When Yasemin Oz, a lesbian lawyer in Istanbul, heard President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claim victory after Sunday’s runoff election, he said he feared for the future. In his speech, he declared “the family is sacred to us” and emphasized that LGBTQ people would never “infiltrate” his governing party.
It’s a familiar theme, heard frequently during Erdogan’s campaign for re-election: He frequently attacks LGBTQ people, calling them “deviants” and saying they are “spreading like the plague.” But Miss Oz said she hoped it was just a general election to rally the president’s conservative base.
“I was already worried about what would happen to us,” said Ms. Oz, 49. But after the speech, he thought, “it’s going to get louder.”
The rights and freedoms of LGBTQ citizens became a lightning rod issue during this year’s election campaign. Mr Erdogan, facing the biggest political threat in his two decades as the country’s dominant leader and trying to court conservatives, has repeatedly attacked his opponents for supporting gay rights. The anti-Erdogan opposition has mostly avoided the topic for fear of alienating some of its own electorate.
It has left many LGBTQ people worried that the discrimination they have long faced by the government and conservative sections of society could worsen — and feel that no one in this country supports them.
“People are terrified and have dystopian thoughts like, ‘Are we going to be slashed or savagely attacked on the way?’” said Ogulcan Yediveren, coordinator at Base, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Istanbul. “What’s going to happen is people are going to hide their identities, and that’s bad enough.”
Turkey, a Muslim-majority society with a secular state, does not criminalize homosexuality and has laws against discrimination. But in recent conversations, more than a dozen LGBTQ people said they often struggle to find work, find housing and quality health care and to be accepted by their friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.
In recent years, they say, they have faced new restrictions on their visibility in society. The university has closed its LGBTQ student clubs. And since 2014, authorities have banned Pride parades in major cities, including in Istanbul, where tens of thousands of people used to participate.
It is in line with Mr. Erdoğan for Türkiye.
Since the start of his national political career in 2003, he has increased his own power while promoting the views of the conservative Muslim community. He stressed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman, and encouraged women to have three children to build the nation.
Human rights advocates say that as Erdogan has gained power, his conservative views have filtered out, prompting local authorities to curtail LGBTQ activities and encouraging security forces to crack down on gay rights activists.
Anti-LGBT rhetoric was more prominent during this election than in previous cycles, although no changes to the law would expand or limit rights. No political party is trying to legalize same-sex marriage or adoption, for example, or expand medical care to transgender youth.
Instead, Erdogan and his allies are using the issue to galvanize conservatives.
“What they want to impose on society in terms of other values is full of hatred and violence against us,” said Nazlican Dogan, 26, who is facing lawsuits over his participation in a pro-LGBTQ protest at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It was really ugly and made us feel that we couldn’t exist in this country, like I should just leave.”
During his campaign, Erdogan characterized LGBTQ people as a threat to society.
“If the concept of kinship is not strong, the nation’s collapse will quickly occur,” he told young people in a televised meeting in early May. “LGBT is poison injected into the family institution. We cannot accept this poison as a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim.”
In April, his interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, went further, claiming that gay rights would allow humans to marry animals.
SPoD, an advocacy group, asked parliamentary candidates during the campaign to sign contracts to protect LGBTQ rights. Fifty-eight candidates signed on, and 11 of them won seats in the 600-member legislature, said Mr. Yediveren, coordinator.
The group is also trying to expand legal protections for LGBTQ people.
While certain laws prohibit discrimination, they do not specifically mention sexual identity or orientation, he said. At the same time, authorities often cite obscure concepts such as “public morals” and “public order” to act against activities they dislike, such as Pride week events.
“This week is very important because we don’t have a physical location, we can come together as a community to support each other,” said Bambi Ceren, 34, a member of the organizing committee planning events for this year’s Pride week, which begins on June 19.
Last year, police prevented a Pride event and arrested people who had gathered to take part, committee members said.
SPoD runs a national hotline to answer questions about sexual orientation, legal protection or how to access medical care or other services. The group can solve most service-related problems, said Mr. Yediveren, but most of the caller’s problems are social and emotional.
“People feel very lonely and isolated,” he said.
Transgender individuals struggle to find work, housing and proper treatment and care. And gay and lesbian men are sometimes forced into heterosexual marriage and afraid to open up to their families and co-workers.
Worrying, “‘Will I be caught one day?’ cause a lot of stress for them,” said Mr. Yediveren.
And the threat of violence is real.
Some LGBTQ people say they have been beaten by security forces during protests or encountered police indifference while being harassed in the street.
A survey last year by ILGA-Europe, a human rights organization, ranking Türkiye came second last out of 49 European countries on LGBTQ rights. another Group, European transgendersaid that 62 transgender people had been killed in Turkey between 2008 and 2022.
Many LGBTQ people worry that demonization during the campaign will make the threat even more acute.
A queer student from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who grew up in a small town without a significant LGBTQ presence, said he fears bad days are coming.
People who are not normally violent may feel empowered to do so because the government has spread hatred against people like him, he said, claiming they were sick, dangerous or a threat to the family. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being attacked.
Despite the increasing danger, many LGBTQ people vow to continue to fight for their rights and maintain their visibility in society. To overcome the fear of random attacks, they plan to take extra care of each other to ensure they are safe.
In Istanbul, a 25-year-old drag performer who goes by the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight and uses gender-neutral pronouns called the new attention troubling.
“In the entire history of queer life in Turkey, we have never looked like that,” they said in an interview. “But because of the elections, everyone is talking about us.”
They describe growing up in Turkey as “full of abuse, of denial, of teachers ignoring your existence and what happens to you, like your friends bullying you.”
At 16, Florence accepted their sexual identity, attended Pride parades and created Facebook accounts under fake names to contact LGBTQ organizations and make friends, eventually finding someone at the same high school.
They then moved to Istanbul, where they performed weekly in the rare LGBTQ-friendly bar.
Mr. Erdogan’s victory on Sunday plunged Florence into despair.
“I stared into space for a minute,” they said.
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.