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date: 20 September 2019

Decolonial Queer Politics and LGBTI+ Activism in Romania and Turkey

Summary and Keywords

The role of a queer decolonial analytic is to put scholars of ethnic decoloniality in conversation with queer studies scholarship. In exploring not only the impact of the Ottoman Empire on the region but also of a larger global colonial gender/sex system, decolonial scholars analyze the intersection of imperial hierarchies with the coloniality of gender. This is why Romania and Turkey serve as a focus to think about repositioning ethnic and gender identities in the context of global capitalist and imperial hegemonies. Queer activists in collectives such as Macaz in Romania and Hêvî LGBTI in Turkey show that decolonial politics needs an alliance with queer studies. Refusing single-issue activism, decolonial queer politics in Turkey and Romania seeks a radical transformation of society by drawing on the success of intersectional analyses as well as by addressing growing concerns about global inequality.

Moreover, a queer decolonial analytic interrogates mainstream LGBTI+ terms such as “visibility” and “the closet” and calls for a different political imaginary on the basis of José Esteban Muñoz’s assertion that the future is the domain of queerness. Since the language of the closet and visibility in LGBTI+ activism has significant limitations in wider political and societal contexts, a new analytic proposes the transformation of current activist vocabularies. In Turkey, the historical oppression of the Kurds and their ongoing political struggle have given a unique position to Kurdish LGBTI+ organizational efforts and queer activists. Kurdish LGBTI+ activism raises critical questions about ethnic and class hierarchies both within Turkey and within a global queer movement. This sort of activism deemphasizes “the closet” or “gay marriage,” or a mere “visibility,” which traditionally have been a key component of the 2000s LGBTI+ organizations and Western non-governmental organizations’ agendas. Like in Turkey, new forms of queer activism in Romania seek to develop spaces and locations that create safe spaces, advocate sexual experimentation, and promote radical social interventions.

Keywords: decolonial, queer, LGBTI+ activism, Romania, Turkey, visibility, utopia, LGBT politics

Theorizing Queer Decolonial Politics

This article expands on recent efforts to theorize an alliance between queer-feminist theory and decolonial anti-capitalist scholarship, but centers this approach on the regional possibilities of queer politics in Romania and Turkey.

Why this particular alliance, and why the focus on Romania and Turkey? Firstly, decolonial scholars have been asked to respond to concerns that countries that did not have an official Western colonial rule, such as Romania and Turkey, can be tackled by a decolonial analytic. In short, why work with a decolonial approach in such geographical units (Karkov & Valiavicharska, 2018, p. 5)? Rather than focusing on formal institutions of Western political governance and their colonialism, one vigorous answer has located the simultaneity of capitalism and coloniality at the very start of modernity. Peruvian theorist Anibal Quijano argues that in the history of Western modernity, not only capitalism but also the coloniality of power emerged in the long 16th century.1 In addition to giving birth to a rhetoric of freedom, equality, and solidarity, the coloniality of power led to the imposition of racial/ethnic categories as a model of exercising power. Lugones (2010, p. 753) has pushed this analysis to theorize the coloniality of gender and argues that the English term “women” functions as a universal category and serves as a barrier to decolonial feminism. This discussion has been taken up by Eastern European thinkers who in response to colonialism and capitalism highlight theoretical alternatives that are both decolonial and anti-capitalist (Karkov & Valiavicharska, 2018, p. 6). Boatcă’s (2012, p. 133) notion of “imperial difference” highlights the shift in the 19th century from a protocolonial system of domination (such as the Ottoman Empire) to a neocolonial one based on Western European models. The notion of imperial difference shows the growing hegemonic role of Europe’s North (England, France, and the Netherlands) in relation to the South, which was marked as decadent, and the East, which functioned as “inferior” and “mimetic.”

In expanding on the notion of imperial difference, this article theorizes migratory ethnic identities such as Kurdish and Romanian as marginal categories of difference within a larger imperial production of racialization. In light of the new scholarship of the coloniality of power, Romanian and Roma Romanian migrants in relation to the European (given that Roma and Romanian also presuppose different and unequal positions of racialization and power; see Tudor (2017)) are positioned historically on an axis of modernity that is not dissimilar from the position of Kurds in relation to Turkish or European. Analyzing the historicity of such positions, one should also bear in mind that a Kurdish identity, associated with “tribalism” and “backwardness,” has been a reference point for Turkey in justifying its modernization agenda and the assimilation and civic exclusion of the Kurds (Yegen, 2009).

