This interview was first published on our Turkish website on May 5, 2023 and translated into Turkish by Efe Levent.
Everyone in the feminist and LGBTQI+ circles knows Esmeray one way or another. She has graced us with her presence on the theater stage with her plays Cadının Bohçası (The Witches Bindle) and then Kestirmeden Hikayeler, (Shortcut Tales) both of which she has adapted from her personal life. She is a feminist, an LGBTQI+ rights activist and an actress. On the April 9, Esmeray became the TİP’s (Turkish Labour Party) third candidate in the second district of Istanbul. We talked about the political struggle of LGBTQI+ people as well as the agenda and the promises of various political parties for the LGBTQI+ community. Esmeray’s dog Şeker who doubles as her mascot, her consultant Gizem and the TİP MP candidate from the second district Talya Aydın was also with us.
One of the first incidents that opened the way for seven of our LGBTQI+ friends (Çelik Özdemir, Sedef Çakmak, Boysan Yakar, Asya Elmas, Ebru Kırancı, Niler Albayrak and Şevval Kılıç) to run as candidates for the party assembly at the CHP (Republican People’s Party) and the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and allowed us to have this conversation about visibility was the candidacy of Demet Demir from the ÖDP (Freedom and Democracy Party) in 1997. Unfortunately, after the 2014 local elections, only one person (Sedef Çakmak) became a local councilor. On a warm spring day when I met Esemeray in Taksim, she started her words by saying that the most crucial aspect of her candidacy was the “political visibility of the LGBTQI+ community.” Having been in various feminist (Amargi), LGBTQI+ (Lambdaistanbul) and opposition organizations (the ÖDP, the HDP), she first told us about the aspects of the TİP she finds attractive.
“Compared to my previous political experiences, my first meetings with the party gave me a sense of ‘Let’s do this together.’ They never made me feel this way before. I was always in the position of a supporter in other organizations. When asked a question they gave answers like ‘they give us flavor.’ TİP didn’t approach me like that. They opened a channel.”
Esmeray stated that LGBTQI+ people and specifically trans people have only recently started to join TİP. She added:
“The party works on the basis of LGBTQI+ visibility and its goal is to participate in the elections with maximum LGBTQI+ visibility. Besides I am placed as a candidate from a district where I have a chance of winning. This is really important.”
The election declaration of the TİP includes various plans to secure “LGBTQI+ people’s right to live, right to freedom and security, immunity of residence, freedom of thought and expression, right to organize and gather peacefully.”
I asked what the TİP plans to do about one of the principal issues that dominate the LGBTQI+ agenda, which is the application of the hate crime legislation:
“We need to return to the parliamentarian system to pass the hate crime legislation. To do this AKP must not be elected, or stay in opposition. In fact, it already exists in the Constitution (Constitution Article 10 and Turkish Criminal Law Article 122) but the laws are not being applied to include LGBTQI+ people. To do this, the existence of LGBTQI+ people has to be accepted and explicitly added to Article 10 of the Constitution. Being LGBTQI+ is not an insult, it’s a way of life. The term LGBTQI+ has to appear in the 10th Article of the Constitution. We need to enter the parliament and act together with people who have a conscience on this matter. We have to not just cooperate with the CHP but with all the parties. We need to show that this affects everyone.”
But instead of being treated systematically, the physical/sexual violence, threats and hate crimes committed against the LGBTQI+ community are viewed as individual instances.
When Esmeray first came across the feminist movement she was convinced that the violence trans women are struggling against is part of the patriarchy and inseparable from violence against women. This is why she has stated that feminism is at the center of solving the problem of violence against LGBTQI+ people and women. Another core issue for Esmeray is the problem of invisible labor: “I take issue with the labor-centered economy. I take issue with the exploitation of labor. We have to make predominantly feminized domestic labor visible. We have to work so these women can retire and become eligible to receive pensions.”
I am wondering what kinds of plans there are for the re-ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which has been in the agenda of feminists and LGBTQ+ people for the last two years. Esmeray’s voice becomes louder “How could that Convention be debated? It’s absolutely crucial to have that convention.” She says that the Millet Coalition, which the CHP is part of, should protect the convention. The CHP and the coalition have been criticized for not openly discussing the convention. While it is not openly stated in the coalition’s collective mission statement, we hope that the Istanbul Convention is included in the article which states “International agreements will be re-ratified and applied.”
Esmeray continues: “We will partner with the opposition groups within the CHP, which are close to feminists and LGBTQI+ people, to get this signed. There is nothing to debate here. The convention is ours, we will take it back.”
The two most crucial problems of the LGBTQI+ community and particularly trans people are housing and employment. According to the 2022 “The State of LGBTQI+ Employees in the Private and Public Sectors” report by Kaos GL, not being able to be open about their identity needs to be seen as a form of violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. “63% of public sector employees are facing hate speech at workplace.” 4 out of 5 participants in the research faced discrimination or were forced to hide their identity. Only 6,5% of LGBTQI+ employees in the public sector can be open in their workplace. Esmeray talks about employment as follows:
“We will continue the struggle by taking people’s declarations about how they wish to live as the foundation. The demands of LGBTQI+ people for employment and legal assurance have to be heard. The demands of sex workers also need to be heard. We will create policies to this end. We will demand urgent plans of action for joining the labor force.”
