The Coffins: the struggle for human rights amid consolidation of power

By Lynnea Urania Stuart


People called it the “sick man of Europe” before World War I when it was still an Ottoman Empire.1  Despite revival as a constitutional republic under Kamal Atatürk, and a trend toward secular Europeanism, Turkey now has become increasingly isolated from the West, its entry into the European Union in serious doubt, with realignment of interests with the Russian Federation and a conspicuous decline of human rights.  Part of that decline might be attributed to fears of Kurdish factions and the so-called “Islamic State.”  But others have been caught up in the political melee that sloshed like a pot boiling over when its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) consolidated power.2

That includes others deemed undesirable and that’s more than minority ethnicities.  It includes transpeople branded as “sinners”, some of which have been incarcerated in what have been called “coffins” by Turkish activists.  Today, activists fear something more:  consolidation of LGBT prisoners into a dedicated prison near İzmir, modern day Smyrna, a city named after the healing resin myrrh.3  But when it comes to the coffins, the “healing” offered more resembles worse than the “conversion therapies” of the West.



July 15, 2016 brought shocking developments and also stories of incredible herosism.  Turkish military leaders attempted to overthrow President Erdoğan.  A security detail even kidnapped Turkey’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hulusi Akar.  Social media had a major role to play in the failure of that coup d’état because it provided a means for President Erdoğan to communicate with his people and it helped to organize immediate widespread resistance against the coup.  Common people, some armed with kitchen utensils, stood with loyalist troops till the rebellion toppled in a few hours.  The last contingent of the rebellion surrendered on the Bosporus Bridge.4

The Erdoğan government blamed Fethulla Gulen of the religious movement Hizmet.  Gulen has been living in exile in the United States since 1999.  Gulenists, once allies of AKP, had staffed government positions with their own people, arousing suspicion with President Erdoğan.5

Then on July 22, the Erdoğan government declared a state of emergency to remove all elements of “terrorism” in the coup attempt.  The Turkish Justice Ministry demanded extradition of Gulen to Turkey.  But to date, U.S. authorities insist that evidence for arrest and extradition is insufficient, a position that seriously damaged Turkish-American relations.6

Recent organizations regarded as “terrorist” include Daesh (the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”),  the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front.  But civilians have also been targeted by Turkish forces who directly and indirectly blame groups such as these, and carry out suspicions with impunity.7

The level of impunity enjoyed by Turkish officials under such a political climate contributes to something else:  exacerbation of human rights violations against minorities including LGBT peoples.  It also means suppression of journalists.  Human Rights Watch reported that news websites and newspapers including the daily Zaman have been blocked and seized, journalists jailed, television stations removed from the state-owned satellite distribution system, and increased requests to Twitter to censor individual accounts.8

This trend in Turkey, of course, goes against the liberties that constitutional republics are supposed to facilitate as guardians of democracy.  However, President Erdoğan himself has been quoted to say, “Democracy is a vehicle, not a goal.”  The statement implies that his goal consisted of something other than that of a democratic reformer like Atatürk.9

In the crosshairs of many who brutally seek their own power amid this climate of elevated suspicion and oppression lurk transfolk who have long struggled for survival.



The heritage of transpeople in Turkey has some of the most ancient roots anywhere.  The ruins of Pessinus, the center of the worship of Cybele and the Gallī (Gallae to our modern equivalents) can still be found there.  Cybele’s home at Mt. Ida overlooks the island of Lesbos in the northwest of Turkey as well as the ruins of the city of Troy who would also have known the ministration of the Gallae.  To the south at Ephesus, the worship of Artemis was attended by transgender Megabyzes.  Nobody really knows how far back into antiquity transgender priests have existed.10

Turkey has also been the home of the Temple and Spring of Hermaphroditus, its location now said to be isolated below sea level at a military installation near Bodrum.11

Of course, the fortunes of transpeople of antiquity reversed in the 4th Century CE with the “conversion” of Constantine and the Edict of Rome signed on August 6, 390 CE by Theodosius, with his son and co-Augustus Arcadius, and Valentinian IIThe Edict of Rome consigned “male effeminates” to death by burning, and this formed part of the Corpus Juris Civilis that set the standard for European law for centuries to come.12

While the Edict of Rome may have suppressed transpeople during the Byzantine period, transpeople did gain a measure of recovery under Ottoman rule.  Turkish culture did for many years honor the performances of köçek troupes, males who performed as women.  Homosexuality did exist among the Ottomans, though practices appear to have been covert.13