This positionality, rather than a mark of inferiority, brings two important strengths to a queer decolonial analytic. Firstly, it destabilizes the nation-state as a unit of analysis and suggests an approach focused on the migratory experiences of people who work from different regions of the world. As Țichindeleanu (2017) suggests, such an approach illuminates regional alliances that were brought about through the circulation of ideas or experience of the immigrants to the West. Secondly, a decolonial analytic foregrounds forms of experience and political practices that are at odds with modes of exercising power that are part of heteronormative global capital. What a decolonial anti-capitalist approach needs, however, as Karkov and Valiavicharska (2018, p. 8) argue, is greater attention to queer and non-reproductive ways of knowing, which are discrete sites of resistance that illuminate alternative practices of power. This article seeks to further this alliance between queer politics and decolonial anti-capitalist with a focus on other types of marginal positions such as the migrant, the poor, and the genderqueer, which can inaugurate new forms of politics. In contrast with an approach that focuses merely on ethnic histories and hierarchies, it expands on a queer of color analytic that theorizes a coalition of marginalized positions vis-à-vis global capitalism. A queer of color analytic critically investigates historical materialist analyses of capitalism and, in doing so, this analytic rethinks its categories such as the working class in relation to the materiality of race, gender, and sexuality (Ferguson, 2003, p. 5). Regimes of sexuality and gender are not only marginal to global capitalism but are at the heart of how racialization and normative sexuality have helped to articulate heteropatriarchy as a universal category (Ferguson, 2003, p. 6).

A queer of color analytic has been deployed primarily in relation to black and brown experiences in the United States (Ferguson, 2003; Muñoz, 2009), but this article draws on this analytic to think about its potential in the context of an alliance between Kurdish and Romanian queer politics. A queer decolonial analytic has emerged since 2010, when the work of scholars in queer studies began to interrogate Anglo deployments of LGBT politics for colonial or capitalistic gains (e.g., pink-washing (Spade & Wilse, 2015); homonationalism (Puar, 2007); safe spaces (Hanhardt, 2013); “the traveling” of Anglo sexual categories to Eastern Europe (Woodcock, 2011)). The anti-social turn in queer theory has brought a new problematic about the linearity of time, coloniality, and decolonial sexualities (Kulpa & Mizielińska, 2011, p. 15). What decolonial scholars offer is an account of the experience of being marked as inferior in relation to an imperial and colonial legacy, which highlights the circulation of ethnic and racialized labor at a global level. Given their experience of migration and positionality in relation to other allegedly superior ethnic identities, Romanians, Kurds, Turks, and Roma Romanians represent a location for a cheap extraction of labor. These populations, as Ferguson (2003, p. 15) argues with regard to racialized labor in North America, offer a special site from which non-heteronormative racial formations emerge and become possible locations for critiques of state and capital (2003, p. 15).

While a queer of color analytic foregrounds critiques of LGBTI+ single issue politics such as “the closet” and “visibility,” this article theorizes the potential of queer utopia in the context of collectives such as Macaz in Romania and Hêvî LGBTI in Turkey. In doing so, it focuses on the language and the work of these collectives that build spaces and communities for queer people that embrace a broader social justice agenda. This radical orientation seeks to forge alliances with political groups and associations that focus on the precarity of work, the public availability of healthcare services, greater access to housing, and anti-racist politics.

The Queer Decolonial in Romania

A novel queer activism clashes with more traditional tactics of LGBTI+ activism, which tend to emphasize LGBTIQ+ identities without a decolonial and anti-capitalist approach to social justice. As a recent example of such a clash, Mihai Popescu (2018) published in Vice Romania an article that highlights a conflict between more traditional LGBTI+ activism and queer politics.2 An openly gay fashion editor, Maurice Munteanu, who has publicly criticized right-wing coalitions against LGBTI+ politics, has chosen to criticize a queer space in Bucharest, Romania (“Macaz: Bar Teatru Coop”) because of its poor services. In his rendition of the incident, the Macaz bartenders were not professional and did not smile when he asked for a drink, and he was rebuked when he called a working person in the co-op by using the term missis (“domnișoară”). Moreover, he allegedly threatened to bring the police to check the legal documents of this queer collective. In response, one of the organizers of the Macaz co-op, Veda Popovici (Macaz, 2017), wrote on her Facebook page, “Macaz is not lgbt friendly because it is queer af” (as in “queer as fuck”). Moreover, she shared memes about “Capitalism being a joke,” which were poking fun at claims such as “the queer space is an old-school communist cooperative” or that the queer activists have “dogmatic and pc minds.” Another member of Macaz, Alx Hrghdn (Macaz, 2017), offered a powerful statement about what queer politics is, in contrast with LGBTI+ politics, without an intersectional approach to exploitation: “We are those to whom the profit is not what’s important because our biggest stake in this fight is solidarity.”3

