechanism that establishes, designs, and manages organizations which struggle for LGBTQI+ rights at universities. it emerged an organization that considers every rights-based struggle at universities unique, strives to strengthen these organizations, and enhances their solidarity with each other.

ÜniKuir aims to fight against discrimination and establish a safe space at universities with four main programs established within this framework. Let me briefly mention our work in these four programs. Within the Access to Equal Rights Program, we monitor and report the situation regarding healthcare, housing, education, and other inaccessible rights in many places for LGBTQI+ people. In addition, we provide free legal and academic support to LGBTQI+ people, which we think is very much needed in the field. Among three ongoing working areas in the Organization and Solidarity Program, the first one is the empowerment and solidarity work implemented within communities in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The second working area is the solidarity work with activists and organizations outside these three metropolitan cities. And the last one is the volunteering work, open to those who want to organize within ÜniKuir, no matter where they live. 

While trying to be the voice of young LGBTQI+ people at universities with its Media and Communication Program, ÜniKuir also strives to act with the motto “less visible should be more involved in the field.” Obviously, activities to make LGBTQI+ people at universities more visible are not carried out only through ÜniKuir. So, we try to make sure that LGBTQI+ student communities are featured in the media more and we provide them space in this regard. Finally, in the Political Participation and Advocacy Program, we want to make sure that the rights of LGBTQI+ youth and students at universities to participate in decision-making and policy-making mechanisms not just at universities but also at local and national levels are actualized. We also have the goal to introduce and popularize political participation tools. Furthermore, we are working towards making the LGBTQI+ movement’s agenda and demands visible to national and international decision-makers and policy makers, and discussing politics and political thoughts in safe and pluralistic spaces.

Recently, we are witnessing that LGBTQI+ people are constantly targeted and their demands are ignored. What does it mean to be a LGBTQI+ person on campus in this atmosphere? Why is it important that LGBTQI+ people are organized at universities?

In this spiral of violence where LGBTQI+ people are targeted, queer people on campuses stand out. We clearly see that the visibility of LGBTQI+ people who organize and advocate for rights on campus is being reduced by various methods such as blocking their activities or trying to punish them. Also, efforts are made to intimidate other LGBTQI+ people who will join organizing. These efforts include targeting people, banning events, blocking community activities, cutting scholarships and student loans, expelling from dorms, disciplinary investigations, detention, and arrest. Since so much energy is spent on stopping LGBTQI+ people on campuses from organizing pride parades, organizing in general, objecting to anything or being visible, it is obvious that the organization of LGBTQI+ people at universities is not only critical for us. It is indisputable that the current government wants to avoid this. 

I believe that the universities have a tremendous impact on the individual and the society. I base this on the fact that they are institutions where people can find opportunities to get to know and improve themselves, meet people with different identities, and have wider solidarity practices in place. Universities also liberate the city by establishing a connection within the city. . The fact that LGBTQI+ people are organizing at universities obviously widens the base of the LGBTQI+ movement, increases its supporters, and gives a significant impetus to the movement. Moreover, it is understood from the reports of ÜniKuir that, apart from the attitudes of university administrations, it is easier for LGBTQI+ people to access safe spaces at universities if they have LGBTQI+ organizations on the campus.

LGBTQI+ people also played a very important role in the Boğaziçi University protests. What do the events in the Boğaziçi University tell us about the election and afterwards?

The role of LGBTQI+ people in the Boğaziçi protests was very important, as in all social movements that have taken place since the Gezi Park protests. The Boğaziçi protests were also an important turning point for LGBTQI+ people. The attitude towards LGBTQI+ people had already been hardened, and the dose and scope of hate speech had increased. The Boğaziçi protests started a process that placed hatred against LGBTQI+ people at the center of politics. In this process, the LGBTQI+ organizations, especially the Boğaziçi University LGBTI+ Studies Club, continued the struggle. However, I do not think that the social opposition and university components passed the test because we have also witnessed attitudes and behaviors which said, “Let’s see what happens,” remained unresponsive to the increase of hatred towards LGBTQI+ people, and minimized what had already happened.  All these show that political parties and politicians now have to settle in certain parts of the barometer in the context of the LGBTQI+ rights. Because, as some claim, the political moves against LGBTQI+ people were not just ordinary and artificial agenda-shifting moves. On the contrary, it was an indication of the will to strengthen the precautions to deal with the LGBTQI+ movement, which is growing in influence and power. We see that this situation continues in the election process. The existence of LGBTQI+ people is now the subject of alliance negotiations. We have no doubt that this will continue after the election.