During the time transpeople in North America and Europe have asserted their right to exist, Turkish LGBT peoples have taken notice.  For a time it even appeared that transpeople would gain greater status in an enlightened country with the work of Michelle Demishevich on IMC-TV, Istanbul.  However, Michelle was fired September 19, 2014 with charges of “violation of professional ethics,” specifically addressing her “attitude and conduct” while denying that her termination had anything to do with her gender identity.  Of course “attitude and conduct” would include how she presented herself as a journalist.  It’s a pattern we commonly find among employers, even in the United States, who terminate trans workers because of their “presentation and deportment” according to gender identity while falsely claiming another cause for termination, or stating reasons for termination in a nebulous, non-specific way.14

By no means was her termination the first in what would become a series of hits against LGBT peoples.  Authorities answered Istanbul’s 10th annual LGBT Pride event in 2013 with tear gas and water canons.  The protest, attended by an estimated 20,000 people, stood in the face of expressions that followed the World Values Survey in 2011.  According to that survey, 84% of Turkish people dislike gays or lesbians living as neighbors.  The reaction by authorities in Istanbul demonstrated that liberty had not been achieved, and that intolerance ruled Turkish hearts instead.  How did Turkish attitudes slide concerning transpeople?  Very likely, Turks learned those attitudes over recent generations through its adoption of Europeanism in the early to mid 20th Century 15

Authorities’ actions would go a step further in 2016, a year before the coup.  Istanbuls governor ordered a ban of LGBT Pride events and any parade associated with it, citing security concernsand referencing Daesh and Kurdish militants.  Indeed, militants of Daesh had also determined to shut down gay rights rallies with counter-protests.  When a group of activists gathered to read a statement denouncing the ban, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and detained 19 activists.16

But anger has continued to seethe over the brutal rape and murder of trans activist Hande Kader August 12, 2016.  Hande, of course, was not the first transperson to be brutally murdered in Turkey, nor was she the first activist to meet such a fate.  We’ve recounted murders of transpeople in Turkey virtually every year at the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Hande’s body was found in a forest.  She had been raped and burned to death.  The outrage sparked protest in Istanbul, demanding justice, hoping that her murder would mark a turning point.  But that didn’t happen.17

What did happen was Ankara banning all “gay functions.”  This happened on November 18, 2017, arguing that theater events, exhibitions, panels, colloquia, etc. would “provoke reactions within certain segments of society” and are at risk of being targeted by “terrorists”.18



Many LGBT peoples have simply disappeared through arrest and incarceration.  Nisan Su Aras of  Hürriyet Daily News reported a response from the Justice Ministry to Zafer Kıraç who questioned their disposition as the chair of the Civil Society in the Penal System Association (CİSST).  The Justice Ministry indicated that 79 LGBT people are being held in solitary confinement and that a “special type of institution” dedicated to housing LGBT peoples is being erected near İzmir.19

The Justice Ministry also described the detainees as “having LGBT” in a manner that suggests that Turkish authorities consider “LGBT” to be mental illness.20

“Pink prisons,” as they are often called, are those facilities which have separate housing for LGBT peoples.  Currently the only ones that exist are in Ankara, Istanbul, and Corum, though solitary confinement has also been practiced elsewhere.  You’d think that this might be a good thing in that LGBT peoples are housed separately from other malicious inmates.  In the case of Turkey, however, this has served to work in the other direction, further isolating inmates in concentrated conditions of abuse.  Reports have emerged of beatings, rape, sexually charged insults and other forms of sexual molestation by guards.21

On January 6, 2015, 18 LGBT associations issued a joint statement against the İzmir prison, asserting that it would further isolate, stigmatize, and facilitate discrimination against LGBT individuals, involving also their families and social circles.  It also complained that many would have to travel great distances to visit detainees.22



An important ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) based in Strasbourg, Germany in 2012 has offered the best hope for activists in Turkey to ameliorate the suffering of detainees.  The case pertains to a prisoner at the İzmir-Buca Prison, not to be confused with the proposed “pink prison” in İzmir.

The text of the ruling, translated by Google, indicates the following:

  1. On 5 February 2009 the prison administration decided to place the applicant in a single cell. The minutes in this issue include the following statement:

“(…) the prisoner who has been arrested for homosexual illness has been placed in a single cell instead of a war where he is staying.”

  1. The Applicant has stated that the population of his/her residence is 7 m2, half of the living area. The applicant also stated that there is a single bed and toilet, but there is no sink. There are mice in the cell, the lighting is poor and the room is dirty.  The applicant stated that there were 10 more of the same types of detainees used for detention charges or for accusation of pedophilia or rape.  On 5 February 2009, the applicant, after being placed in a single person cell, was disconnected from all other detainees and subjected to all kinds of social activities.  He is prevented from going outdoors and allowed to leave his cell only to meet with his lawyer or to attend regular meetings that are held regularly every months. [sic]

  2. The Government not only refused to acknowledge these facts but also informed that there were furniture in the cell and that the means necessary for daily living such as lighting, toilets, beds, cupboards and chairs were available. The Government stated that the applicant was alone in his cell until the arrival of another homosexual prisoner in prison.

