It’s getting quite late, and the sun has long set behind the Bosporus Bridge. As the metro carries me to Atatürk Airport, it seems quite improbable that only a few hours earlier I had been part of something so big. Inside my head, I run the names and faces of the strong, beautiful individuals I’ve met on the streets of Istanbul.
Sure, we all knew this wasn’t going to be the usual Pride March. The year before, the march was brought to an end by police tear gas and water cannons, and it seemed Turkey was backtracking the steps it had taken forward in regards to LGBT+ rights in particular, and gender issues and human rights in general.
Leading up to the March, violent threats were made on the media and social networks, and directly to the organisers. All sorts of excuses were given as to why that was not the right time, or the right place, but the violence against queer people on the streets of Istanbul and the overall worrying changes in Turkish society, made it clear that these were nothing more than excuses, Three days before the planned date, the organisers had decided to call off the March, after the municipality and police made it clear that they were not going to secure it.
Instead, activists decided to “disperse”. Pride flags started appearing in random street corners around Beyoğlu, and every few meters you could a small group of people, gearing up for the day – hints of pride flags, in the form of patches on bags, wristbands, bandana tied around the neck; passing out information about where to go from and who to call in an emergency, and taking a deep breath before it all starts.
Riot police forces stood ready all throughout the area. At around 5pm, the March was supposed to begin. We had to move away from the main boulevard into one of its narrow side streets. Not far from me, I hear a young woman shouts “Love Wins”. The small crowd that was around repeats, and the shouts get louder. “Where is my love?”, she shouts, “I am here, my love”, the crowd replies.
The narrow street was surrounded with typical four- or five-story high building, tightly built one right next to the other, marking a clear path for the sound echo down the street. Every few meters, a window was open, Pride flag or a sign hanging out from it.
Within a matter of seconds, the sounds of tear gas canisters shot by police replaced that of the shouts, and I find myself with that group of protestors, running away as fast as we can, finding shelter in one of the local cafés. Everyone made it, it seems.
One man, about 30 years old, was hit by the canister just a few centimetres above his left eye. As the air outside, at least for the next few minutes, is filled with tear gas, he has no choice but to stay in this café for now. An older woman who rushed to help him, and as if by chance had just the necessary equipment and medicine, explained to me that she was a volunteer doctor, one of about a couple of dozens who are waiting in café and safe homes in that area.
Making it across Istiklal Boulevard, to join a friend of mine, seemed practically impossible, and I stay with that group, a mix of Turkish youth, women and men, Iranian refugees – and me, and Israeli. We catch our breath, smoke a couple of cigarettes, and head back out.
“We’re here, we’re everywhere”, shouts another young woman, to the faces of the policemen, who already all have gas masks on their faces. “We’re here, we’re everywhere”, repeats the crowd. Rainbow-coloured confetti flies out of one of the windows above us. “We’re here, we’re everywhere!”, the shouts get louder, “Love wins!”.
At once, the police squad fires tear gas and starts running towards us. We run faster and hide away at the entrance to a nearby building. In a mix of Turkish and English, one of the Iranian guys explains to me that he, much like his friends, cannot afford to get arrested today.
He had to flee Iran following one too many attempts and LGBT activism. Here, he is freer, but still stuck in a limbo and faced with a society that seems to reembrace conservatism above all. Yet, he is here today, out on the streets of Istanbul, unwilling to have his voice shut.
Thousands and thousands of people refused to be silenced that day, and I got to be there with them. I came to support the activist groups in Istanbul, and left, heading back to Tel Aviv, with a rush of enthusiasm. All across the Middle East, there are young people who are not afraid to speak up, because they all slowly see that they’re not on their own – but rather a part of a new generation that is fed up with so many things. That day in Istanbul was my proof for that.