A Step-by-Step Account of the Istanbul Pride: A Rebellion’ Brief History

"That day will never leave my mind. In an instant, we, four or five individuals, were swept onto side streets and were able to cover our tracks. Later, they beat some in the Tunnel area and deported others immediately upon their arriving at the airport. Before we had a chance to march, they dismantled the entire thing. It was an important step despite the absence of a parade. Are you familiar with the old manila folders used in police stations? I recall that they pencilled "homosexual terrorist" on them. It struck me as quite odd. What was that supposed to mean? Who was becoming who?"

Mine Yanat, A Notch in the Official History

onur yürüyüşü

Thus did Mine Yanat recall their initial attempt to arrange the Istanbul Pride march in 1993. This was the first trial run of a pride parade by a group that had been meeting in homes, pubs and coffee shops, brewing up the idea of coming out onto the streets and into the public eye.

They began with a news conference in a shopping arcade on İstiklal Street and a series of events titled "Sexual Freedom." The purpose of this press conference was to invite all types of individuals to the parade. As one of the organizers of the first Pride, Yanat recounts, "Preparing for the march was so much fun, and we were making plans with tremendous excitement." Everyone seemed satisfied; the press conference proceeded without a hitch. However, the media coverage that followed the press conference bore little resemblance to the truth. Once again, there is an enormous gap between LGBTI+ experiences and media representation.

Before the parade, Mine received phone calls at her apartment. Cops warned her mother, "You'd best keep a watch on your daughter and marry her of, or else she'll end up like this." The exchange revealed to Mine's mother that her daughter was a lesbian.

Then, the parade day finally arrived. LGBTI+ individuals were frog marched from the area and arrested before they ever reached İstiklal Street. Police were on the prowl, so to speak, down the street. A delegation arriving from abroad in solidarity also got deported. The state was satisfied in preventing a mutiny from occurring. The "homosexual terrorists" who sought to take the streets with aims to claim their rights were all silenced, and before a single claim could be made, the whole matter was thwarted. Or, as is the case today, was the state's ideology, in waging a futile war, wholly mistaken?

It took a whole decade to organise a new Pride. Regardless, LGBTI+ communities were far from stagnant throughout this period. In Istanbul, they founded Lambdaistanbul, while in Ankara, they founded Kaos GL. The inaugural issue of Kaos GL magazine was published in 1994, with the cover proclaiming, "The mission is to tell Bye Felicia![1] to the heterosexist dictatorship in all its political and social dimensions.” The rebellion that was thought to have withered on the vine ripened on magazine pages, in pubs frequently stormed by police, in homes, as well as in parks, hammams, and sex theatres – all venues to clandestine meetings. Now, the 1990s have become the story of LGBTI+ gatherings and tearing down the walls of shame one by one. It became the account of lubunyas[2] who were physically and mentally wounded by bans, morality claims, stink eyes, violence, and torture in psychiatric facilities finding each other ...

"I think I was 16 or so, I read a depiction of a lesbian encounter in one of those adventure novels and was gob smacked. Two women were making out ... I was really stupefied that such a thing was indeed possible and that neither participant needs to be male. This newfound knowledge was so befuddling to me. It was a lore that I had no idea where to hide within myself, where to place, and about which I could never discuss or speak with another person ... In other words, even my access to this possibility was purely coincidental."

Yasemin Öz, Pathways: A Notch on the Official History

A pride much rehearsed

Another Pride Parade was held in Istanbul 10 years after the first attempt. However, it also had a backdrop. In 2001, Kaos GL took part in Ankara’s Labour Day assembly, followed in 2002 by LambdaIstanbul in Istanbul. Thus, when the year 2003 rolled around, the queer movement, which had previously marched on Labour Day, March 8th, and in anti-war demonstrations, was quite excited to march in its own event. This excitement also stemmed from the desire to organize the Pride Parade, which had been largely in shadows until that day, in broad daylight on one of the city's busiest streets.