  3. On 21 April 2009 the applicant filed a request for the removal of the decisions taken by the İzmir Prosecutor’s Office. The applicant stated that the application form is homosexual, not transvestite or transsexual. According to the applicant, the sexual orientation led to being kept in a single cell without having any contact with other detainees and without participating in any social activity.  In addition, he stated that the above conditions have caused psychiatric problems in himself for about 3 months.  The applicant stated that in the Turkish penal execution system, only prisoners convicted of aggravated life imprisonment were held on similar terms.  The applicant therefore requested that he be treated equally with the other detainees.23

The decision of the court centered upon this issue:

“Article 14 of the Convention reads as follows:

‘The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be without discrimination of sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, membership of a national minority, wealth, birth or any other circumstance.”

  1. The Government opposes this claim and suggests that the purpose of the applicant’s self-appointed single-celled cellar is to protect itself, not discrimination.”24

The court sided with the Applicant:

  1. “In the circumstances of this case, the Court notes that the applicant complained that the inconsistency of the exclusion order from the prison community was in violation of Article 3 of the Convention (paragraph 51 above) [specifically speaking of the isolation as a ‘deep attack on his spiritual and physical suffering and also in the honor of humanity-Author]. The Court recalls that the above applicant assessed that if the standard coherence was concerned, the worries of bodily integrity being exposed to the attack were not entirely unfounded (paragraph 48).  However, as noted above, these concerns are not enough to justify the measure of total isolation from prison life, even if some security measures are required to protect the applicant.

  2. On the other hand, the Court disagrees with the argument that the Government’s secrecy measures were taken at the request of the applicant. The applicant or the deputy requested the prison administration to transfer the applicant to a ward where the homosexual prisoners were held or to another appropriate ward (paragraph 8 above).  The applicant’s deputy stated that his client had been imprisoned and harassed by other detainees to support this request.  As for the applicant, he reported that he had “problems”.  In short, requests were made to transfer authorities to a ward appropriate to the applicant’s situation.”25

The ruling included awarding partial damages to the Applicant.26

You’d think this ruling should have sent shock waves through the Turkish penal system concerning solitary confinement.  However, no appreciable change appears to have taken place.  But this ruling appears to have given further impetus in the Turkish mind to erect a dedicated prison for LGBT individuals “to assure their safety.”  Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag indicated in 2014 the “necessity” of the prison and that construction was continuing.27



Of course, based upon the aforementioned joint statement by 18 LGBT organizations, scarcely anyone in the Turkish LGBT Community believes the dedicated facility would mean improvement in living conditions, precisely because Turkish officials have demonstrated open hostility, stigmatizing LGBT peoples as “diseased” in the first place.

 LGBTI News Turkey has long boldly publicized incidents of hate against transpeople in Turkey including abuse by Turkish authorities.  This month, the site has told the world about 2 transwomen who had been incarcerated in Tekirdağ No 2.  One named “Diren” in the article was described as “subject to systematic torture inside an F-type prison cell coffin for 3 years longer.  F-type prisons are those facilities geared to solitary confinement.  The article also mentions a detainee called “Buse” who was sentenced to 37 years and convicted without a defense attorney.  She only revealed her gender identity during incarceration.28

“Diren” was accused of spreading “terrorist propaganda” without tangible evidence and convicted.  She is vegan, so has fed on boiled potatoes and tomatoes.  Her requests for female attire have been denied.  Doctors at the infirmary are described as “indifferent”.  Officers refer to her in the masculine.29

The case of “Buse” is being followed up by IHD (Human Rights Association) Co-Chair and attorney Eren Keskin, who has taken charge of the judicial process to clarify her demands for justice.  A statement concerning her case and “Diren’s” is expected next week.  Meantime, both prisoners are writing their histories and experience in their incarcerations.30

One thing that seems so compelling about the cases of these 2 transwomen is the liberal use of “terrorism” to justify incarceration, regardless of how quietly one may happen to live.  Exactly what is “terrorism”, especially in Turkey’s institutional paranoia after the failed coup d’état?

It’s an important question, not just for Turkey, but also for the United States whose “Alt-Right”, in close association with its Evangelical Dominionists, has infiltrated law enforcement throughout the country.31

It’s important because U.S. prisons also often place trans inmates in solitary confinement, doing so “for their protection” from abuse including rape.  Usually, solitary confinement simply consists of single cell residency, not necessarily places of extreme isolation and darkness, often referred to as “the hole.” But in our prisons, abuses have also been noted and publicized.32

What would solitary confinement mean in an American prison system dominated by Dominionists who may insist on “praying away the gay” while facilitating prison rape and beatings?  Would “conversion therapy” become the norm in penal institutions?  No doubt there are Dominionists who would prefer exactly that.  It would also contribute to international complicity with respect to LGBT detainees in prison systems like that in Turkey and other countries whose conditions are even more deplorable.

