I have met many LGBT people in the Muslim World, and I often ask, “What country would you go if you ever left yours?” It’s not a surprise that many would say Turkey. After all, it’s one of the richest. But, Turkey is also seen as a modern country, largely due to its secular system and European-like way of life.
In other words, Turkey is a land where the East meets the West, physically and culturally. It’s an Islamic nation with Western values.
As you will see below, its reputation in the queer community is not a fantasy. It has a long way to go, but it has gone further than any other country in the Muslim World:
In 1858, by decriminalizing homosexuality
The Ottoman Empire was a powerful multinational, multilingual empire that once controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Despite the diverse background of these people, this empire was able to use its Islamic imperialism to bring a world order of its own. In the 1800s, during the Tanzimat, a modernization period that lasted for around fifty years and put the seeds in place for the modern nation of Turkey, the Ottoman Caliph decriminalized homosexuality. At the time, most of the Western nations had laws against homosexuality.
In 1951, by welcoming asylum seekers
Turkey has signed the Geneva Convention in 1951, which allowed LGBT people to seek asylum in the country. Gay Arabs and Iranians have sought (and many got approved) asylum based on their sexual orientation in Turkey. Back in 2006, I interviewed Arsham Parsi, a gay Iranian who had been granted asylum in Canada through Turkey. He was in Turkey for 13 months. There are literally thousands of asylum seekers in Turkey. In his exhibition “Kütmaan,” which means “hiding” in Arabic, photographer Bradley Secker documents the lives of LGBT Iraqis waiting to go to a third country.
In 1988, by allowing gender change
Bülent Ersoy, a very popular transwoman and singer, tried to change her gender legally (although she wanted to keep her male name) in 1981 and was unsuccessful. She went to London and had sex reassignment surgery, and in 1988 petitioned the court again. Since 1988 transgender individuals can legally change their gender. In 2002 the law was modified and now requires the individual to be 18, unmarried, sterile, and have mental health grounds. In 2015, after a transgendered person petitioned the year before, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) declared the requirement of permanent infertility in order to undergo gender reassignment surgery as incompatible with human rights.
In 2003, by allowing Istanbul gay pride
Back in 1993 a group of activists wanted to have a gay pride parade, but the local government in Istanbul banned it. This led to the creation of Lambda Istanbul, which continued a pride week anyway. Later, in 2002, Lambada Istanbul created their permanent offices and organized the pride in 2003. Since 2003 the pride march has grown from 40 people to a hundred thousand in 2013. In 2014, the Gay Pride Week celebrated its 22nd anniversary.
In 2005, by giving Kaos GL its NGO status
In 1994 the Kaos GL organization in Ankara began publishing its journal. Over the years they turned into a full organization, with a cultural events. By 2005, they were ready to go to the next level. They applied to become a Non-Governmental Organization as Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Organization. Ankara’s deputy governor tried to get the court to have them be charged with breaking the law in morality laws, but the prosecutor decided not to stand in their way. In late 2005 they were granted the right to operate as a full NGO.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.