On Sunday, voters in Istanbul will return to the polls to select their mayor in an election do-over. In March, they failed to select the candidate favored by Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So now they will get a second chance — courtesy of Erdogan — to do the wrong thing. It is merely the latest move by Erdogan to consolidate power, an exercise I’ve watched closely since 2015.
That year, I organized a tour of Israel and Turkey for the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, a first for any LGBTQ group in the region. The highlight of the trip was to be a final performance at Istanbul’s state-of-the-art Zorlu Performance Center. Ending our five-city tour by singing on the main stage in a hall specifically designed to amplify the sound of acoustic performances would be the experience of a lifetime for our talented, but all-volunteer, ensemble.
But after Turkey’s leading daily ran a story about our upcoming performance — which prompted a rush on tickets four months before the date of our concert — I received a text from our tour company on behalf of Zorlu’s management team asking if we could perform as the Boston Men’s Chorus instead of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Of course, I said no. They cancelled our show.
This move by Zorlu’s owners was no small matter. We had already signed a contract and by breaking it, they were liable for substantial damages. In lieu of a lawsuit to recoup our losses, we required them to make substantial donations to Turkish LGBTQ organizations. We later learned that the order to cancel our performance came from Erdogan’s office, and I think of this story often as I watch what’s happening in this country under President Trump.
Erdogan’s power grab didn’t take place overnight. It unfolded in plain view of the world as he and his administration violated one norm after another. For example, in 2003, the same year Erdogan was elected as Prime Minister of Turkey about 30 people showed up for the first celebration of LGBTQ Pride with a gathering in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. By 2014, when Erdogan won election as Turkey’s president, the event had grown to more than 100,000 participants, becoming the largest peaceful demonstration of LGBTQ pride in the Muslim world.
But between 2003 and 2014, Erdogan routinely attacked the independence of the judicial system and the press, jailed and threatened students protesting police violence, and regularly shut off access to social media. These moves, taken together, chipped away at the idea that citizens in Turkey, including LGBTQ citizens, had the right to free expression. That’s how Erdogan got away with unleashing water cannons and tear gas on participants of Istanbul’s Pride march in 2015. We were there to witness it, subject to arrest if we didn’t disburse.
Public expressions of LGBTQ Pride have been banned every year since and this past May, 25 students in Ankara were violently arrested for participating in a peaceful celebration of Pride. It is hard not to draw parallels between what has happened in Turkey and what is happening here. The erosion of democratic norms under Trump has not been limited to attacks on the press, the judiciary, the rule of law, and the truth. Like Erdogan, Trump has taken aim at the LGBTQ community. In less than two years in office, he has waged an audacious attack on the LGBTQ community that has included a ban on transgender troops from serving and rescinding anti-LGBTQ discrimination policies in the provision of health care.
This month, as we celebrate 50 years of progress for the LGBTQ community since the riots at Stonewall, we must not deny what’s happening in front of us. Resisting tyranny in whatever ways possible seems the only fitting response. It’s what we did four years ago — side by side with Istanbul’s LGBTQ community — after Erdogan tried to silence us.
LGBTQ students at Bosphorus University, who were some of the early ticket purchasers for our cancelled concert, got permission from their school to invite us to perform on its grounds. To the astonishment of school officials and our Turkish liaisons who organized the last-minute event, over 5,000 people showed up for our concert, including students and families with young children.
It was a life-changing experience for us, for members of Turkey’s LGBTQ community, and for our straight allies. We’ve drawn on that experience many times since as we continue to resist anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, policies, and violence by sharing the stories of LGBTQ lives through song.
Craig Coogan is the executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.