For Turkey, this mitigation is the fulcrum of what may come, especially where the Erdoğan agenda appears to have backtracked on the reforms set in motion by Kamal Atatürk in his program of Europeanization.  But it takes more than a new orthography to realize the vision of Atatürk.  His reforms should have set forth something momentous for Turkey and the world.  One cannot adopt Europeanism without becoming part of those trends in advance of human rights that has marked the European evolution. 

But some Turks actually do get what it means to rise above the miasma of bigotries and hatreds.  Continuing protests evidence the fact.  The work of attorneys in human rights organizations evidences it too.  There is hope for Turkish society, even in an age of paranoia where human rights are reversed in a period of de-democratization. The “norm” of brutality can eventually be understood as a pervasive evil.

It’s a historical “norm” that has characterized the status of human rights more often than not in systems entrusted to a lecherous species that too often has not been mitigated by deep philosophical thought, but the dogma of religiosity instead.  The status of LGBT prisoners in Turkey could easily be true for ours at any time.  Ultimately, only our vigilance and publication of facts to the world in appeal to conscience can mitigate it.



Featured Image: A monument to Kemal Ataturk as educator of Turkey’s next generations stands against an image of LGBT protest. (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Cengiz Çandar. “No Longer ‘Sick Man,’ Turkey Is Lonely, Tired” Al Monitor (July 19, 2013, accessed January 10, 2018)
  2. Patrick Kingsley. “Turkey’s Erdogan Tries to Play Nice, After a Year of Bashing Europe” New York Times (December 28, 2017, accessed January 10, 2018)
  3. Moulton, Harold K., ed. The Analytical Greek Lexicon , Revised (Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids MI, 1981) ISBN: 0-310-20280-9, p. 371, entry: σμύρνα.
  4. (n.a.) “Turkey’s Failed Coup Attempt: All You Need to Know” Al Jazeera (accessed January 10, 2018)
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. (n.a) “Turkey 2016/2017” Amnesty International (accessed January 10, 2018)
  8. (n.a.) “Events of 2017: Turkey” Human Rights Watch (accessed January 10, 2018)
  9. Steven A. Cook. “How Erdogan Made Turkey Authoritarian Again” The Atlantic (July 21, 2016, accessed January 10, 2018)
  10. Lynnea Urania Stuart. “Ida’s Barren Summit” Transpire(April 14, 2017, accessed January 11, 2018)
  11. (na.a) “Hermaproditus” Revolvy (accessed January 11, 2018) The specificity of it being on a military base is a matter of belief as an oral tradition.
  12. Lynnea Urania Stuart. “Alas the Charioteer” Transpire (November 25, 2016, accessed January 11, 2018)
  13. Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance, Sex, and Gender: signs of identity, dominance, defiance, and desire (University of Chicago Press, 1988), ISBN: 978-0226315515, p. 57.
  14. John DeLamar. “Turkey: Trans journalist fired from television station” Pink News (September 19, 2014, accessed January 22, 2018)
  15. John Beck. “Turkey’s Violent Homophobia” The Daily Beast (July 1, 2013, accessed January 11, 2018)
  16. Associated Press. “Turkey uses tear gas to break up gay pride gathering” Los Angeles Times (June 26, 2016, accessed January 11, 2018)
  17. Sarah A. Harvard. “Trans rights activist Hande Kader was raped and burned to death in Turkey” Mic (August 19, 2016, accessed January 11, 2018)
  18. (n.a.) “Turkish capital Ankara bans all gay rights functions” BBC (November 19, 2017, accessed January 11, 2018)
  19. Nisan Su Aras. “Majority of imprisoned LGBT’s kept in ‘solitary confinement’” Hürriyet Daily News (July 27, 2013, accessed January 11, 2018)
  20. Ibid.
  21. Sibel Hurtas. “Turkey’s ‘pink prison’” Al Monitor (January 21, 2015, accessed January 11, 2018)
  22. Ibid.
  23. İkincidaire XV Turkey (B aşvur no. 24626/09) Karar, Strasbourg (ruling October 9, 2012, accessed January 11, 2018), sections 9-12.
  24. Ibid, Sec. 52,53.
  25. Ibid, Sec. 58, 59.
  26. Ibid, Sec. 73-75.
  27. (n.a.) “Minister Bozdag: We Homemade Private Prison” (April 12, 2014, accessed January 11, 2018)
  28. (n.a.) “Arat: 2 Trans Women or ‘Sinners’ in a Turkish Prison” LBTQI News Turkey (January 5, 2018, accessed January 10, 2018)
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Alice Speri. “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” The Intercept (January 31, 2017, accessed January 11, 2018)
  32. (n.a.) “Issues: Police, Jails & Prisons” (National Center for Transgender Equality Website accessed January 11, 2018)
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