Actress Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti, activist Talya Aydın and Turkey’s first transgender municipal official, Niler Albayrak, are determined to make Turkey’s elections a milestone in the history of LGBTI rights. They are on the ballot of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP).
Although Turkey’s small leftist Workers’ Party is in single digits in the polls, it has attracted new voters and joining an alliance could give it increased influence in parliament if Erdogan’s coalition is defeated.
The TIP has teamed up with the powerful pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, and its support could help the coalition win more seats and influence legislative votes.
But who are the three daring transgender candidates?
Actress Esmeray Zeynep Ozadikti: LGBT favorite
Although TIP is fielding six LGBTI candidates in Izmir, Edirne and Eskişehir, 50-year-old transgender actress Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti seems to be the favorite and will be Turkey’s first LGBTI MP.
Zeynep, who once sold clams for a living, was born in Kars in 1973. She immigrated from Kars to Istanbul when she was 15 years old. Özadikti, who took acting classes at the Cultural Center of Mesopotamia, staged Dario Fo’s short female play Rape in two different versions, as well as a rape story from her own life. The stations of his artistic career are works influenced by his life and the LGBTI community.
He entered the Party Convention during the 1st Extraordinary Congress of the People’s Democratic Party in October 2013.
Transgender activist and theater artist Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti has become a candidate in the parliamentary elections for the 2nd district of Istanbul, 3rd place of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP).
Speaking to BBC Turkish, Esmeray said if elected her priorities were to protect LGBTI rights on the basis of civil equality, provide jobs and improve the living conditions of sex workers.
She says she could go to jail for running as an openly transgender woman in Turkey’s elections, but for her it’s worth it.
“I’ve met and lost so many of my friends, so many of my transgender friends, to murder, and now after their generation, now I see Gen Z and now I see I’m losing my daughters and my sons and the children my murders too,” he said.
“This election is not just about getting rid of the old system, but about building a fairer system for the future.”
The road to politics for Zeynep Esmeray was long and difficult. At the age of 15, she moved from a small town near the Armenian border in northeastern Turkey to Istanbul.
Later, her feminist activism and work in theater as an actress, dealing with issues of sexual identity and rape, made her a minor celebrity.
In her quest to improve conditions in her community, she reached out to the secular Republican People’s Party, but found it not inclusive enough. Finally, she meets members of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), who offer her to run for the 3THE location in region B of Istanbul.
Talya Aydin: The red lines of the young activist
26-year-old trans activist Talya Aydın has been nominated for the 18th post in Istanbul’s B district.
She said her party would seek justice for crimes which she said had not been properly investigated if the opposition alliance became the largest group in parliament.
It mentions the death of Hande Kader, a transgender activist whose murder led to hundreds of protesters in Istanbul, as well as charges against protesters who took part in banned Pride parades.
Aydın said the LGBTI community is currently one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country and would adopt policies to improve their access to jobs, housing and health.
“Today we are in a situation where you cannot legally commit to your lover, your life partner, whom you have loved all your life, with whom you have built a life together. If they have to go to the ER, you can’t visit them. One of the greatest shames in this country is the ordeal and struggle of LGBTQI people to pick up their loved ones and friends from morgues. Those will be my red lines,” he added.
“The elections on May 14 are historic elections for Turkey, elections in which we will determine what kind of country we dream of for our future. Therefore, I find it strange that the parties that aspire to govern the country ignore the representation LGBTI as the community is publicly targeted by anti-community hate marches,” he said.
Niler Albayrak: From prostitution, she became Turkey’s first transgender official
Transgender activist Niler Albayrak will be a candidate for the 11th office in District C of Constantinoupoulis.
As reported by Turkish media, she is known as the first transgender woman working in Avcılar Municipality with an open female transgender identity in Turkey. Before working in the commune, he lived off prostitution, but he wanted to escape and succeeded.
“My dream is to stand up for queer rights in Parliament as a very diverse MP,” he says, arguing that “they say society is not ready, when we are already living with society.” Our society is used to it and it is open, I wonder if the policy is open? I expect everyone’s support.”
Niler explains: “I was a candidate with the Republican People’s Party in the past, I represented Avcilar district and I was the head of the women’s department of Istanbul province.
“Because I believe that LGBTQI people have the right to be represented in this election, I am running again as a candidate.”
“It may be difficult, but if I manage to become a Member of Parliament, which I do not see as impossible, I would above all like to make proposals for a more humane life for homosexuals. It will be difficult, but it will be beautiful.”
Erdogan’s Turkey is an inhospitable country for transgender people
This is not the first election in which transgender candidates are running for office. In 2007, Demet Demir was a parliamentary candidate for the Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖDP) as the first openly transgender person to stand for parliament.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, and there are pockets of tolerance in places like Istanbul, where same-sex couples walk the streets in liberal neighborhoods holding hands.
However, the whole situation in Turkey is night and day compared to transgender ruled Constantinople. Turkey is a conservative country and discrimination against LGBTI people is common.
ILGA-Europe, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association, ranked Turkey 48THE place in 49 countries in terms of LGBTI rights and acceptance last year.
Although discrimination has worsened under Erdogan, the 6-party alliance led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu also includes ultranationalists and conservative Islamists.
Pride began being banned in 2015. Police used water cannons and rubber bullets against independently marching protesters.
According to reports, members of the community have also faced obvious death threats. According to LGBTQ advocacy group Kaos, there were eight hate-motivated killings in 2021, although it said the number was likely much higher as most would have gone unreported.
Alev Ozkazanc, professor emeritus of politics and gender studies at Ankara University, told American NBC that the anti-LGBTQI rhetoric during the election was unprecedented.
Even if one of the transgender candidates is not elected, according to Ozkazanc, their nominations alone send a message to the public. “The symbolic value is that trans people are there, LGBTQ people are there, among us. They are equal citizens who have the right to be elected like any other citizen,” Ozkazanc said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has targeted the LGBTI community in an appeal to his conservative Islamist base ahead of the election. Erdogan said last Sunday that the opposition was “pro-LGBT”.
Soilou even links the opposition to the LGBTI community by saying that if the opposition wins, people will be allowed to marry animals. “Whoever says such words, of course we are human, touches our feelings,” Ozadikti commented.
Interior Minister Soylu used his position to strike at the LGBTI community in Turkey and many pride marches were attacked during his tenure.
If they win, we’ll be in jail
In such a climate, transgender candidates express concerns about themselves. “If they win, their first act would probably be to arrest me,” Ozadikti said.
Aydin said his transgender identity puts him at increased risk of ending up behind bars if Erdogan is re-elected. “It makes me work harder so he doesn’t win,” he said.
Outside the prison, however, Aydin, who moved out last year, said she took photos of taxi license plates before entering.
For her, Turkish society is more tolerant than Turkish politics. Due to the economic crisis, Erdogan’s popularity has declined, which means many Turks are unswayed by anti-LGBTQI rhetoric. “Hate takes time, hate takes mental resources, hate takes emotional resources,” he said.
Sources: BNC, BIANET, Gazete Duvar, Cumhuriyet