A Gay History of Gezi Park
In the summer of 2013, hundreds of thousands of young people marched the streets of Turkey in what has become the biggest uprising in the country’s recent history. It began when a handful of protesters went to Gezi Park on May 28 to protect a single tree from being cut off in order to pave way for a shopping mall project. Word-of-mouth rapidly drew thousands there, and for a very short period of time, Gezi Park became a symbol of resistance and hope.
Gezi Park will take its place in history among many others like Zucotti Park, where the frustrated young raised their voices, but for me and other gay men, it actually symbolizes something else. Gezi was our very own cruising ground. One would perhaps expect a Stonewall-like uprising to be born at Gezi Park, but it was fitting that first large-scale protests in recent years erupted there. For one thing, the park had evolved from a gay cruising area to a ready-to-be-demolished site for the greedy construction magnets, whose revenues increased beyond any reason due to the Turkish government’s development-friendly policies. But much more than that, Gezi, in itself, represents what was taken away from us.
In my younger years, I watched the park morph into a mecca of sexual liberation. In the 80s, Turkey was a more closed society. There was only a single television channel run by the state, no private radio stations, and even international travel needed to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the government. Bülent Ersoy, a transsexual singer, was banned from TV after going through a sexchange operation in London.
Taksim, the district at the center of Istanbul, was almost an island of misfits. It was the entertainment hub of the city, but it was also home to the homeless, the deviants, the neglected, and the abused. Gays also found solace around Taksim, with its few bars, and, of course, Gezi Park. Even the word gezi can be loosely translated as cruising; it literally means strolling.
Like many of my peers, I grew up with tales of Gezi Park. It wasn’t always Romantic; at times it could be brutal, and stories of violence appeared in newspapers with some regularity. But there was also something appealing about it. Even without fully understanding the correlation between oppressed groups and public spaces, the younger me always wondered what was going on in Gezi. I was told by older and wiser brethren to enter Gezi Park at my own risk. This same advice was reiterated in guidebooks, such as Spartacus, which I’ve first came across much later (I’m 35 now).
It makes so much sense to me, now, why the LGBT activists were the first to arrive at the Park for the 2013 protests to save the tree. They were there not only reacting to the government’s oppression,
but also to claim what was taken away from us. It was historically ours, and the gay community was there to defend it. But the gays had long been kicked out of Gezi.
My friend Yig˘it Karaahmet, a journalist for the Turkish daily Taraf, mentions that over the years, green spaces were gradually leveled and the lighting increased in the park, leaving no blind spots. The bushes were trimmed, leaving no place to hide and hook up like in the old days. An overpass, connecting the meeting area to the designated hook up area of the park, was demolished earlier this year. On top of all this, the police presence increased. In fact, the park has become a de facto hub of the Turkish police overseeing the Taksim area.
When I first visited the park in the 90s, its cruising glory was dying out but not totally finished. It wasn’t an open-air sex club like I was told. What I remember was a handful of gay men looking for a quick fix and a few boys who were more than happy to hand it to them. But I don’t remember any police, or any disturbance of any kind. It was almost an unwritten consensus that the park was reserved for the gay community and was off-limits at night.
I did cruise in the park, but I think I was too afraid to meet or hook up. I don’t recall a single memory of an encounter with a stranger in the park, but I remember being drawn to it numerous times. I only understood the appeal of Gezi Park, when I visited its international sisters like Ørstedparken in Copenhagen. But while we were being kicked out of Gezi, the city of Copenhagen was providing lube and condoms for cruisers.
I don’t want to sound too bold, but it would be impossible to find anyone (or should I say any gay) who hasn’t cruised through the park in its glory days. We’ve all been there. And cruise we did. “I’ve been through so much there, even got robbed,” says Barbaros S˛ansal, a 56-year-old Turkish fashion designer, who used to live steps away from the park until recently. “Police would regularly raid the area, beat us up, and sometimes force us into having sex with them. I’ve seen gays get arrested in groups, their heads forcefully shaved.”
