Protests in Istanbul are an almost weekly occurrence. Whether it’s student protests, Kurdish protests, or workers’ unions, the people in Istanbul are not afraid to use their voices and are often dead set on making sure they are heard. Demonstrations almost always start or end in Taksim Square – the center of modern Istanbul – making the square symbolic of challenging social and political boundaries.
My second week in Istanbul was Gay Pride week. Being from Los Angeles, I was quite familiar with the West Hollywood Pride Parade and it interested me to see how Istanbul’s would compare.
Istanbul’s Pride march was scheduled to take place on Sunday, June 26, and a few of my classmates and I were geared up and ready to go. We had been warned that protests in Istanbul could turn violent at any moment and with little provocation. Some of the women I spoke with during the march, who were marching in support of LGBTQ rights, told me the march itself was an act of courage as gay rights was a touchy subject in Turkey.
When we got to Taksim Square, we found a small group of people waving rainbow colored flags and carrying signs. The march was scheduled to start soon, so my classmates and I got to work photographing and interviewing as many people as possible.
Marches in Istanbul are not handled the way they would be in Los Angeles. When protests, marches, or parades are held in Los Angeles, the city becomes involved – permits are issued, roads are blocked off, and the police are usually a helpful presence. In Istanbul, marches and protests receive little aid or support – no roads are blocked off, traffic is not stopped, and the police presence, often clad in riot gear and armed to the teeth, seems to be more of a menacing presence than a protective one.
By the time the march was ready to start, the crowd had grown to about 2,000 people. We started with a rally in the square where revelers cheered and chanted and spoke of their struggles and hopes. When the rally was finished, the march began and thousands of participants packed into the already crowded Istikal Avenue.
Istikal is a major westernized shopping promenade in the Taksim district. At any given moment, there are upwards of 5,000 people wandering the promenade, which created a bit of chaos for the marchers as they tried to traverse the crowded street.
Nevertheless, the march was held and for the most part remained peaceful. We endured two minor incidents of tear gas – one at the beginning and one at the end – but no one was hurt and the spirit of the march was not dampened.
Marchers made their way down Istikal waving flags, chanting, blowing whistles and carrying signs that read “out of the closet and into the streets,” and “freedom is not given, freedom is taken.” Periodically, the marchers would stop outside of businesses, which had denied service to a gay or transgender persons, booing, catcalling and waving flags, banners and middle fingers.
The contrast between the Istanbul march and the West Hollywood parade was striking. In West Hollywood, the Pride Parade is an event of celebration. In Istanbul, the Pride march was a call for freedom and equality. Although both movements lay claim to their own significance, the Pride demonstration in Istanbul was a display of courage and a statement that gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people are deserving of the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.