Murat has watched for years as LGBT people who face persecution in the Middle East have found refuge in his cosmopolitan neighborhood of İstanbul.
Today, in the face of growing government hostility and vitriol from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the young gay man says he has just one wish: to leave.
“Before, there would be a wave of hatred and then it would calm down,” said the 30-year-old computer engineer, his eyes piercing through a haze of cigarette smoke.
“Now, it’s been going on for months, turning into a tsunami.”
From incendiary government minister tweets to censorship of gay characters on TV and media-led boycotts of LGBT-friendly brands, a growing animosity is suffocating Turkey’s free-spirited LGBT community.
In the process, the attacks have tarnished Turkey’s image as a haven of tolerance in the socially conservative Muslim world.
LGBT groups believe Erdoğan is attacking their community to distract his supporters from Turkey’s economic travails.
Erdoğan this month unleashed a torrent of attacks against what he called “the LGBT youth,” which came as sudden student protests began to rattle his 18-year rule.
The immediate cause of Erdoğan’s fury was a student artwork depicting Islam’s holiest site in Mecca draped in the LGBT rainbow flag.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu reported the arrest of “four LGBT freaks” over the display, condemning the “degenerates” in Twitter posts that got flagged for “hateful conduct.”
Erdoğan later told his female supporters not to listen to “those lesbians”, adding there was “no such thing” as the LGBT movement in Turkey.
“It’s a hate campaign” aimed at discrediting the student protests, said Can Candan, a documentary filmmaker and professor at Boğaziçi University.
The top Turkish institution has been spearheading the protests after Erdoğan appointed a loyalist as its rector at the start of the year.
The controversial artwork prompted officials to shut down Boğaziçi’s LGBT club, where Candan was a faculty adviser.
“This is an extremely dangerous game, because hate speech leads to hate crime,” said Candan.
Alaz Ada Yener, who chooses to identify as non-binary and is active in the Lambdaİstanbul LGBT rights association, said walking the streets no longer felt safe.
“People no longer look at us as just different or original, but as traitors to the nation,” Yener said.
“Those who commit a crime against LGBT people will tell themselves they have the authorities on their side.”
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but homophobia is widespread.
While there are no official figures, Turkey has slid down the LGBT rights index published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
Last year, it was ranked 48th out of the 49 countries ILGA lists in its Eurasia region.
Kaos GL, one of the oldest LGBT rights groups in Turkey, last year counted more than 2,000 news articles it qualified as discriminatory — a 40 percent jump on 2019.
Even before the Boğaziçi artwork scandal, the LGBT community felt like it was coming under siege.
Last year, Netflix cancelled the production of a Turkish series featuring a gay character after failing to win the government’s permission to film.
In June, the French sporting goods retailer Decathlon became the target of Turkish media boycott campaign, after saying it stood in solidarity with the LGBT community.
And in April, Erdoğan rallied to the defense of a top religious affairs official who linked homosexuality to the spread of diseases, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“What he said was totally right,” Erdoğan said.
‘Make us disappear’
Some believe the attacks are a response to the strides the LGBT movement has made in Turkey, where rainbow flags are becoming a frequent presence at protests.
The government is “trying to stem the growing social acceptance of LGBT people by denigrating them,” said Eylem Çağda, a sociologist who specializes in LGBT issues in Turkey.
After a spectacular Pride March in İstanbul drew 100,000 people in 2014, the government responded by banning future events in the city, citing security concerns.
The government “is trying to make us disappear from the public sphere,” said Lambdaİstanbul’s Yener.
“They are trying to eliminate our social existence.”
Murat, for his part, said he feared the government will now start adopting anti-LGBT legislation.
“We’ve made so much progress,” he said, crushing out his cigarette. “We’re going back decades.”