This conflict is key to understanding the potential of a queer decolonial analytic to shape activism in regions and populations that were marked as inferior. In the Romanian context, Munteanu took a strong position against organizations such as “Coalition for the Family” that have tried to restrict the legal definition of marriage to between a man and a woman. Like other LGBTI+ activists, Munteanu understood that right-wing politics seeks to take over the state to curtail legal rights for minorities. Not unlike other right-wing groups in Eastern Europe, the Coalition seeks to make the definition of heterosexual marriage the battleground for non-normative gender and sexuality and middle-class capitalism.4 By inscribing the heterosexual marriage in the Constitution, these groups seek to create a legal construction of normative Romanianness that is discriminatory not only toward queer people but also toward Roma and other minorities who either have been historically excluded or have different understandings of concepts such as “man,” “woman,” and “marriage.” Yet, like a good part of the Romanian liberal press and urban youth, Munteanu argues against the Coalition supporters by portraying its members as uncivilized. To criticize novel forms of queer activism, he deploys what Robert Kulpa (2013, p. 432) calls a “leveraged pedagogy,” which figures Eastern Europe as backward with regard to the West and “homophobic.” This “leveraged pedagogy” has been influential in describing a recent referendum to redefine marriage as a violation of LGBT rights (Viski, 2018) rather than an attack, in addition to on queer people, on a broader intersectional spectrum that was described as “the target of the new fascism,” such as “Roma people, immigrants, women, and people who live on welfare” (Popovici, 2018). As was mentioned in the introduction, a similar mechanism functions in Turkey between western Turkey and eastern Turkey—associated with Turkishness and Kurdishness, respectively, the civilized and the savage—through which Kurdish queers create decolonial possibilities.

A queer decolonial analytic, such as the one deployed and developed by Veda Popovici, focuses on the intersectional nature of populations targeted by fascism. This approach takes seriously the intersections of labor, migration, poverty, gender, and sexuality, and it imagines a broader collective response to the rise of right-wing politics. In acknowledging racial hierarchies and imperial differences that shape not only how Romanianness is deployed but also gender and sexuality, queer politics can embrace what Tudor (2017, p. 30) conceptualizes as a trans critique of nationalism. In such an elaboration, a trans analytic critical of nationalism shows the danger of processes of racialization and consolidation of gender binaries in relation to strict national demarcations. For instance, in Tudor’s analysis, self-identified white Romanians try to cancel their own marginalization by delineating themselves from the Roma (Tudor, 2017, p.31). Like Tudor’s analysis about the exclusionary potential of ethnic marginal identities, but this time in response to a narrow focus of some LGBTI+ activism on a single-issue and pro-business agenda, the Macaz collective highlights the importance of queer anti-capitalist politics. The narrow positionality and vocabulary of LGBTI+ activists can lead to exclusionary tactics. In his intervention, Munteanu complains that queer spaces are not “professional,” as he was entitled to receive special treatment due to his status as a famous person. As part of the fashion and TV Romanian and global industry, Munteanu expresses the pro-market attitude of some mainstream LGBTI+ activists who are willing to embrace such an agenda uncritically. Furthermore, in calling the police to impose norms of civilized behavior, Munteanu is not an exception in appealing to a repressive branch of the state to discipline queer activists. From their early formation, mainstream Romanian organizations such as ACCEPT, while critical of the homophobia of the state, have also sometimes appealed to police and powerful foreign embassies such as those of the United States and Germany to protect Pride events in Bucharest.5 A politics that is not intersectional and decolonial, however, has been called into question by queer-identified people, who are very concerned with the deployment of mechanisms of state repression to advance queer rights.6

An LGBTI+ positionality without a decolonial and trans critique of nationalism runs the risk of embracing the superiority of a Western type of LGBTI+ identity. Munteanu’s defensive reaction when he was asked to change his term of address, “missis,” is emblematic of a politics that needs a broader alliance around trans politics, labor, and racialization. Macaz is one of the few spaces in Bucharest that does not charge for plays and other events, while it is very clear about its anti-racist and anti-heteronormative politics. Munteanu’s reactions about the uncivilized Romanians are hard to decouple from his reluctance to ask the members of the collective what their gender pronouns are. On the one hand, trans politics complicated LGB activism that privileged a male gay identity, and on the other hand, it showed the limits of a politics focused exclusively on achieving rights without paying attention to structural racial discrimination and poverty. In focusing their attention on spaces such as Roma evacuations and the violence of the police, queer activists at Macaz and other places such as Social Housing Now have illuminated new sites of vulnerability and alliances.7 It is not a coincidence that Munteanu’s rhetoric contained expectations about capitalist behavior such as “serve and smile to the customer.” A critique focused on “poor services” of the Bucharest collective and co-op is a response to a broader contestation of single-issue politics, which identifies some identities such as LGBTI+ as uncontested sites of social critique. A queer decolonial analytic, however, critically investigates the move to posit Anglocentric sexual and gender marginalization as uncontested in a context marked by racialization and deep social inequalities.