As the election date approaches, we have seen once again that ÜniKuir does not only focus on the existence of the LGBTQI+ communities on campus, but also conducts a significant election campaign. Can you talk a little bit about your election preparations and what you have done so far?

Our election campaign has three goals and the first one is to invite young LGBTQI+ people on campus to the ballot box to support candidates who stand up for human rights and freedom. Second one is to ensure that the demands of young LGBTQI+ people on campus are included in the pledges of political parties announced during the election process. The last one is to document and report the difficulties, obstructions, and rights violations faced by LGBTQI+ people during the election process and to advocate against them. 

We divided the campaign into four topics, and they are as follows: media content, events, advocacy for election programs, and election monitoring. We share the media content, prepared in line with the goals I mentioned, on our social media accounts and on our website. At the same time, as a result of three forums attended by young LGBTQI+ people from 21 different universities and 15 different cities, we wrote a statement compiling their demands for during and after the election process. We launched this statement and campaign in Ankara on March 30, and in Istanbul on April 13.We will then visit various institutions to disseminate this statement. We will continue to work to ensure that politicians, who will assume duties and responsibilities after the election, fulfill the requirements of the declaration. 

In election monitoring, we monitor presidential candidates and political parties in the context of the LGBTIQ+ rights. We review press conferences, speeches given in various programs, news channel appearances, and social media accounts, and we report content in favor of and against LGBTQI+ people. Additionally, we will report the violation of rights that LGBTQI+ people may be exposed to during the election process and on the voting day.

According to your observations, how do the LGBTQI+ students at universities feel about the existing political atmosphere and what do they expect from this election period and the resistance strategies they have created?

As ÜniKuir, we met many times in the last year with LGBTQI+ students because of the political atmosphere and agenda, and we shared our thoughts and feelings with each other. Certainly, it is not possible for me to say what all LGBTQI+ people at universities think and feel at the moment. Ultimately, we are all individuals with different experiences, ideologies, or identities. However, I can share a few things. LGBTQI+ people at universities definitely got their share from the dooming atmosphere surrounding the country in general for almost everyone, and especially for LGBTQI+ people. They struggle against serious violation of rights, discrimination, oppression, and violence. The source of these can be politicians, civil authorities, university administrations, academics, and other students. Therefore, what we are talking about is an organized struggle against systematic evilness which is carried out at several fronts. Nevertheless, none of these could destroy the LGBTQI+ movement at universities. On the contrary, we hear about new LGBTIQ+ organizations every year. We are witnessing that these organizations can be beneficial to LGBTQI+ students, and these organizations can make gains for them. There are different scenarios regarding the outcome of the election, but it is certain that every scenario will lead us to a new field of resistance.  Whether the opposition or the alliance that formed the LGBTI+ hate coalition wins, even if they promise different futures, the spring will not come at once for LGBTQI+ people. We will continue to fight for the LGBTQI+ spring , which will definitely come.

ÜniKuir has been publishing LGBTI+ Focused Parliamentary Monitoring Bulletins for a while. You also share your evaluations through a column called The Topic: The Parliament. As someone who has followed all parliamentary agenda items in detail in recent months, what can you say about the representation of LGBTQI+ people in the parliament?

We have important findings from our parliamentary monitoring work. We will address all of these in the comprehensive report on the LGBTQI+ agenda of the parliament, which we will publish soon. However, I can mention a few things that caught my eye. First of all, there is not an LGBTQI+s agenda in the parliament in the way LGBTQI+ people “deserve.” We are talking about a movement that continues its struggle by only getting stronger despite all kinds of hate and oppression policies of the AKP and the MHP. In today’s Turkey, there are very few political movements that we can put in the same place in this sense. In this case, LGBTQI+ people were supposed to take an active part in all kinds of legislative and governance activities. However, when we look at it, we could only find a place for a few minutes in the general assembly and commission meetings held for days to take issue among thousands of bills, written inquiries, and parliamentary research motions. Moreover, a significant number of them target, demonize, and spew hate against LGBTQI+ people. Furthermore, I can say that the members of parliament, who bring up the rights and problems of LGBTQI+people, are more or less the same people. I think it is about time that the members of parliament and political parties should mainstream their work on the LGBTQI+ rights, cooperate with LGBTQI+ organizations in this regard, and have LGBTQI+ people represent themselves in the parliament with open-identity deputies.

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  • Hazan Özturan

    Bisexual, feminist and autistic activist. Co-founder of Merhaba! Spektrum and Özgür Eller Autism Initiative. Also editor, writer and film critic. Galatasaray University and Paris Cité University Alumni.

  • Ezgi Epifani

    Queer feminist psychologist. She reads and translates on intersectional feminism, LGBTIAQ+, body shaming, ableism, and sexism.