ISTANBUL — Esmeray Zeynep Ozadikti says she may land in jail for running as an openly trans woman in Turkey’s election. Still, she believes it’s worth it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have targeted the LGBTQ community as they appeal to their Islamist, conservative base ahead of Sunday’s elections for president and parliament. The upcoming vote is expected to be Erdogan’s biggest electoral challenge in over 20 years in power.
One of Ozadikti’s competitors in Istanbul’s Second District is Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who has also made anti-LGBT remarks while campaigning.
“Should they win, their first act would probably be arresting me,” Ozadikti, 50, said this week.
“Hate takes time, hate takes mental resources, hate takes emotio nal resources.”
TIP candidate Talya Aydin
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey and there are pockets of tolerance in places like Istanbul, where same-sex couples walk down the street in liberal areas holding hands.
But Turkey is a conservative country and anti-LGBTQ discrimination is common. ILGA-Europe, the European chapter of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, ranked Turkey 48 out of 49 countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights and acceptance last year (behind only Azerbaijan).
Under Erdogan, outright discrimination has gotten worse in recent years.
Pride parades, which were peaceful for years and attracted tens of thousands, began being banned in 2015. Police used water cannons and rubber pellets on marchers who defiantly marched regardless.
The parades have continued with protesters playing a cat-and-mouse game with riot police who try to stop the marchers by blocking off access to streets.
And members of the community have also faced outright threats to their lives. According to the LGBTQ advocacy group Kaos, there were eight killings in 2021 motivated by hate, although it said the number is likely much higher as most would not have been reported.
“I have known and lost so many of my friends, so many of my trans woman friends, to murders, and now after their generation, now I see the Z generation and I see now that I’m also losing my daughters and my sons and my children to murders, as well,” Ozadikti said. “This election isn’t just about getting rid of the old system but building a more equitable one for the future.”
The road into politics for Ozadikti, a former mussels-stand seller, has been long and twisted.
She moved from a small town near the Armenian border in northeastern Turkey to Istanbul when she was a teenager. Later, her feminist activism and work in theater as an actor, tackling topics on sexual identity and rape, have made her a minor celebrity.
In her quest to improve conditions for her community, Ozadikti says she approached the main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), but did not find them inclusive enough.
Eventually, she met with members of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), which suggested she run as a candidate.
While it polls in the low single digits, the small, leftist party has attracted young voters, and its participation in an alliance could give it increased influence in parliament if Erdogan’s coalition loses control.
TIP says it has six openly LGBTQ candidates running in the parliamentary elections across the country, with Ozadikti the most likely to win. If she does, she would be Turkey’s first openly LGBTQ member of parliament.
With one week to go before the election, Ozadikti sat in a cafe alongside her fellow party members in the Istanbul district she is competing in.
With multiple MPs coming out of Istanbul’s Second District, both she and the interior minister could end up representing the same area at the same time.
While politics can be a tough business the world over, the attacks lodged at her by Soylu have been especially dangerous.
While connecting the opposition to the LGBTQ community, Soylu, who is also a deputy chairman of Erdogan’s party, has said that if the opposition wins, people would be allowed to marry animals.
“Him saying such words, of course we are human, it gets to our emotions,” she said.
Ozadikti said Soylu’s remarks could be a particularly potent threat to the LGBTQ community because, as the interior minister, he has the resources of the police.
Erdogan himself has repeatedly stated that the opposition has ties with the LGBTQ community, and during a rally on Sunday claimed the opposition is “pro-LGBT.”
When asked about the comment, Ozadikti and her colleagues started laughing.
“It’s a very desperate statement,” she said.
Alev Ozkazanc, professor emeritus of politics and gender studies at Ankara University, said the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the election is unprecedented.
So the impact of Ozkazanc and other trans candidates goes beyond their possible victories, she said because even if one of them does not get elected, their candidacies alone send a message to the public.
“The symbolic value is that trans people are there, LGBT people are there, amongst us. They are equal citizens who have the right to be elected as any other citizen,” Ozkazanc said.
Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the CHP, leads an alliance of six parties that includes ultranationalists and conservative Islamists.
TIP has partnered with the influential pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, and their support may be needed by the coalition that wins the most seats in parliament to pass any laws.
A fellow TIP candidate, Talya Aydin, 26, said her party would seek justice for crimes that she said had not been properly investigated if the opposition alliance becomes the largest group in parliament.
She cites the death of Hande Kader, a trans woman activist whose killing led to hundreds of people protesting in Istanbul, as well as charges against demonstrators who marched in banned Pride parades.
Like Ozadikti, Aydin said her transgender identity puts her at an increased risk of ending up behind bars if Erdogan is re-elected.
“It only makes me work harder so he doesn’t win,” she said.
Prison is not the only threat she feels she faces. Aydin transitioned last year and said she now takes pictures of taxi cabs’ license plates before entering, and no longer walks home at night with her headphones on.
But, she added, she is seeing more acceptance for her community in Turkish society despite the political rhetoric.
The struggling economy, a key reason Erdoğan’s popularity has waned, has meant many people are not being influenced by the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric — they are just too concerned with making ends meet.
“Hate takes time, hate takes mental resources, hate takes emotional resources,” she said.