A change in activist practices and vocabularies is concomitant with a shift in scholarship that emerges in conversation with a queer of color analytic. In a North American context, Christina Hanhardt has shown that a novel form of Anglo-American activism emerged in the 1970s to oppose a traditional pro-business gay politics, which was involved in gentrifying major urban centers. Groups of radical queer activists such as FIERCE argued that in Greenwich Village LGBT policing and the increase of visibility do not make people of color and queers safer (Hanhardt, 2013, p. 188).

In the vein of this critique, queer decolonial politics seems to be a relatively new formation in Eastern Europe. This is why Romanian queer decolonial politics has to be historicized in its regional context. In the 2000s the main concerns of activists and academics evolved around legal matters and a politics of the visibility. As such, the academic and activist movements of the 2000s had two key questions that they wanted to address. Firstly, most of the legal measures for which they advocated sought protections for same-sex couples. In the Czech Republic and Hungary, same-sex activity has been legal since the 1960s (1962 in Czech Republic, 1961 in Hungary), and both countries passed measures to allow registered partnerships for same-sex couples in the late 2000s (2006 in the Czech Republic, 2009 in Hungary). While in Poland same-sex acts were recognized by law in 1932, attempts to introduce civil partnerships have failed to pass in the Polish parliament (Sejm). While same-sex activity was decriminalized in 1994 in Serbia and Romania, the elimination of article 200 from the penal code in 2001 in Romania was considered its official decriminalization. However, there is no civil partnership law in either country. Initiatives about same-sex legislation emerged in direct relationship with what Kulpa calls “a moment of dislocation” (2013, p. 434), situated in the mid-2000s after the European Union enlargement. At that time, the passing of the European Union resolutions condemning homophobia was concomitant with the rise of right-wing movements in Poland, Hungary, Russia, and the Balkan states. Because such dual movement helped frame the region as being more vulnerable to homophobia than the West, a politics of visibility was considered the right response to “backward” sexual politics (Kulpa, 2013, p. 435). But this politics of visibility runs the risk of what Atanasoski and McElroy (2018, pp. 294–295) warn about, which is that “the public square and the mass protest have increasingly become coopted by Western aspirational fantasies of privatization and pre-socialist ‘golden eras’ rather than those of anticapitalist and antifascist futures.” In their analysis, visibility has become a strategy that locates Eastern Europe as a special geographical formation vulnerable to right-wing politics in order to ignore the violence of global capitalism (pp. 294–295).

Secondly, most of the 2000s activism and academic research focused on the question of the closet and encouraged queer people to come out. From historical reconstructions of Slovak and Czech LGBT activism in the 1990s, “rallying, lobbying and seeking media visibility” were key tactics to talk about non-normative sexualities (Lorencová, 2013, p. 88). While a growing interest in trans activism seems to have emerged in Eastern Europe around 2007–2008, it has generated novel concerns about trans and nonbinary exclusions located at the level of bodily presentations (Kulpa & Mizielińska, 2011, p. 14). In addition, the closet was increasingly challenged in the mid-2000s as a formation and product of Anglo-American temporality, which posits the superiority of European exceptionalism and its “advanced culture.” In focusing on the experiences of upper-class Anglos and North Americans and presuming a linear trajectory of queer sexuality, the closet actively denies the existence of other forms of queer sexuality either in black communities or in the Global South.8 In the Polish context, Mizielińska (2011, p. 96) notes that as a reaction to right-wing politics and the homophobia of the Polish government, organizations such as Campaign Against Homophobia (CAH) maintain and strengthen “the essentialist notion of identity” and also become “a gatekeeper of its very strict definition.” As a result, CAH has become a “guardian of gayness” as represented by the rhetoric of “coming out interviews” (Mizielińska, 2011, p. 96). Ross (2005, p. 162) suggests that white queer theory and history are beset by “claustrophilia,” by which he means that a fixation on the closet “functions as the grounding principle for sexual experience, knowledge and politics.” The narrative of progress that underpins the narrative of coming out from the closet was born “within the evolutionary notions of the uneven development of races from primitive darkness to civilized enlightenment” (Ross, 2005, p. 163). To foreground this critique, Somerville (2000) showed that the history of the homo vs. hetero divide emerges from the formation of “whiteness” and “blackness” as racial categories (p. 5). In a potential conversation with these scholars, Kuhar’s (2011, p. 151) “transparent closet” locates the closet as a strategy to push people into the closet even after they have declared their queerness in public, which underscores local and conservative Eastern European tactics of producing heteronormativity.

