Gay Rights and Syrian refugees

There was a big Gay Pride march in Istanbul last week. I have to tell you right out that I didn’t participate. In fact, to my shame, I didn’t even take a lot of interest in the event, so what I’m about to share with you was gleaned from a retrospective reading of the CNN report:

‘Activists say the annual Turkish Gay Pride Parade, now in its ninth year, is the only march of its kind in a majority-Muslim country. Several thousand supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights carried signs and rainbow flags as they made their way down one of Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares.

Gay Pride marchers in Istanbul

Now the reason I’m telling you this is that I read a news item last week summarising a report released by the human rights group, Amnesty International. The headline read ‘Amnesty report condemns Turkey’s gay rights laws.’ Well, I didn’t know much about the details of Turkey’s laws in this area, so the article inspired me to do a little research, and here are some of my findings:

  • Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in the following countries: Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Samoa, Jamaica, Barbados, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Morocco.
  • It is legal for women, but illegal for males, in Singapore, the Cook Islands and Tonga.
  • In Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (which includes Dubai), offenders can be punished by fines, a prison sentence, or whipping. Practising gays in Jamaica can be sentenced to ten years imprisonment with hard labour.
  • In Turkey, on the other hand, it has been legal since 1858. By comparison, it was legalised for males in New Zealand in 1986, and in Australia, as recently as 1994.
I was curious to know what the Amnesty International report had to say about these other countries, some of which are on friendly trading and sporting terms with progressive and enlightened Western nations. Accordingly I googled ‘amnesty international gay rights report’ and was interested to find that most of the results referred to the report’s censuring of Turkey, and none of them even hinted that there might be countries with worse records.

As the CNN report above pointed out, the Istanbul Gay Pride parade is the only march of its kind in a majority-Muslim country’. Still, the marchers could have been (and some of them apparently were) protesting about the treatment of gays in Turkey. It’s perhaps worth noting, then, that demonstrators from a nearby pro-Kurdish gathering, fleeing from police teargas, found sanctuary among the ranks of the proud gays, who apparently were allowed to proceed with their activities unmolested. Turkish police are not noted for their soft approach to undesirable demonstrations, yet the gay marchers were permitted to exhibit their pride without let or hindrance.

Still, you will say, turning a blind eye to one brief march on one day of the year doesn’t necessarily prove that the Turkish authorities show the same tolerance all year round, and I agree with you – so I looked further. I checked out the tourist scene, and I turned up a website calling itself ‘Pink News’. Under a header announcing ‘Turkish Delights’, the travel writer had this to say: ‘Fancy a break that offers more than a week in an average hotel or a whirlwind city guidebook tour of your destination? If you’re looking for a holiday that’s far from the madding crowd or something with a slightly different twist, then travel company Journey Anatolia might just have the ideal options for you. Oh, and did we mention that they’re all in Turkey? So, chances are you’ll need to pack the sunscreen for some beautiful weather.’ Positively gushing, and no mention of whippings or hard labour.

For a second opinion, I turned to my trusty ‘Lonely Planet Turkey’[1]. ‘The gay scene in Istanbul,’ they said, ‘has been characterized as homely rather than raunchy . . . There are an increasing number of openly gay bars and nightclubs in the city . . . Hamams (Turkish baths) are a gay fave . . .’ Outside of Istanbul, ‘attitudes are changing . . .  but there are sporadic reports of violence towards gays – the message is discretion.’

Aha! ‘Violence towards gays!’ There it is! However, it seems that such violence is more likely to occur within families than as a result of institutional brutality. Undoubtedly, in certain parts of Turkey, among uneducated villagers, there is still a culture that sees killing as a way of cleansing a family’s honour – and this violence is as likely to be directed towards wayward heterosexual young women, as against gays. Of course it is wrong, and Turkey needs to extend civilization and education to all parts of the country before it can expect to be welcomed into the European Union. However, I would like to balance the ledger by offering two points for your consideration.

First, there is a big, wild world out there, and not all of it is exactly as we well-brought up, well educated, open-minded, tolerant, humanitarian fortunates from developed nations might wish it to be. We do well to remember this when we go a-traveling in foreign climes. As Lonely Planet clearly warns, ‘the message is discretion’. I read just last week about a countryman of mine, visiting Papua New Guinea, who was filled full of arrows and nearly killed by a local tribesman who apparently had taken a fancy to his French girlfriend. I’m not saying I don’t sympathise with the poor guy, and his girlfriend, who was reportedly raped at the same time. However, we know that Papua New Guinea is one of the last paradises on Earth for anthropologists keen to see how our less civilised relatives eke out an existence – and the flipside of this is very likely to be a certain unpredictability on the part of natives who may be unaware of the niceties of courting rituals in more civilised circles.

Another compatriot achieved international fame as a yachtsman a few years ago. Sir Peter Blake was knighted by the New Zealand government after setting a circumnavigation record in the Whitbread Round-the-World race, and winning (and defending) the coveted America’s Cup in the 1990s. After retiring from yacht racing, Sir Peter was being spoken of as a possible successor to the legendary Jacques Cousteau. Tragically, his boat was attacked, and he was killed, by pirates at the mouth of the Amazon delta while on an environmental exploration trip gathering data for the United Nations. Once again, I’m not intending to show a lack of human sympathy here. I merely want to point out the obvious – that it probably wouldn’t have happened if he’d stayed at home in Bayswater, Auckland. Peter Blake knew that too, of course, and he chose to go, knowing the risks.

My second point relates to what some might consider a more immediate human rights issue. During the first weeks of June, refugees were fleeing across the border from Syria into southeast Turkey to escape the violent suppression of protests against President Bashar al-Ashad’s regime. Some 15,000 Syrians reportedly crossed into Turkey before Syrian forces closed the border towards the end of the month. Since then, reports say, several thousand have returned to Syria. The reasons are not totally clear, but it seems men may have brought their families to the sanctuary of Turkey before returning to continue the fight on their own soil. The plight of these refugees was recently given more media attention in the West as a result of a visit by UN goodwill ambassador, Angelina Jolie.

Well, as I think I acknowledged above, Turkey, cannot claim a lily-white record on human rights across the board. On the other hand, if the truth be told, few countries can. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a balanced picture, showing our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

[1] 2007 edition

2 thoughts on “Gay Rights and Syrian refugees

  1. Great article… From my research, I found out that a lot of violence against gay men actually comes from their closeted sex partners, who willingly have sex with men (often for money) but freak out when their masculinity is threatened. (Chapter 4 of my dissertation/book).

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