Editor’s note: This story contains homophobic language some readers might find offensive. The non-binary pronouns “they” and “them” have been used in the singular form to refer to individuals who do not identify as a specific gender. “LGBTI+” refers collectively to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex or another sexual minority.
Ankara, Turkey (CNN) – It was a warm summer night in July 2015 and Kemal Ordek, a sex worker at the time, was waiting at home for the next client to arrive.
Two men, posing as customers, entered Ordek’s apartment in Ankara. They beat Ordek – whose gender is non-binary– stole their phone and one raped them. At one point a third man, a relative of the other two, entered the apartment and demanded money.
The men dragged Ordek, 32, out into the street and towards a nearby cash machine. There, Ordek spotted a police car and ran to tell the officers what had happened. The attackers followed, telling the police they were “family men” who had been lured into Ordek’s home. They denied doing anything wrong.
Ordek’s version of events was dismissed by police on the spot, Ordek says. The officers threw Ordek and the men into their patrol car and drove to the police station. “Don’t even dare make a criminal complaint. I’ll chop off your head, we’ll kill you,” one attacker said, according to Ordek.
Later that night, police released Ordek’s attackers without explanation. Ankara police declined to comment by phone or text message, asking that CNN send its request by handwritten letter.
According to Ordek’s attorney, it was only after they filed a civil complaint, and sought legal representation that police launched a criminal investigation.
For the next year, Ordek says the attackers unleashed a campaign of intimidation against them. Ordek also claims that pressure was applied by police to drop the complaint.
Police arrested the attackers last November. They were ultimately convicted for their crimes and sentenced to seven and a half years each for looting. One of the attackers had faced 20 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault but his lawyer was able to get that charge dropped upon appeal.
While the case gained support from human rights organizations and attention from the national media, Ordek’s family disowned them.
“My father told me, ‘you better get killed instead of being raped because this is against our honor,’” Ordek said.
Although homosexuality has been legal in Turkey since 1923, Turkey has one of the worst records of human rights violations against LGBTI+ people in Europe, according to a 2016 report from the European Region of the International LGBTI Association. A separate 2016 report to the United Nations by Turkish LGBTI+ advocacy groups identified at least 41 hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people that resulted in death from 2010 to June 2014.
Ordek survived the brutal attack, but many others haven’t.
In 2009, Eda Yildirim, a transgender sex worker was decapitated and burned alive; her breast implants cut out of her before she was murdered. In 2015, another transgender sex worker died after being stabbed 200 times by a client. In 2016, a young transgender woman named Hande Kader, a prominent member of the LGBTI+ community, was raped and burned alive. Her killer has not been found. Even when identified, many of the murder suspects have not been prosecuted.
Mustafa Yeneroglu, the Chief of Turkey’s Parliament’s Human Rights Observation Commission, told CNN that he had personally researched some of these incidents, but described them as “mostly individual cases” that didn’t point to abuse of the LGBTI+ community.
Highlighting that the victims were sex workers, Yeneroglu said: “It should be researched sociologically and psychologically why these people are found in a criminal situation … like (roadside) prostitution.”
But Ordek – the director of the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, an NGO promoting health and rights for sex workers in Turkey – says that according to their research, roughly 90% of the country’s transgender people feel sex work is the only way they can make a living.
Betul, a transgender woman who asked CNN to refer to her only by her first name for her safety, spent nearly ten years of her life trying to work a “regular job” after graduating from university but was repeatedly sexually assaulted.
Eventually Betul turned to sex work, but faced more violence than before. Last year, an organized crime gang attacked Betul in her home, nearly severing her hand from her wrist.
After recovering from the attack, Betul pressed charges against her assailants, but the prosecutor assigned to her case was arrested shortly after, over his alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric in self-imposed exile who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of being behind a failed military coup to overthrow him in 2016.
LGBTI+ activists fear that the fight for justice will become even more difficult following Erdogan’s referendum win in April which gives him sweeping new powers over the judiciary.