One the most forceful examples of an early decolonial queer analytic is Woodcock’s intervention, which articulates a key shift from an older problematic of Anglo LGBTI+ politics. In arguing against the claim that Eastern Europeans do not want to “come out,” Woodcock (2011, p. 66) interrogates the role of sex and gender categories that were mobilized to “civilize” new subjects:

Western LGBT donors and press took this as another sign of repression in the primitive East. Perhaps all the lesbians were hiding at home? Perhaps they did not know themselves as “lesbians”? I do not know about other women, but I knew the words and I was watching and wondering what good could come of these new neon signs of sexual difference in such a hostile social environment, far from the context in which the identity terms were developed.9

As part of a new queer sensibility, Woodcock historicizes the emergence of LGBTI+ identities in Romania in the context of conservative anti-homosexuality campaigns (Woodcock, 2011, p. 68). Rather than political identities that would emerge through sexual practices, LGBTI+ was now a yardstick that measured the progress to becoming Western. In discussing Madonna’s comments at a concert in Bucharest and the reaction of the blogosphere, they show that the Romanian queer communities “rely on the Țigan other in order to claim Romanian ethno-national identity” (Woodcock, 2011, p. 79). In other words, queer communities deployed racism against Roma people to justify themselves as progressive and legitimate. To become European, queer subjects sought to mark themselves as “white” or “developed” or “civilized,” which leads Woodcock to argue that a queer movement without anti-capitalism is neoliberal. In the spirit of a new decolonial and anti-racism queerness, they call for “rights to refuse categorization and to remain queer in time, space, desire and safety” (Woodcock, 2011, p. 80). This genealogical approach to the translation, transnational movement, and historical role of LGBT identities has a strong decolonial payoff, because it disturbs the taken for granted narrative that sees modern sexual identities as inherently progressive. In turn, these sexual identities are conceptualized as part of a biopolitical production of subjects that have both emancipatory and repressive effects. While this scholarship has generated distinct conceptualizations of what counts as an Eastern “queerness” (Kulpa & Mizielińska, 2011; Woodcock, 2011), this research located in Eastern Europe does not yet seem to have had an impact on a queer of color analytic.

The Queer Decolonial Momentum in Turkey

Turkey has been abundantly described—by both official and unofficial accounts—as a “bridge” between East and West, which itself accentuates its pursuit of an identity. While making Turkey’s contradictions visible, such as being “devout and secular, modern and not, repressive and poor, central and peripheral all at the same time,” Nurdan Gürbilek (2011, p. 2) warns against labeling Turkey as a “land of contradictions,” which is one step away from the “bridge” analogy. This would lead to, as Gürbilek (2011, pp. 2–3) further elaborates, falling into the trap of an easy analysis that renders the East as a mere fantasy of “at best exotic, at worst uncanny.” Nevertheless, being aware of the complexity of geopolitical (dis)orientations, the purpose of this article is to analyze Romania and Turkey as part of an Western imperial legacy. Given their association(s) with “Eastern imaginaries,” these imaginaries take place under two different conceptualizations, namely under broader theorizations of “Balkanization” and “Orientalism,” while exhibiting similarities. We employ a queer of color analytic to think about the positionality of Romanian, Roma, Turkish, and Kurdish as ethnic identities that are part of a queer and decolonial intersectional spectrum.

In a brief account of Turkey, the article keeps its focus on Ankara and Istanbul, which are situated in the “west” of Turkey, both geographically and symbolically. The main reason for this is that the inclusion of other parts would necessitate an analysis of historically constructed class and racial hierarchies vis-à-vis spatial distinctions (Gambetti & Jongerden, 2015). To further this project, the article briefly analyzes the formation of a Kurdish LGBTIQ+ organization in Istanbul, which is distinct from other LGBTI+ factions present in Turkey in terms of manifesting a position in accordance with race/ethnicity and class. The article also takes into consideration the historical oppression of the Kurds and their ongoing political struggle (Gunes & Zeydanlıoğlu, 2014; McDowall, 1996; Romano, 2006). These themes are a few examples that justify the complexity of an intersectional analysis, which shows why illuminating the work of queer activists at the Romanian-based collective Macaz and Hêvî LGBTI in Turkey is vital in understanding the power relations surrounding this complexity.