Things only became worse under Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s reign, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister who has been in power for the last 12 years. Oppression of gays reached a point where prominent drag queens had to give up their iconic costumes to appear on TV. Club owners parted ways with transvestite show troupes that originally attracted patrons every night. The primary duty for the city’s gay club owners had become finding a way to deal with the police to avoid nightly raids. Last year, a member of the ruling party declared homosexuality an ailment during a speech in Parliament.
One of the justifications for building a shopping mall on Gezi Park was that it was a home for deviants, “marginals” (a term that commonly implies gays in Turkish), and drug addicts, and that “it had to be cleaned out.”
It wasn’t just gays who were emotionally attached to Gezi Park. For many years, it also served as an ad hoc sleeping area for people who had gone out on a weekend to spend a night out at Taksim. Mind you, Istanbul is a massive city with an inadequate public transportation system that halts service before midnight. From 4am, when the clubs close, until early morning, when buses resumed service, it attracted a diverse crowd. In Tokyo, there are capsule hotels. In Istanbul, we had Gezi Park. For those who couldn’t afford to go clubbing, or chose to avoid being spotted at gay venues for fear that their identity would be disclosed, Gezi was not just a layover, but the destination.
The protests, though, didn’t mention even a hint of the Park’s unwritten history. The only reason the park has become a symbol of liberation for Turks
What I remember was a handful of gay men looking for a quick fix and a few boys who were more than happy to hand it to them.
perhaps lies in the oldest formula in the book: Location, location, location. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian policies–such as the ban on alcohol sales and advertising or issuing large fines for TV channels for broadcasting moderate love scenes–reached a tipping point that people just had to rise up against. Then the government set its eyes on Gezi, at the center of Istanbul, with its 606 trees. But the plan backfired.
Ahmet Kaya, a spokesperson for Istanbul Bears, tells me that all LGBT groups united under an umbrella organization called the LGBT Bloc during the protests. For two weeks, as the protesters battled with the police’s excessive use of gas bombs and water cannons, volunteers from the LGBT Bloc provided occupiers with aid. The Gezi protests increased the visibility of gays.
“The Gezi park uprising was a sort of a coalition of disparate groups, asking for their basic rights,” says Kursad Kahramanoglu, a columnist for Birgün daily and a former secretary general for ILGA. “[Gays] have never been taken seriously, and they want to be recognized. They are among millions of people in Turkey whose existence, views, and lifestyle choices are being ignored.”
For two weeks, apart from occasional police intervention, a sense of solidarity endured in the park. It became a venue for yoga sessions, math lectures, a library, literary discussions, prayers, and the exchange of goods with no money. “It was a park of liberties, where every minority came together,” says S˛ansal, “and rainbow flags waived everywhere.” Interestingly enough, soccer fans, famous for their homophobic slogans, embraced gay protesters and ended anti-gay slurs during demonstrations.
That year, the annual gay pride parade in Istanbul attracted the largest number of participants ever. What began with only 12 people in the early 2000s had swelled to exceed 100,000 in 2014. In one of the more memorable scenes during the occupation of the park by the protesters, the LGBT activists and an Islamist group known as the Anti-Capitalist Muslims stood in solidarity against the police’s aggressive use of tear gas and water cannons.
I went to visit Gezi Park for the first time since the protests broke in August of 2013. Although thousands fought against the oppressive government, they lost the battle. And yet, a sense of victory prevailed in the air at the park. It wasn’t turned into a shopping mall, and had since become more populated than ever, compared to the past. It was no longer dominated by homeless or the police, but everyday Istanbul people started to embrace the park, making stops there on a coffee break or just sitting on a bench.
That summer the youth were almost divided into two groups: those who were at Gezi and those who missed it. For the former, Gezi was a badge of pride. One high school senior told me he only left the park during the uprisings because of his final exams. Having missed the protests, because they had erupted suddenly, as protests do, I felt a sense of isolation in the city I was born in, from the park that helped me discover the depths of my sexuality.
Many were expecting greater consequences from the protests. A revolution, a shift in politics, a sudden liberation of the whole country. A year after what happened at Gezi nothing seems to have been accomplished except for the preservation of a green space. Turkey’s authoritarian government is still intact and the uprisings have had no impacts on policy. The park wasn’t regained as a cruising ground, but, hey, at least we made history.