In Turkey, conservatives go after a queer volleyball star

Screenshot from the Finals video by Volleyball World.

Ebrar Karakurt, one of Turkey's national women's volleyball team players, has become the latest target of homophobic attacks in the increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ nation. This is not the first time the player has been targeted over her sexual orientation.

After Karakurt's team, referred to at home as the “Sultans of the Net,” secured a victory in the Volleyball Women's Nations League (VNL) and returned home with a gold medal, they were celebrated across the country. Social media was abuzz with posts commending the team for their success and boosting national pride. Following their victory, Karakurt shared a tweet where the player quoted İsmet Özel, a Turkish poet:

Around my neck are jewels made of the shame of those who impose judgment on me, the gold medal.

But not everybody was celebrating. The newspaper Akit, known for its close affiliation with the state, picked up on the tweet and described Karakurt as a “homosexual deviant imposing a perverted lifestyle” and accused her of embarrassing the national team “due to her lifestyle that goes against the values of Turkish society.” But Karakurt brushed off the accusations with humor. According to reporting by Duvar English, the volleyball player shared a post on Instagram in which she asked, “Even when I sleep on an airplane, I make someone mad… Is my greatness a joke?”

Karakurt received an outpouring of public support after the attack. Renowned singer and composer Nazan Oncel tweeted, Karakurt was Turkey's “pride” at a time when “girls are left illiterate, and women are confined to their homes.” Kübra Dağlı, Turkey's national taekwondo champion, expressed solidarity with Karakurt in a post shared on the social media site Thread: “It should not be hard to set aside athletes’ sexual orientation or religious attitudes and simply celebrate their achievements.”

As the recent targeting of Karakurt shows, the narrative of hate, humiliation, discrimination, and division, is not going anywhere, and although some are choosing to stay despite the narrowing space of freedoms, Turkey is on the path of losing more of its brightest as it becomes more regressive.

Pride versus shame

The targeting of Karakurt is only the most recent example of a growing anti-LGBTQ+ narrative in Turkey, as conservative groups try to promote what they call “family values” to the detriment of women's rights, LGBTQ+ freedoms and safety, and free speech.

On July 17, Melisa Caymaz, a university student who unfurled a rainbow flag during her graduation ceremony, was targeted by conservatives and received death threats over her act of solidarity. The student, who spoke to Gazete Duvar, said, “I did this to draw attention to femicides, LGBTI+ murders, and attacks on Pride Marches.” Caymaz was described as a “provocateur” by the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak which also described the act as “LGBT perversion,” targeting “Turkish and Muslim family structure.” Since then, the university said it has launched formal proceedings against the student. In a tweet, University management also described the rainbow flag as a rag and said it was not unaware as the student pulled out the flag last minute.

The arts sector is not safe either. Music videos, festivals, tweets, television shows, and award speeches are carefully dissected by staunch conservatives. When actress Merve Dizdar who won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, delivered her speech, supporters of the ruling government went as far as to call the award-winning actress a terrorist and “a pathetic slave of the West.”

Many have chosen to leave the country altogether in recent years. As polarization increases and the country's economy deteriorates, more are willing to leave their lives behind in search of better opportunities. Speaking to BNE Intellnews, Bekir Agirdir, director of the Konda research consultancy, notes that although brain drain is not new, the reasons for leaving have become more political. The non-governmental organization SOMDER published a study in 2022 on young people's perceptions of active citizenship and politics, finding that 96.3 percent of participants said people in Turkey were unhappy, and 27.8 percent said they would change their country.

Earlier this month, a cultural venue, Feshane, opened by the Istanbul Municipality, was forced to close its doors for a second time since its opening in June 2023 due to claims that it is “countercultural” to traditional Turkish values.

The protests at Feshane were not the first. As journalist Jennifer Hattam reported previously, “A sculpture depicting the face of an Ottoman sultan on a woman’s swimsuit was pulled, then reinstated, then withdrawn by the artist from the 2016 Contemporary Istanbul art fair after an angry mob demanded its removal. A small group of Islamists also tried to attack an artwork they objected to during a 2017 showing of businessman Ömer Koç’s private collection.”

Then, Turkish Education Education Minister Yusuf Tekin suggested the establishment of all-girls schools — a statement he has since backtracked due to public outcry.

In Balikesir province, conservative groups have called to end music festivals on the grounds that these events promote amorality. Following this call, the concert of singer Hande Yener was canceled. According to reporting by BirGun newspaper, in the last six months, at least 15 music events were reportedly canceled, including the one in Balikesir.

In an increasingly conservative Turkey, concerts have become a political battleground in recent years while musicians breaking down the stereotypes have faced backlash. Under the twenty-year leadership of the ruling government, scores of well-known artists, singers, songwriters, and comedians have faced intimidation, crackdowns, and threats over their work. There have also been plenty of examples of the ruling government attempting to block television seriesshows, and foreign music. The justifications are often broad, with accusations that the material promotes terrorist propaganda, encourages drug use, insults the president, offends local family values, or even offers cultural disinformation.

In June, police arrested over 100 people during Istanbul's 21st annual Pride March. Istanbul governor said in a tweet, “Our national future depends on keeping the family institution alive with our national and moral values. We will not allow any activity that will weaken the family institution.”

The emphasis on family values and the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to these values has been part of a narrative weaponized by local politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long viewed the community as a “virus” and “poison.”

A closer look at these so-called family values, however, reveals a stark image. It is not the values of respect, equality, and justice that are feared to be allegedly under attack, but the notion created by the AKP of what they view as a family — closed, isolated households, where women are not equal to men, are often condemned to traditional roles and must bear a minimum of three children. Violence against women, pedophiliachild abuse, and other abuses are often covered up, dismissed, or defined as isolated cases.

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