Although there are accounts that shed light on being LGBTIQ+ in the 1970s and 1980s in Turkey (Biricik, 2013; Gürsu & Elitemiz, 2012; Yıldız, 2006), multiple analyses date the organized LGBTQ struggle to the early 1990s. Ali Erol, the co-founder of Kaos GL, contends that the very idea of “getting organised” itself was stigmatized due to the notorious September 12, 1980 coup d’état in Turkey (Erol, 2011, pp. 433–434). This stigma had shaped, and had been shaped by, state policies accordingly, and affected the early years of LGBTIQ+ mobilization in Ankara and Istanbul, hence their attempts to initiate a systematic struggle. The reluctance of LGBTIQ+ people to get organized was associated not only with their concern about what the majority thought of them, or merely with homophobia, but also, and maybe more importantly, with the structure of the political environment that prevented any attempt at political mobilization. Nevertheless, having been founded in 1993, Lambdaistanbul provided a cultural space for LGBTIQ+ people in Istanbul, whereas Ankara-based Kaos GL initiated discussions on LGBTIQ+ issues at home discussions, and eventually published its first magazine on September 20, 1994.

Erdal Partog (2012) situates the LGBTIQ+ movement in Turkey in three periods. The first period encompasses from 1993 to 2000, when the LGBTIQ+ movement acknowledged itself. The period from 2000 onwards marks the second period, when the LGBTIQ+ movement encountered and established ties with other movements such as the anti-war, anti-militarist, anarchist, and feminist movements. This period, which marks the consolidation of the movement, coincides with the neoliberal conservative Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) coming to power in 2002 (Birdal, 2015). The third period is that during which Partog’s chapter was published in 2012. He explains this latter period as the “queer and social rights struggle,” which demonstrates how social rights and class issues can be brought into question by the LGBTIQ+ struggle. Yıldız Tar (2013, p. 31) additionally criticizes the leftist and revolutionary organizations—they (Tar) exclude the Kurdish Freedom Movement for its distinct position and also acknowledge that it was one of the first oppositional structures to make contact with the LGBTIQ+ movement—for being reluctant to meet the LGBTIQ+ struggle until it became visible enough.

The Gezi protests in Turkey (David & Toktamış, 2015; Özkırımlı, 2014; Yalçın & Yılmaz, 2014) offered another turn in queer politics. “LGBT blok” was established by LGBTIQ+ people who participated in the protests from various backgrounds, both activist and non-activist. Since 2013, there has been a momentous shift in LGBTIQ+ activism, and sub-groups have emerged from the LGBTIQ+ movement, struggling for broader social and political change. One of those groups is the Istanbul-based Kurdish LGBTIQ+ organization, Hêvî LGBTI.

Hêvî LGBTI offers an important activist orientation that illuminates the relevance of a queer of color analytic for Turkey. During the anti-authoritarian Gezi protests, which attracted global interest, a growing awareness about bringing together queer sexuality and ethnic hierarchies of power illuminated new sites for other political practices and interventions. “When the LBGT and queer marched toward Taksim Square with their rainbow flags, the slogans protesters chanted included, ‘Everywhere is Lice, Everywhere is Resistance!’ and ‘Resist Lice, “same-sexers” [eşcinseller in Turkish] are with you!’” (Yıldız, 2014, p. 105). Lice, a district of Kurdish Diyarbakır, is located in southeast Turkey/Turkey’s Kurdistan (Diyarbakır being the symbolic capital of Kurdistan). The slogans were chanted immediately after Medeni Yıldırım, an 18-year-old Kurdish man, was shot dead as a result of the Turkish military response to civilians protesting against the construction of a high-technology military post (Yıldız, 2014, p. 104). Although there had been several encounters with Kurds and the Kurdish issue prior to that moment, this is a novel example of how the LGBTIQ+ movement in western Turkey manifested its stance on Kurdish issues at that specific moment, in an attempt to challenge class, racial, and geographical hierarchies. Similarly, Judith Butler acknowledges the broader political performance in the Gezi protests as follows: “When the transgender activist, the feminist seeking street safety, the Kurdish mother seeking public acknowledgment of her son’s death, all arrived in the square, they were all in some sense entering a symbolic space where they had not yet been allowed to claim a place” (Butler, 2014, p. xii). Having acquired official association status in 2005, Kaos GL activists had provided hints of anti-statist discourse in the magazine’s early issues, yet moved towards a more liberal discourse of rights (Partog, 2012, p. 173). This perception may be one of the reasons why Kurdish LGBTQI+ activists, after seeing the possibility on the ground during Gezi protests, decided to establish a separate organization. This activist move was generated by the need to think through both queer and ethnic marginalization in Turkey.

