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Turkey’s Gay Soldiers in the Crosshairs

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A person waves a rainbow flag in front of Istanbul courthouse. Photo AFP

In recent years, Turkey has been celebrated as a haven for the gay community in the Middle East, where many countries ban non-heterosexual acts and open discrimination against the LGBT community is state-sanctioned. However, a 2018 ruling by Turkey’s top court seems to have confirmed a backslide in rights for the country’s gay community.

In February 2018, Turkey’s Constitutional Court rejected an application to do away with a rule in the Military Penal Code allowing the expulsion of homosexual members of the armed forces. One of the military’s own courts had found that the rule, which calls for the expulsion of any military personnel engaged in, or facilitating, ‘unnatural intimacy’, infringed upon constitutional rights protecting the individual.

Indeed, the Constitutional Court’s acting president, Engin Yildirim, protested his court’s majority decision and published a contrary opinion. In his 23-page dissent, Yildirim stressed the excessive sacrifice demanded of gay military personnel, who are asked not only to put their lives on the line but also to abandon their right and freedom to a private life. His arguments mirror those in the United States, and less recently the United Kingdom and Australia, where the infamous ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy allowing gay soldiers to serve by keeping their sexuality hidden was repealed in 2010.

Criticizing the lack of evidence for any arguments that gay soldiers affected military performance, Yildirim concluded by saying that the current law ‘neglects the human dignity of military persons with different sexual orientations for the sake of protecting the honour of the military profession’. Nevertheless, the court upheld the regulation, meaning that gay officers can be expelled from the Turkish military and non-commissioned officers demoted.

Institutionalized Discrimination

This open criminalization of homosexuality flies in the face of over a 150 years of legal acceptance of LGBT rights in Turkey, even if discrimination in the military has long been institutionalized. Military service of at least a year is mandatory for all male citizens. Since its inception, only the ill, disabled or homosexual hav been exempt from service.

The Turkish military considers homosexuality as a ‘psycho-sexual disorder’, following the opinion of a 1968 paper from the American Psychiatric Association. Since then, such pseudo-science has been widely debunked, but the Turkish military maintains its position on the issue.

Furthermore, the authorities’ methods of testing whether potential recruits are homosexual have been widely criticized by human rights organizations. While the ‘anal exams’ that some units used to identify gay recruits were phased out in 2015, bringing Turkey’s military in line with the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, gay men are still vulnerable to discrimination. New recruits who wish to avoid military service due to their sexuality are obliged to undergo intensive questioning on the nature of their sexual orientation and experience, and are often required to submit photographic or video evidence of them engaging in homosexual acts. Furthermore, these soldiers cannot escape this discrimination when they exit the military.

As well as living with the knowledge that their ‘compromising’ photos or videos could be stored on a government database, gay men must also endur a much more public ‘outing’. On completion of military service, soldiers are issued a green certificate proving their honourable service. It is common for employers and even potential fathers-in-law to demand to see a young man’s green certificate as a judge of his character. Men exempted from service on account of their sexuality are instead given a pink certificate. With homophobic attitudes common in most of Turkey, where a very traditional form of masculinity is lionized, these pink documents can mean years of discrimination. Attacks on the LGBT community are common and these pink certificates force individuals to announce their sexuality publicly, when those living outside of the more liberal urban areas of the country would certainly be safer keeping it hidden.

Discrimination against gay military personnel has not always been so indirect, however. In 2012, a rewrite of the military’s discipline regulations brought official pressure to bear on the homosexual community. Homosexuality was included as a ‘major offence’ in the new regulations governing discipline in the armed forces. Published in November 2012, the regulations recommended expulsion as the punishment for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality. This was the first time that the practice of excluding gay men from military service was mentioned in official documents.

Why no Progress for Rights?

These discriminatory policies and practices have not gone unchallenged, particularly from European bodies. The European Union’s (EU) 2009 report on Turkey’s progress towards membership blasted Ankara’s position towards gay and trans individuals. Yet Turkey has shown little enthusiasm for recalibrating its stance on LGBT rights. The Constitutional Court’s decision comes amid a retrenchment of gay rights and freedoms, most notably with communal acts of expression and protest sanctioned. Istanbul’s 2017 gay pride parade, for many years the biggest in the Middle East, was broken up by police after organizers defied an official ban from the authorities. Similarly, Ankara prohibited all events linked to LGBT issues last year, supposedly out of fears for ‘public safety’.

In his dissenting opinion, judge Yildirim noted that with this decision, Turkey was bucking the trend of global thought on gay rights. But as Turkey’s Islamist AKP government beats a more independent geopolitical path, this is hardly surprising. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s base is largely socially conservative and Muslim; there are few votes to be won from liberalizing the government’s position on gay rights. With the EU trumpeting such freedoms and Ankara’s relationship with its European neighbours growing ever more strained, the prospect of a new age of respect for gay rights in the army looks bleak.

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