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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Yasemin Öz

30 June 2020

Yasemin Öz is a human rights lawyer and defender, who contributed to the foundation of the LGBTI+ rights movement in Turkey. Despite the often dangerous situation in the country for civil society and especially for LGBTI+ activists, Öz has remained steadfast in fighting for her beliefs and defending the rights of all people. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to defend Yasemin Öz and other human rights defenders in Turkey from further criminalization and reprisals for their work.

The portrayal of Öz’s situation is a continuation of the series, “Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard,” told by Tan Tunali, with illustrations by Marco Lambooij.

A water-colour depiction of Yasemin Öz

When Yasemin Öz started studying law at the University of Ankara, she did not have the words to express her attraction to girls—but that was about to change. In 1994, she was part of a group of university students who met for discussions. These meetings eventually evolved into the development of a stencil magazine which tackled different topics of relevance for LGBTI+ people each issue. Öz decided to join them. “After my first meeting, I started calling myself gay and a lesbian,” she recalled. “I had always known that I was gay, but I thought that there had to be some sort of specific criterion [to call oneself that],” she explained. More than two decades later, the organisation that emerged from those meetings, KAOS GL, short for Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (Kaos Gey ve Lezbiyen Kültürel Araştırmalar ve Dayanışma Derneği) continues its significant work. Today it is one of the leading NGOs for LGBTI+ rights in Turkey.

The early days of KAOS GL helped Öz and other organisation members to better understand themselves and each other. It also provided general information to others who did not fit into society’s gender norms. They could approach KAOS GL with questions and for support. Öz knows the importance of finding people who understand the difficulties of asserting your LGBTI+ identity. “As a child, I wanted to fit in, but because I was attracted to girls I was constantly reminded that I did not. My teacher even made me visit a psychiatrist,” Öz recalled her time in high school.

If you are not able to speak up in your own group, it will be very difficult to make your voice heard in society,”

In the 1990s, the internet was not commonly used and information on the topics covered by KAOS GL was scarce. There was a lack of literature and examples in public life, especially for lesbian women, Öz pointed out. In Turkey, there are two famous singers who are open about their LGBTI+ identity: Zeki Müren who was openly gay and Bülent Ersoy who is a trans-women. But for lesbians, Öz notes, even today there are almost no role models in which lesbian women can recognise themselves. “Is there one famous lesbian in Turkey?” Öz asked, “I must be Turkey’s most famous lesbian. And I am not even famous,” Öz laughed.

In the early days, KAOS GL gathered in cafés frequented by leftists, but even in these environments, they were cautious about being overheard. Their presence as a group was still seen as a taboo so they were forced to whisper during their meetings. Now Öz realizes that this secrecy was a big obstacle. “If you are not able to speak up in your own group, it will be very difficult to make your voice heard in society,” she explained. Being able to do so without any fear is a valuable lesson Öz has learned during her lifelong struggle for LGBTI+ rights, for which she received the Felipe de Souza Award in 2013.

After Öz graduated in 1997, she began working as a lawyer, but along with many others who entered the workforce, she remained actively involved in the debates KAOS GL had started. She and her fellow activists tried to keep the organisation active. Relying solely on volunteers, this was not an easy task. They would send the magazine for free to LGBTI+s in prison; costs kept exceeding their income. “If we could not make ends meet, we would ask members earning the most to help pay for rent. It was rather tiring and we spent a lot of time trying to keep KAOS GL afloat—time we would have rather used to develop politics,” Öz added.