Hêvî LGBTI [“Hêvî” means “hope” in the Kurmancî dialect of Kurdish] was established on September 22, 2013, and their manifesto asserts: “Hêvî, founded by mostly Kurdish LGBTI people, constrains on the issues and problems which Kurdish LGBTI people in Turkey face” (Hêvî website). They also assert that they prioritize the “Kurdish issue” since, according to them, prior to a resolution of the Kurdish issue, none of the other problems can be resolved, neither in Turkey nor in Kurdistan (Kaos GL, September 21, 2013). Some Hêvî activists criticize the “whiteness” of other LGBTQI+ factions in (western) Turkey, and associate Kurdishness with class and racialization (Yıldız, 2017).10 That is why, they argue, a separate organization became a necessity, despite criticism from other factions. In an interview in 2016, a Kurdish trans activist asserted that there has been ghettoization of LGBTIQ+ people in Istanbul, and pointed out the hierarchy among them. They (the trans activist) contended that LGBTIQ+ people who are higher up in the hierarchy oppress other ghettos, as in the example of Cihangir over Tarlabaşı (neighborhoods in Istanbul). This resonates well with the Hêvî activists’ assertion of how different positions within LGBTQI+ movement manifest themselves around class and Kurdishness.

In thinking through the cases of collectives such as Macaz and Hêvî LGBTI+, a queer decolonial analytic is important because it gestures towards other forms of politics, which are located beyond conventional electoral politics. In Romania, many LGBT activists seek to preserve the legal gains obtained during the 2000s and also push for the recognition of civil partnership. These strategies seek legal protections for married couples, which are part of the activism of one of the founders of ACCEPT, Adrian Coman. For instance, Coman obtained from the European Court of Justice the recognition of EU residence rights for same-sex spouses, regardless of their nationality (Boffey, 2018).11 Unlike traditional LGBT activism, a queer decolonial activism is confrontational in its attempts to diversify workplaces and reform laws when they are disconnected from larger social inequalities.12 In Turkey, the prioritization of the Kurdish issue for Hêvî LGBTI+ speaks to a growing concern about the limitations of the nation-state. In contrast with a single-issue LGBTI agenda, the priority of the Kurdish issue for Hêvî LGBTI+ shows that queer and ethnic processes of marginalization need to be analyzed simultaneously.

Toward a Queer Future?

This article has sought to illuminate distinct positionalities and vocabularies that are deployed by queer and LGBT activists in Turkey and Romania. It first highlighted a queer positionality located at the intersection between marginal non-normative sexualities and genders and ethnic/racial identifications. Second, it pointed to the reluctance and refusal of queer activists to draw on the rhetoric of “coming out” and “visibility” to intervene politically in their local contexts. Such a refusal is motivated by a gesture to create a larger coalition against right-wing politics. As part of this politics, the question of a new vocabulary and practices for queer activism is at the heart of imaging a different future, which would be better for a broader coalition of marginalized people.

The intersectional alliances that are growing within LGBTI+ movements suggest that a new generation of activists and radical queers are opening up the potential for “queer utopia,” which emerges from what “is not quite here” and can be achieved by actual struggles (Muñoz, 2009, p. 7). If the goal is to “cruise utopia” (Muñoz, 2009), the new queer activism is about the rejection of the “here and now” and the insistence on the potentiality for another world. In sketching a queer utopia, Muñoz suggests that history is not a possibility, a thing that simply may happen, but a potentiality, which is a thing that is present but does not actually exist in the present tense. What does it mean to take Muñoz’s (2009, p. 1) assertion seriously, so that we see the future “as queerness’s domain?” What other politics can emerge from the fact that radical queers see themselves as “not yet queer” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1)? While unseen and considered unreal, potentialities are unanticipated sites for queer relationality. They can emerge not only from ordinary practices such as a moment of “an astonished contemplation of the present” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 5), but also from sites that are traditionally considered the ground of LGBTI+ legislative politics such as Pride marches.

