News / Europe

Death of Gay Activist Brings Turkey's Attitude Toward Gays Into Focus

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For 26-year-old Ahmet Yildiz, the choice to live openly as a gay man in Turkey proved deadly.  Prosecutors say his father, charged with allegedly killing his son in what is being dubbed as the first gay honor killing, traveled more than 900 kilometers from his hometown to shoot his son in an old neighborhood of Istanbul.  The case has drawn international attention and is putting the spotlight on Turkey's attitude  towards homosexuality.

The young physics student, Ahmet Yildiz, was one of the few openly gay men in Turkey, a country in which the military, the guardian of Turkey's secular state, regards homosexuality as a disorder.

Yildiz represented his country at a gay meeting in San Francisco and wrote for gay publications in Turkey.  Observers believe his activism is probably what got him killed.

His boyfriend, Ibrahim Can, was in their shared apartment when Yildiz was murdered.

He wanted to go out and buy some ice cream, he went down and just got into his car and I heard  gunshots, he says.  I looked down from the window I saw him being ambushed.  He says he ran outside and screamed "Please do not die."   Can said his eyes were closed, when I shouted he opened for a second, he looked at me and then closed his eyes.

Can says before the shooting, Yildiz had repeatedly filed complaints at the local prosecutor's office that he was receiving death threats from his family.  Gay rights groups claim the prosecutor's office did not investigate or provide Yildiz with protection.

The story was largely ignored until it starting getting attention by the foreign media. What resulted was a bout of national soul-searching underlining the tensions between the secular modern Turkey and a more traditionalist Turkey, in which conservative Islam increasingly holds power.

Oner Ceylan of Istanbul's gay rights group Lambda says it's a landmark case.

"I think it is important that people, that this fact, that a father can kill his son, simply because of his sexual orientation.  That is an important awareness, because maybe they were cases before, but we just did not know," said Ceylan.  "We read in the news maybe a father killed, but we did not know why before.  So I think its a very important step."

Yildiz's father is on the run and believed to be in hiding outside Turkey.   As a result, the trial that began in September is on hold.

While Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union is pushing the Muslim-rooted government to increase civil liberties for women and homosexuals, some remain nervous with a permissive attitude toward sexuality and gender roles.

Scott Long of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says reluctance by the authorities to punish violence against the gay community is not unusual.

"People who express their sexuality, people who differ from these cultural norms, from masculinity and femininity, are abused, are beaten, are raped, are excluded from the family," said Long.  "That there is violence at every level and most conspicuously that the government does not intervene to stop it."

The country's growing lesbian, gay and transgender movement is increasingly challenging violence against them.

Ceylan says its a long struggle, but education and patience are key.

"When you talk about violence people do not really exactly know what are you talking about.  When you have the incidents, the cases and everything, then it more clear to them that inevitably there have been some human-rights violations.  And with the police we have been trying to communicate with the city government, because the police reports to them," he said.  "I think we are making some progress, but these things are deep-rooted, so you cannot expect things to be just great within years or decades."

The Yildiz murder has become an focal point for gays around the world to put pressure on Turkish authorities for change.

This video entitled "Ahmet Is Part Of My Family", is circulating the Internet as part of a campaign by gays around the world to protest the Yildiz murder. Yildiz'z boyfriend, Can say he hopes the legal proceedings will not only put Yildiz's murderer on trial, but put Turkey's treatment of gays on trial, too.

I hope this court case will reveal the situation of homosexuals in Turkey to the whole world, he says.  He says there are millions of gays living in Turkey, most hidden, some forced to marry women, some willingly married just to avoid loosing their respectability.  He says he hopes the case will change attitudes.

A recent government study estimated one person dies every week in Istanbul as a result of honor killings. The victims are mostly young women, murdered by male relatives for such things as having illicit affairs, talking to strangers or even for being the victim of rape.  Because gay honor killings remain underground, it is not known how many of those happen on a weekly basis.

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