Last weekend in Istanbul, a crowd thousands-strong gathered to celebrate the 13th annual Pride. I was in town to perform as my "identical twin brother", Alexander Geist, at an after-party called Drag Disco. The scene in Taksim Square was the same annual mélange of rainbow flags, body paint and handmade placards you've seen on countless news reports. Smaller maybe than the juggernaut presentation in London, but a powerful statement, in what is still a conservative country. As usual there was a significant police presence, shields up and visors down, which at first seemed neither noteworthy nor threatening. Two years ago the brutal battle to save the nearby Gezi Park from being sold off to developers was fought, and won, right here. The political implications of the assembly point resonated both with the police and Pride participants. More recently still, the general election in June of this year, saw the government lose a significant slice of power, scuppering President Erdogan's dynastic ambitions.
To say that Turkey's recent political history has been turbulent would be doing understatement too great a favour.
Still, when the Governor's office announced that it was withholding permission for the parade, the crowd was taken aback. Surely after 13 relatively peaceful years the authorities wouldn't suddenly take an antagonistic stance? Turkey is a secular state and does not criminalise homosexuality. Nobody gathering to march for gay rights along Istiklal expected to be greeted with open arms or bouquets of long-stemmed roses, but we hardly believed we'd be openly brutalised.
The police announced that the gathering was illegal, and ordered the crowd to disperse. They did not. The Turkish people are not known for being easily-cowed: they held firm and began their march. To force the crowd to break up, the police deployed high-pressure water canons, which knocked people off their feet, they beat members of the crowd with batons, and fired rubber bullets.
Bu muameleyi hak edecek ne yaptı size bu insanlar? pic.twitter.com/YA4DbKBz0h
— Burak Cem Oğuz (@evdekiadam) June 28, 2015
When the crowd was joined by a mid-afternoon surge of supporters, members of the public began to seize participants, prompting a third wave of people to rush in and defend them. There was no shelter - in the middle of the scrum, we were assailed from all sides; by anti-gay participants, over zealous tourists and bellicose passers-by. Police tried to snatch the video camera from my boyfriend's hands, strangers screamed in our faces, incomprehensibly aggressive. Wearing a Garfield print ensemble and turquoise nail polish, I was for once relatively low-key, and as such escaped targeted attacks, which were focused on the more flamboyant participants. A group of muscled plain-clothed officers, encircled a trans woman, pushing her over and symbolically crushing her pink whistle under their boots. One slender queen marched with a gush of blood drying on her upper lip, dazed from being punched in the face.
More than once in my life I have been in the horrible situation of witnessing the authorities unleash chemicals on a peaceful crowd, yet the quiet chill that comes as the canister rolls along the ground never lessens. So strange to watch that beautiful city disappear behind a white curtain of tear gas, and descend into an indiscriminate mass of panic, flailing and screaming. Tourists, locals, Pride participants alike, all desperate to escape the gas.
And yet the police themselves expressed at most, an atrabilious ambivalence towards the crowd they were thrashing. There was no white hot rage - indeed I heard one protestor scream to a cop, "What are you doing? It's only love!" To which he replied with an exasperated shrug, "I know, I know!" Strangely this gave me hope, even amidst the violence. Contrary to the anticipated eye-rolling responses of, "Well, what can you expect from Turkey?", it felt as though this whole gruesome assault was in fact a petty retaliatory swipe from a regime reeling from its own injuries, rather than a bleak foreshadowing.
But what it proved to me was that the right to protest, to march, and to speak freely are fundamental freedoms we must not take for granted - even in our current cultural moment of being so over everything. Not only are there places in the world where battles for basic liberties are still being fought, but those liberties which we have won are not indelible. Without careful stewardship, and with very little warning, they can be rescinded before our disbelieving eyes.
The police assaults did not shut down Pride, the march made its way to its intended climax at Tünel, where the parade became a street party. And although our soundcheck was interrupted when another cloud of gas rolled into the club, I managed to get onstage only a few hours later than scheduled. Shaken, maybe; celebratory, undeniably. The party continued in unique style, all through the night, and on, until the sun came up on a new day.
Text La JohnJoseph
Still from film by Funda Eryiğit