Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gay Rights Are Human Rights

Human Rights Watch released a disturbing report today concerning the systematic discrimination faced by Turkish gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Much of the discrimination documented is deeply institutionalized within organizations like the police, the judiciary, and the military.
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey lead lives of fear, paralyzed by stigma. When singled out for harassment, violence, or other abuse—still an everyday occurrence for many—they also fear going to the authorities for assistance, and often for good reason: they have long experienced harassment and sadistic treatment by police and dismissive attitudes among judges and prosecutors. Despite reforms, new cases of such mistreatment continue to emerge, as this report demonstrates.

While the predicament faced by LGBT people in Turkey is similar to that faced by this community in many other countries, stringent norms for “masculinity” and “femininity” are particularly ingrained in both Turkish society and the state itself. The endurance of such norms, reflected in this report, perpetuate inequality and promote violence in many of the cases we document.

Every transgender person and many of the gay men Human Rights Watch spoke to report having been a victim of a violent crime—sometimes multiple crimes—based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Beatings in cruising areas, robberies by men or gangs who arranged to meet their victims over the internet, and attempted murder were among the documented abuses.

The lesbian or bisexual women Human Rights Watch spoke with reported pressure, often extreme, from their families. Some were constrained to undergo psychological or psychiatric “help” to “change” their sexual orientation. Many faced physical violence.
The report also includes a section devoted to homosexuality and the military. Although military service is regarded as a basic right and duty for every male citizen, Turkey does not allow homosexual men to serve in the military. According to the report,
. . . it is the only member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to do so, other than the United States, and its ban persists nine years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a similar ban in the UK. Specifically, the Turkish Armed Forces Health Requirement Regulation bars people with “high level psychological disorders (homosexuality, transsexuality, transvestism).”178 The commentary to the regulation reads, “It must be proved with documentary evidence that the defects in sexual behavior are obvious, and that when revealed in a military context would create problems.” What constitutes an “obvious defect” or one that would “create problems” is not spelled out.

As a result of the regulation and commentary, gay men seeking exemptions are compelled to undergo psychological and, sometimes, humiliating anal, examinations based on mythologies about homosexuality. Sometimes they are also forced to produce photographs showing them as passive partners in anal intercourse.

A discharge on the basis of “psychosocial illness” also cuts off the possibility of future state employment. Private employers who seek information about potential hires will usually only be informed that the man was “unable for military service,” but even that classification can create a suspicion of homosexuality (or “psychosocial illness”), making employment difficult.

With no right to conscientious objection, claiming to be gay is one of the few ways to escape military service. However, as the report documents, even if one is gay, oftentimes military authorities demand bizarre evidence and medical/psychological examinations that no doubt intrude on a person's right to privacy.
The Turkish ban on homosexuals serving in its armed forces – labeling homosexuality a “psychological disorder” – and the intrusive and humiliating questioning it enables are clear violations of the ECHR. Indeed, Turkey is the only European NATO member to persist with such practices, nine years after the European Court of Human Rights found the UK’s ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces—and the questioning its armed forces carried out—to violate Article 8 (right to a private life) of the Convention.197 In a strong opinion, the Court found that the UK could not justify its ban, and indeed should adapt similar methods to combat homophobic bullying in the army as it had already done to tackle racial and gender bullying.198 The Court also found the intrusive questioning of the applicants into their private lives to breach the Convention, stating in effect that there was no justification for any questioning to continue once the persons had stated that they were homosexual.
Some Turkish military officials' perverse intrusion into individuals' private lives go much further than the intrusion of the British military into the personal lives of UK citizens.

Also of concern in the report are restrictions on the rights of gay associations to assemble. A court case brought by İstanbul governor Muammer Güler against the gay rights organization, LAMBDA İstanbul, seeks to ban the organization on such legal grounds. LAMBDA has been harassed in recent months as a result of these restrictions.
. . . on April 7, police in the largest Turkish city, Istanbul, raided the premises of LGBT organization Lambda Istanbul's Cultural Center, seizing the group's membership list and other documents. The warrant for the raid cited suspicions that Lambda "facilitates prostitution, acts as a go-between [and] provides a place for [prostitution]."

Lambda Istanbul, founded in 1993, is Turkey's oldest LGBT organization, and has organized small Gay Pride marches every year since 2003.

The organization has been under attack from Istanbul's governor, Muammer Güler, since 2007, when his office brought a legal action to close the organization, claiming that Lambda violates both the Penal Code, as an association in violation of "law and morals," and Article 41 of the Turkish Constitution, which is concerned with "the peace and welfare of the family."
Güler rose to the governor's office á la appointment by AKP party officials and his recent discrimination of LGBT persons raises serious questions about the legitimacy of AKP's claims that it aims to secure human rights for all Turkish citizens. Do these rights extend to homosexuals? Are gay rights not also human rights, too? Most interestingly, HRW affirms arguments I have made earlier that the EU accession process is critical to human rights promotion in Turkey, in particular the human rights of minority constituencies with limited political power. From the report,
The picture is not unremittingly bleak; there have been positive developments in recent years. Turkey today is full of mixed signals. The situation was illustrated most pointedly by the process leading to the adoption of a revised version of the Criminal Code in mid-2005. A year before the new code was adopted, the Justice Commission of Turkey’s Parliament voted to include new language in the provision barring discrimination in a wide range of areas of public life: it would have included “sexual orientation” as a protected status. The move almost certainly came in response to Turkey’s pending application for admission to the European Union (EU).

The move galvanized Turkey’s small lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement, which rallied in support of including “sexual orientation” in the new law. Lambda Istanbul and the Ankara-based KAOS-GL, its two largest LGBT organizations, joined women’s groups in a 500-strong march on the Parliament on September 15, 2004—demanding the provision be kept, and that other articles used to harass minorities and restrict rights be changed.

Ultimately, the language mentioning sexual orientation was dropped and replaced with that found in Article 10 of Turkey’s Constitution—promising equality “irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, and sect, or any other reasons.” This defeat was perhaps predictable—since in late 2003, the prime minister’s spokesman said, “homosexuals cannot be members” of the ruling party: “They can establish their own.”1 However, activists were hopeful because Turkey had seen many positive legislative changes in preceding years, many in order to comply with the EU accession criteria.

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