"I have a recollection from 2001. Each year, we organised Pride Week, although these were typically one-week-long festivities ending with a closing party where everything abruptly ends with a so-called parade at night. Our parade consisted of marching from here to the Dolmabahçe Palace. It was obviously unseen, yet it also served as a sort of mise en scène. There was a renowned writer. He asked us, "OK, you do the parade, but which pride are you celebrating in secret? Throughout 1968 people risked their lives, fought for their causes, and even perished for them. However, you continue to engage in evasive battles." This was in a part a near-knuckle remark. Because coming out and settling this debt was no simple task ... On the other hand, that rebuff was not completely unfair. However, all of these preceding events were really a rehearsal for what was to come."

Can Yaman, Pathways: A Notch on the Official History

Finally, 2003 saw the first Istanbul Pride. Approximately 40 to 50 individuals marched on the İstiklal Street. Contradictory claims obscure the exact number. To some, there were 10 marchers, while others recall 100. What is consistent, though, was unquestionable bliss.

You know the enormous rainbow flag that people keep waving as they march along the İstiklal Street … Back in the day, it was considerably smaller. Only eight or nine people were holding it. It was that small.”  

Esmeray Özadikti, Pathways: A Notch on the Official History

The march commenced at the office of Lambdaistanbul and ended on Mis Street. Along their route, participants furled and unfurled the "Lambdaistanbul Queer Civic Initiative" banner. Mine, who was unable to attend the 1993 march, was also present, accompanied by her son. "One must truly breathe that feeling; words fall short. I was virtually inebriated by all these emotions," she said of her 2003 experience.

Have the attendees of that Pride ever considered the possibility that they will become part of a historic narrative? The answer is almost certainly no ...

"We were a little nervous, wondering if there would be a backlash or an assault, and if onlookers would say anything. We departed the Lambda to start our Parade towards Mis Street. I mean, everyone is providing varying estimates of the number of people, but I recall that there were perhaps 20 of them, while some claim the number was dramatically higher. I'm uncertain, but I don't believe we were particularly crowded. Especially, when compared to recent years, we were a small number of people who were unfurling flags and marching ... We never imagined that it would expand to such a degree over the next few years. At the time, it was merely a step forward for us.”

Öner Ceylan, Pathways: A Notch on the Official History

Whence to whither?

In the following years, people marched in the Pride on the İstiklal Street without missing a single year. Numbers varied from 200 to 300, and sometimes less. Nevertheless, the rebellion lingers. A rebellion against the system designed to induce shame, a rebellion against violence, hate murders, exiles, and a rebellion against all odds!

“I was always hopeful envisioning that it would gain a momentum before long. In 2007, we were a thousand. Within that short period from 2003 to 2007, we reached a thousand. That was the year we changed gears. We were all dumbfounded. We were propped up massively. It was the same in each Pride. Each year, I felt that we were rejuvenated, empowered. I was certain that groups of young people arriving from small cities and towns all over Turkey travelled for the parade and took heart from it and returned to their provinces or towns with that power. This was very important. In fact, it is exactly that power that they have stolen from these kids. It is my biggest sorrow about the Pride Parade.”

Özgür Azad, Patikalar: Resmî Tarihe Çentik

In the interim, LGBTI+ groups began to form associations and acquire legal status. First was Kaos GL, then came Lambdaistanbul. However, the latter faced a closure case. The campaign against the closure case extended well beyond cities and countries. Consequently, 2008 witnessed the largest parade ever organized. Another boundary was breached. Every year thereafter, the parade would grow in size and attendance.

In contrast, the first Trans Pride Parade was held in Istanbul exactly twelve years ago. The Trans Parade, which took place in 2010 with the slogan "We are marching against hate," received increasing participation each year until 2016 and played a crucial role on expressing the voice and demands of the trans community along İstiklal Street. Cops launched their first assault against the 2016 Trans Pride. This assault continued in 2017, but the transgender resistance also continued to chant, "We will not accept being treated as second-class people!"

While the Pride Parade expanded beyond Istanbul's borders and many provinces began to conduct their own Pride Parades, a new historical threshold loomed on the scene. The year was 2013. LGBTI+ folks' voices were also heard during the Gezi Park protests because the park was well-acquainted with lubunyas and their histories and because the stairwells leading to the park vividly recall the 1987 hunger strike of queer and transgender people.

