It was June 28, and I was just outside Taksim Square in Istanbul watching a group of black-clad militants beat a man in a rainbow T-shirt. Lady Gaga was tweeting out “This is inhumane!” in response to footage of Turkish police shooting participants of Istanbul’s LGBT Pride March with rubber bullets. As I tried to get away from the attack, I got caught up in a crowd of mostly young LGBT people decked out in rainbow garb who were running from a Toma, a Turkish police tank that houses high-velocity water cannons. Then I witnessed the aftermath of a tear gas attack upon hundreds of defiant marchers.
I was in Turkey with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. The day before the Pride riots, the chorus had entertained more than 3,000 exuberant concert-goers, including Charles Hunter, the US Consul General of Istanbul, who joined the chorus on stage for its rendition of Katy Perry’s hit “Firework.” The show, at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, was the last stop on a tour of the Middle East that also included concerts in Ein Gedi, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. While we were in Tel Aviv, threats against the chorus began trickling in from Turkey. One tweet with a bull’s-eye emoticon promised us an “Islamist welcoming.”
The concert in Istanbul was a rare public expression of LGBT culture in the Muslim world. It would not have taken place without Hunter’s intervention. By informing the Turkish government in advance that he would be sitting in the front row, he ensured our safety, and that of the audience. It was one example of many this past June of US-led efforts to celebrate and honor LGBT people around the world by marking LGBT Pride month.
Bill Clinton was the first US president, in June of 2000, to officially recognize LGBT Pride. But in 2009, President Obama didn’t just issue a proclamation. His administration put in place formal expressions of respect for LGBT people at every level of the federal government. The impact extends to American embassies and consulates that host LGBT-friendly events and unfurl gigantic rainbow flags off the sides of buildings in countries where LGBT people put their lives on the line merely by coming out. (In 2012, the US embassy in Kenya ― where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison ― hosted that country’s first LGBT Pride event, in Nairobi.)
These are not acts of “cultural imperialism,” as claimed by CitizenGo and Family Watch International, global advocacy groups that promote Christian causes. Nor are they empty gestures that ultimately endanger US national security, as the National Review’s Josh Craddock wrote in an April essay chastising the Obama administration for “treating sexual predilections as human rights.”
Ömer Akpinar is an openly gay Turkish journalist and activist. The acceptance of LGBT people by the president and other US officials “lifts up the bar of democracy for people in Turkey . . . and mainstreams the pro-LGBT discourse” in Turkish culture, Akpinar explained in an e-mail exchange.
As a white Western tourist, I was probably never in any real danger at the Turkish Pride riots, other than the possibility of tripping and falling in front of the Toma as I fled from it. But the experience was terrifying nonetheless, and the delayed panic attack that left me shaking and breathless when I finally escaped the chaos was all too real. I cannot imagine living under those circumstances daily. It’s staggering to contemplate the work ahead for LGBT people in most countries around the world.
Celebrations of LGBT Pride, when coupled with diplomatic speeches before the United Nations declaring that LGBT rights are human rights, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in 2011, carry the monumentally significant message that equality matters. US diplomatic leadership on LGBT rights may not influence the actions of foreign governments like Turkey, which can still decide at random to blast its citizens with tear gas and rubber bullets. But it comforts and emboldens LGBT people across the world, like Akpinar, who are making courageous sacrifices to advance human rights in places where the idea of full equality remains a far-off dream.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.