The Pride march is an example of how a queer imagination does not have to be tied to an existing map of possible futures. Despite constructive criticisms coming from different factions of LGBTIQ+ activism, especially from certain socialist groups (Özlen, 2016), Istanbul’s Pride march remains a space of resistance as a whole. As it began to attract more people over time, especially after the Gezi protests, the AKP government banned the LGBTIQ+ Pride marches in Istanbul beginning in 2015. This resulted in creative strategies, such as the one in 2016, #wedisperse #dağılıyoruz. In both celebrating the Pride march and protesting the ban, LGBTI+ community came up with an idea to subvert the ban. Instead of marching in “traditional” Pride style, they dispersed all over the designated march route and read out loud the statement: “We defend peace instead of war, courage instead of fear, and all who are oppressed. We show that a different world, sexuality, body, and life is possible” (Kaos GL, June 27, 2016). For radical queers gathered in Istanbul, the invention of other queer futures is possible in the context of imagining new modes of marching and making oneself visible in heteronormative settings. In the context of Bucharest Pride 2018, some radical queers in Bucharest marched under banners such as “Queer invasion” and “The future is queer af.” Other queer radical activists sought to overturn traditional heteronormative and nationalistic slogans. While the Romanian media was awash in messages celebrating “The Great Union,” which represents the alleged formation of the modern Romanian state in 1918, this group marched under the banner “The Great Union of 2018: LGBT + anticapitalism + Antiracism + Anarchism + Feminism + Antifa = Love.”

In the interventions of queer activists, queerness becomes a site that is deployed to imagine either a broader coalition of positionalities or a threat that will create trouble for a heteronormative racist imagination. While not existing in the present tense, a potential future is prefigured in these activists’ call for a different political imaginary, which will take over tired conventions about politics. As a material potentiality, the performance of queerness in Romania and Turkey shows that to think and feel a “there and then” is to enact a “concrete possibility for another world” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). This new world not only emerged in concrete actions, but it generated new modes of feeling and action. As we saw with the Macaz collective, from feeling that capitalism is a joke, a queer anti-capitalist world can be imagined and enacted. From a banner where one can see that queers are invading the world, the potential shame that an individual is a threat can be channeled in imagining queers as “a collective” threat. From a march where a different walking pace was initiated, a new “chaotic” map was articulated. From a nationalist slogan aimed to forge a narrow ethnic identity such as Romanianness, a banner such as “The Great Union of 2018” can instigate a route to a greater Left coalition. Not unlike Muñoz’s (1999, p. 100) argument about Vaginal Davis’s performance of a terroristic drag, which can stir up desires that are barely felt, queerness becomes a site for queers in Romania and Turkey to dare to feel and act differently.

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Notes:

(1.) See the discussion about decoloniality and Quijano’s work in Karkov and Valiavicharska (2018, p. 5).

(2.) Queer politics is a politics that is allied to trans theory, which seeks to problematize rigid categories such as “man” and “woman.” This article deploys the term trans as the equivalent of trans*, as it is theorized by Jack Halberstam (2017, p. xiii): “the term ‘trans’ puts pressure on all modes of gendered embodiment and refuses to choose between the identitarian and the contingent forms of trans identity.”

(3.) The original in Romanian: “Suntem cele pentru care profitul nu este o miză, cei pentru care solidaritatea este miza cea mai mare.”

(4.) See Mateescu (2018).

(5.) For a history of ACCEPT (one of the oldest Romanian organizations that protects sexual minorities), see Woodcock (2011). For a history of the queer movement in the 2000s in Romania, see Popovici and Nicolae (2017).

(6.) For the first Gay Pride events in Bucharest and their relationship to the police (Woodcock 2011: 73–76). In a provocative chapter, she draws on the experiences of local activists to call Gay Pride Romania “the march of the police” (Woodcock, 2011, p. 73).

(7.) See Vincze (2019, p. 63).

(8.) For a forceful attack on the metaphor of the closet, see Ross (2005, pp. 161–189).

(9.) For a different take on the potential of visibility for queer activism, see Ritchie’s (2010, p. 562) take on visibility, which he sees as having potential as a “strategy for challenging the repressive discourses and practices through which the respectable queer citizen is constructed in the first place.”

(10.) “Whiteness” is widely used in the Turkish context, similar to its Anglo-American usage, referring to a measurement of ethnicity, class, and secularism.

(11.) For a detailed study of Bulgaria’s laws in relation to queerness, see Roseneil and Stoilova (2011).

(12.) Yet such activism faces charges of being anti-gay. In the Polish context, queer activists and theorists were accused of producing “a modern closet” in their refusal to come out (Mizielińska, 2011, p. 98). In the case of Macaz, queer spaces were criticized for being either not gay enough or nostalgic for communism.