In the same year, "Resistance" was designated as the theme for Pride Week. The week-ending parade lived up to its name. Over a 100,000 individuals marched down İstiklal Street on the 10th anniversary of the 2003 parade and the 20th anniversary of the 1993 parade's suspension. The slogan "Resist, Schatzi!" (“Diren ayol[3]”) pulsated throughout the urban core. The İstiklal was again brimmed with the same floats in 2014. The Pride Parade was now no longer a march in which everyone participated; rather, it became a march in which each person could be themselves ...

2015 and the succeeding years: A war on freedom and resistance!

2015 was the year in which all signs indicated that the state, with its full apparatus, would unleash a war on LGBTI+ people. The most glaring evidence was the police assault on the Istanbul Pride Parade, which had been held peacefully up until that point. The Governor's Office informed the Organizing Committee of a march ban only a few hours before the parade, and the police began their assault on the marchers prior to the Parade. The violence was ferocious. Among the many injured were those who lost their sight. In lieu of making arrests, the police also resorted to physical violence.

Despite these attacks, thousands of marchers still reached the Tunnel area and read their press statement.

Bans, police assaults, and LGBTI+ resistance had all continued unabated. In the same way that the state was mistaken in 2003 when it believed it had averted a rebellion by claiming to have attacked "homosexual terrorists," it was also erroneous when it assumed it could stop the rebellion through police violence and bans. LGBTI+ activists spread throughout the city in 2016. The press statement was aired in all Taksim neighbourhood streets. Again, the police reacted severely. European Parliament member Terry Reintke, the former German Parliament member Volker Beck and Max Luks, now one of the youngest deputies of the German Parliament were briefly detained and then freed from a police van. In the coordinated police assaults across Taksim, a total of 19 people were arrested, prosecuted, and ultimately acquitted. However, arrests and prosecutions have evolved into a new tactic for intimidating activists through judicial harassment.

The stated reason for the 2017 ban was the threat of attacks from Alperen Ocakları[4] and other Islamist groups. Using these groups as a pretext, the Governor's Office once again banned the parade. The cry of the Pride Parade was "Blaze with Anger, Schatzi!" (“Kudurun Ayol”) in opposition to this ban. Twenty individuals planning to attack the parade and twenty-four LGBTI+ rights advocates were detained, and many were injured during police interventions. In practice, the vicious cycle of prosecutions and acquittals continued.

The 2018 Istanbul Pride was held under the dismal shadow of a ban on all LGBTI+ events that was enacted in Ankara in 2017. The parade was again banned, and there were again arrests and prosecutions ...

In 2019, authorities forbid LGBTI+ parades not only in Taksim, but across all of Istanbul. The Pride Committee and SPOD filed a legal challenge against this sweeping ban. Although the court ultimately overturned this order, it was of little assistance in terms of restitution because people were unable to march. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pride Parade was forced to move online in 2020, but activists still decided to meet on Mis Sokak, the street that served as the parade's finale in 2003. The 2021 Pride Week, which occurred under the shadow of bans and police assaults, was subjected to six different court cases. While some cases have resulted in acquittals, the rest are still pending. In addition, despite a police attack prior to the march and allegations of torture, the 2021 Parade left its mark on history by being the longest parade ever. LGBTI+ individuals resisted on every street.

The theme for this year is Resistance. Thus, Pride Week, which adopted the same slogan in 2013 invites everybody to embrace equality and liberty:

"We keep striving for equal rights. We will persist in our resistance until lubunyas and trans are treated equally in all domains. We do not humbly plead for our rights; we claim them!"


[1] The word "naşlatmak" means "leave, farewell" in Lubunca, the Turkish queer slang. However, it is used here to mean "piss off."

[2] [Translator’s Note: The term “lubunya” has no direct translation, but it means “gay, queer, fairy” in Turkish queer slang.]

[3]  [Translator’s Note: “"Ayol" is a feminine exclamation and another untranslatable expression in Turkish queer slang. It could imply "what is that?" or "honey, sweetheart, schatzi" depending on context. Here, it is used in its second sense.]

[4] [Translator’s Note: The organisation is the youth arm the ultranationalist, far-right the Great Unity Party (Büyük Birlik Partisi).]