Before Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003, he garnered support by giving a voice to minority groups, including the LGBTI+ community, declaring in 2002, “homosexuals must also be given legal protection for their rights and freedoms.” But two years later, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) removed the phrase “sexual orientation” from a draft law, describing it as “unnecessary.”
As Erdogan tightened his grip on power in the intervening years, activists say he and his government became more conservative, more Islamist and more homophobic.
In 2010, then former state minister for family affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf told Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “homosexuality is a biological disorder, a disease … something that needs to be treated.”
In 2013, Erdogan described homosexuality as a “sexual preference” that was incompatible with the “culture of Islam” in Turkey.
‘We’re just passing days here’
On a quiet lane in central Ankara, Ordek sat with peers who had gathered to discuss their future in post-referendum Turkey.
A lawyer, who asked for her identity to be concealed for her security, told CNN that Erdogan used the referendum campaign to usher in a new wave of homophobic hate speech, and said the President is fostering a culture of police hostility whipped up by his extreme rhetoric. Erdogan’s press office did not respond to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
Hostility to the LGBTI+ community has also seeped into Turkey’s pro-government news organizations. In the wake of the terror attack in Orlando in 2016, when 49 people were gunned down at a nightclub, popular among gay men, the headline in the far-right Yeni Akit paper read: “50 perverts killed in bar.”
And in March, just one month before the referendum vote, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told the former editor of Hurriyet “to go and hang with faggots in the US.”
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, 78% of Turkish people said they reject homosexuality. Today, the LGBTI+ community feels the government is unable or unwilling to prevent violence against them. Some say they fear that they will even be targeted by their own families. This has prompted an increasing number of people in the community to seek help, the lawyer said.
“If a family member decides to…kill you, they can because the government doesn’t effectively investigate,” she said. “They turn their backs to these ‘honor killings.’”
Yeneroglu, the head of the Parliament’s human rights commission, told CNN that the commission will be meeting with LGBTI+ organizations to follow up on their concerns, but he did not specify when.
Serkan, a gay 28-year-old PhD student from Istanbul who asked CNN not to publish his last name out of concerns for his safety, said his university has also become more intolerant as Erdogan has tightened his grip on power.
Serkan and his university’s gender studies department is “almost non-existent.” He says most of the academics in the department were fired following Turkey’s post-coup crackdown, which has seen more than 110,000 people detained and almost 50,000 of them arrested.
“Since the purge started, the government’s perspective on social science departments, specifically in gender studies, has changed,” he told CNN. “It was a hostile change.”
This atmosphere of fear permeates all levels of society, according to Tolga, a 21-year-old office worker who came out as gay only four years ago. He asked for his last name to be withheld out of concerns for his safety.
As he lists a number of political upheavals – from the 2016 failed coup to a bloody fight against the resurgence of a Kurdish separatist movement in the south – Tolga fears that the LGBTI+ community is increasingly becoming a scapegoat as President Erdogan seeks to consolidate power and eliminate all dissenting voices.
“When I go to sleep at night, I’m always worried about what will happen the next day,” he said.
“Especially under the state of emergency [which was imposed in July 2016], everyone is feeling particularly concerned in their daily lives. I have started coming to work from a street that is safer than my usual route,” Tolga told CNN.
Tolga fears that his way of life is being forced underground as Turkey’s gay people lose public spaces where they can safely congregate. He cites the terrorist attack on a prestigious gay-friendly nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve, and the state-ban on Ankara and Istanbul gay pride events last year.
“I fear I’m going to have to live a life where I meet with my friends in houses and in private – I fear that socializing outside will stop,” he said.
He also worries that Erdogan is pitting what many LGBTI+ people see his increasingly Islamist conservatism against the country’s traditionally secular, urban society. “The political situation changes in the country very rapidly, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like the next day,” he said.
“I fear for civil war in this country.”