ISTANBUL — Esmeray Zeynep Ozadikti says she could go to jail for coming out as an openly trans woman in Turkey’s elections. Still, she believes that she is worth it.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have targeted the LGBTQ community by appealing to their Islamist and conservative base ahead of Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The upcoming vote is expected to be Erdogan’s biggest electoral challenge in more than 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 during his campaign.

“If they win, their first act would probably be to arrest me,” Ozadikti, 50, said this week.

«Hate requires time, hate requires mental resources, hate requires emotional resources.»

TIP candidate Talya Aydin

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Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey and there are pockets of tolerance in places like Istanbul, where same-sex couples walk the streets in liberal areas holding hands.

But Türkiye is a conservative country and anti-LGBTQ discrimination is common. ILGA-Europethe European chapter of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, ranked Turkey 48th out of 49 countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights and acceptance last year (behind only Azerbaijan).

Under Erdogan, outright discrimination has worsened in recent years.

Gay pride parades, which had been peaceful for years and drew tens of thousands, began to be banned in 2015. Police used water cannons and rubber pellets on protesters who marched defiantly despite everything.

Parades have continued with protesters playing cat and mouse with riot police trying to stop protesters by blocking access to the streets.

Turkish police forcefully intervened at a Pride march in Istanbul, detaining dozens of protesters.
Riot police confront a Pride March participant on June 26.Kemal Aslan/AFP via Getty Images file

And community members have also faced direct threats to their lives. According to the LGBTQ advocacy group Kaosthere were eight hate-motivated killings in 2021, though he said the number is likely much higher as most would have gone unreported.

“I have known and lost a lot of my friends, a lot of my trans friends, to murder, and now after their generation, now I see generation Z and now I see that I am also losing my daughters and my sons. and my children also to murders,” Ozadikti said. “This election is not just about getting rid of the old system, but about building a more equitable one for the future.”

The road to politics for Ozadikti, a former mussel vendor, has been a long and bumpy one.

He moved from a small town near the Armenian border in northeastern Turkey to Istanbul as a teenager. Subsequently, her feminist activism and her work in theater as an actress, addressing issues of sexual identity and rape, have made her a minor celebrity.

In her quest to improve conditions in her community, Ozadikti says she reached out to the main opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), but did not find it inclusive enough.

Eventually, she met with members of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), who suggested that she run as a candidate.

While polls are in the low single digits, the small left-wing party has attracted young voters, and its involvement in an alliance could give it greater influence in parliament if Erdogan’s coalition loses control.

TIP says it has six openly LGBTQ candidates running in 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 a week to go before the election, Ozadikti sat in a cafe with his party colleagues in the Istanbul district where he is running.

With several parliamentarians hailing from 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 difficult business around the world, Soylu’s attacks on it have been especially dangerous.

While connecting the opposition with the LGBTQ community, Soylu, who is also vice president of Erdogan’s party, has said that if the opposition wins, people will be able to marry animals.

“If he says those words, of course we are human, it affects our emotions,” he said.

Ozadikti said Soylu’s comments could be a particularly potent threat to the LGBTQ community because, as interior minister, he has the resources of the police.

Erdogan himself has repeatedly stated that the opposition has ties to the LGBTQ community, and during a rally on Sunday He claimed that the opposition is “pro-LGBT”.

When asked about the comment, Ozadikti and his colleagues started laughing.

«It’s a very desperate statement,» he said.

Alev Ozkazanc, emeritus professor of politics and gender studies at Ankara University, said the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the elections is unprecedented.

So the impact of Ozkazanc and other trans candidates goes beyond their potential victories, he said, because even if one of them doesn’t get elected, their candidacies alone send a message to the public.

“The symbolic value is that trans people are there, LGBT people are there, among us. They are equal citizens who have the right to be elected like any other citizen,” Ozkazanc said.

Erdogan’s main rival, the CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leads a six-party alliance that includes ultranationalists and conservative Islamists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has prepared to meet his stalwart supporters on May 12, 2023 to show enduring strength in the face of the toughest electoral challenge of his two-decade rule.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish national flags during a rally in Istanbul on Friday.Ozan Kose / AFP – Getty Images

TIP has partnered with the influential pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, and the coalition that wins the most seats in parliament may need their support to pass any law.

Another TIP candidate, Talya Aydin, 26, said her party would seek justice for crimes she said had not been properly investigated if the opposition alliance became the largest group in parliament.

She cites the death of Hande Kader, a trans woman activist whose murder sparked hundreds of people to protest in Istanbul, as well as charges against protesters who marched in banned Pride parades.

Like Ozadikti, Aydin said her transgender identity puts her at greater risk of ending up behind bars if Erdogan is re-elected.

“He just makes me work harder so he doesn’t win,” he said.

Prison isn’t the only threat he feels he faces. Aydin made the transition last year and said he now takes pictures of taxi license plates before entering and no longer walks home at night with headphones on.

But, he added, he is seeing a greater acceptance of his community in Turkish society despite the political rhetoric.

The struggling economy, a key reason Erdoğan’s popularity has declined, has meant that many people are not being swayed by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, but are too concerned with making ends meet.

“Hate takes time, hate takes mental resources, hate takes emotional resources,” he said.