Even though being a sex worker is not banned under the law in Turkey, the preconditions for sex work are considered crimes, as evidenced in the charges of disturbance, disobedience, refusing authentification and making noise which result in fines under the misdemeanour law or the sealing of houses on the grounds that prostitution is being practised. In addition to this, trans women who do sex work can not continue their work for long due to the stress caused by tremendous pressure, and they continue their work shorter than their non-trans peers, thus they remain ineligible for pensions. If somehow they could not manage to acquire enough resources to buy their own property, they face a housing problem. This is how Esemeray summarises what needs to be done about this:
“There has to be boarding houses and shelter houses for trans women, who can’t or don’t want to perform sex work any more, where they can be comfortable. Special measures need to be taken for this. It is also very important to provide part-time employment for these people in other lines of work. For example, they can work from morning to 3pm. The obstacles to these have to be removed. There are examples of this in Europe.”
SPoD has collected signatures for the “LGBTQI+ Rights Protocol” from opposition parliamentary candidates, particularly from the Green Left Party, the TİP and the İDP. This shows us that the parties who are trying to organize the opposition are making a point of contacting LGBTQI+ people and organizations. Esmeray states that this contact and solidarity need to go on in the long term. “I got support, from all the associations I have visited, particularly in Ankara. But of course, it shouldn’t just end there. We have to bring the voice of the streets to the parliament. Because that’s where the people who suffer these problems are. It is very difficult for them just to reach the organizations. I want to take these demands to the parliament.”
While attempts at criminalizing and isolating LGBTQI+ organizations and activists intensify during certain periods, the need for LGBTQI+ rights advocacy increases by the day. Osman Kavala’s arrests under the Gezi Trial and the accusation of funds like the Open Society with allegations of “financing efforts to divide the state”, have turned civil society into a target of pro-government media organizations. Particularly since July 2019, the agenda of civil society has been defined by this targeting of associations with these funds. The LGBTQI+ organizations have been the most affected by this process. Since July 2019 these organizations have been accused of “damaging the country’s family structure and spreading immorality with Western funding” by the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu and media organizations close to the government. Many LGBTQI+ organizations like Kaos GL, SPoD as well as bar associations and human rights organizations have made statements against this situation. The Turkish Council of Families (an organization which believes that LGBTQI+ present a danger to the Turkish family structure) have presented their written proposal to include LGBTQI+ organizations within the scope of terrorism. I asked Esmeray her opinions about this and what they can do to protect rights defenders:
“We are facing a government who is turning anyone who is not one of them into enemies. They put them all in the same category. Some become ‘FETÖ supporters,’ others become ‘an extension of the PKK.’ So what will they say about the LGBTQI+ people? They will say ‘They are an extension of Europe, they get their funds from there.’
This is how the party will take the initiative on this: because we will have contact with the organizations, we will produce policies to provide their security. We will follow their legal process. If necessary we will physically shield them. We will say, this place is ours.”
Esmeray also thinks that there is no reason why the needs of the LGBTQI+ organizations cannot be provided by local sources. “For instance, the Ministry of Culture or related ministries can create sources for LGBTQI+ people, they can remove the obstacles to this. If these organizations have opened and this state has approved them, then they should also have the responsibility to provide resources. We will do what we can to put these into practice.”
Then I move on to the question everyone wants to know: What will happen to the Istanbul LGBTQI+ Pride March? Esmeray laughs as she answers “If the election goes well, of course, we will march. But if there is an official application the official location will be given as Yenikapı. Moving there is not something we will want. Our place is İstiklal Avenue, Taksim! Or perhaps we can make a declaration there and then go to Taksim for a tour at night. Why not?”
We also talk about the planned amendment to Article 41 regarding “The Constitutional Assurance of the Veil and the Protection of the Family ” which was temporarily put on hold due to the election and has some possible repercussions to the LGBTQI+ movement. There was a plan to add the amendment “The union of marriage can only exist with the marriage of a woman and a man.” Many feminists and LGBTQI+ organizations have stated that this amendment can be used to criminalize LGBTQI+ relationships. This is what Esmeray has to say on the subject: “Heteronormativity and the nuclear family are among the most crucial instruments that create this system. They will naturally want to strengthen those. One of the most important things AKP holds on to is the family. If the parliament is recreated in a more democratic fashion, this legal amendment will have no hold at the parliament.”
Esmeray is in form as ever. Her energy and performance are top notch. She has a way with words. It is possible to imagine that a parliament where she is a member will have many voices and cultures. As we close the interview she talks about the LGBTQI+ struggle during the period of repression as a fight against an octopus with many tentacles.
“We always find a way to dig ourselves out of a hole and say I too am here.”
Truly there isn’t a better metaphor to express the struggle of criminalized LGBTQI+ communities for fundamental rights like employment and shelter! LGBTQI+ visibility has become an issue that opposition parties give more and more importance to since the late 90s. This probably has to do with the strengthening and expansion of the LGBTQI+ movement. But now we need more than visibility. We need equality in education and employment. We need to be free from being targeted by violence. In short, we need to be treated as equal citizens. We have yet to see if this will happen with this election or not.