27/01/2022 | Writer: Bahar Yalçın

In the #forequality file, Bahar Yalcin wrote on the use of images, prepared by Lambdaistanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association, by municipalities on their billboards on March 8, 2016.

Three Billboards in Istanbul Kaos GL - News Portal for LGBTI+

Figure 1: The image of the Billboard

“The opposite of privacy is not directly publicity or broadcasting; but exposing, and  revealing the secret.”

Jurgen Habermas

When I thought of writing an article on the use of billboards in 3 districts of Istanbul, the thematic similarity reminded me of the movie "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri". The movie revolves around a woman sending messages to the chief-of-police through rental billboards, who did not make a progress on catching the sexual assault murderer of her daughter. The event that I am going to talk about starts with the use of images prepared by the Lambdaistanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association, by the municipalities in Kadikoy, Sisli and Besiktas districts on their billboards on March 8, 2016; and the attitude developed against the reactions given to these billboards.

In both cases (in the film and Istanbul), the success of the billboards in “exposure" as a public communication tool stands out. The reason behind this success is undoubtedly the appealing element of the billboards to give a message to anyone who "catches a glimpse" -as opposed to being appealing to a target audience- and the clarity of the message's content. Because of this, I am elaborating on the impact of the billboards that message “I am lesbian, bisexual, intersex, transgender; at school, at work, in the assembly, I am everywhere” in the busiest districts of Istanbul. In addition, I draw on my experiences on the impacts of expectations from local governments. In this article, I will consecutively discuss (1) why I put this example of local government and LGBTI+ relations in a different place, (2) the differences between the attitudes of municipalities, and (3) possible expectations from local governments based on these differences.

Between 2014-2019, I served as Kadıkoy Municipality Council Member and Deputy Director. During the 2014 local elections, Kadikoy Municipality, along with Sisli and Besiktas, signed the LGBTI+ Friendly Municipality Protocol that is designed and prepared by SPoD. Especially after the establishment of the Social Equality Commission within the Social Equality Department with the Strategy Development Directorate in the Municipal Council, progressive works were carried out both on trainings for municipal staff to develop their capacity and attitudes against discrimination, and on meeting with LGBTI+ organizations, space allocation and organizational support for them. Activities related to preventative health services (i.e., HIV testing) also started during this period; however, they remained incomplete as the election period was over. In execution of these studies and activities, having a coordination department such as the equality unit was important; but the most important step in making these efforts effective was having a counterpart in this coordination mechanism in the Municipality Council, and hence in the administration.

While being identified with the term “service”, municipalities appear as “depoliticised” and ingeniously appear as institutions that are stripped away from politics. While given that in society “politics” is perceived unequivocally as nepotism, it is necessary to accept that the “being present without an attitude” itself is a political behaviour for elected institutions. For this reason, the way of leaving the work to be done on gender to equality units or only to the administrative structures, even under different names, causes some requirements to be fulfilled and to leave the course of the work to the skills and influence of the staff who do not have the authority to decide. This sentiment does not deny the efforts of cadres who often utilise their networks with utmost devotion against the wishes of senior management, but it focuses on the lack of ability to autonomously take an action on practices that are effective on a societal level. On the contrary, the role of political cadres and expectations should be well defined in order for this to be strengthened and go beyond being as personal initiatives. 

The reason why I took the billboard example, is precisely because it underlines the importance of the impact of elected officials’ actions and efforts in the field. As mentioned above and in line with the quote published by Habermas, the impact of the billboards was an “exposure”; which went beyond the impact of a public release, activity, or a press statement. That is to say, the billboards cause a reaction beyond the impact of closed meetings, social media posts and press releases that are only on the radar of individuals who are interested in the given topic. Given the constraints of visibility on national media and press, the billboards served the purpose of communicating the message to the entire public. This situation also led to the organizational formation of anti-municipality sentiments and attacks from the individuals who put homophobia and transphobia into their political existence. 

The billboards stayed longer in strategic areas of Kadikoy and received support from public statements of the municipality, which increased visibility and made Kadikoy the target of such homophobic and transphobic attacks. Although the Municipality of Besiktas confirmed using the billboards in their districts; action was never taken or reflected on the public agenda or press[1]. However, a social media post of the Besiktas Mayor during that period gives an example of the increased gaps between administrative staff and decision-makers. (In the social media post) Mayor of Besiktas stated:

“I apologise to all of the citizens who love and follow us on social media for the meddlesomeness of a colleague who works on our social media. We are the soldiers of our nation and government, who are in pursuit of the values of Muhammad Mustafa (Sav) and Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. With respect to the values, cultures, beliefs, and preferences of Besiktas and Besiktas Municipality is our most vital managerial motto… Any behaviour, attitude, tone and approach that is against this motto would not apply to our vision.”[2]

With this statement, Mayor Murat Hazinedar not only disregarded the LGBTI+ Friendly Municipality Protocol that he has signed but also denied the efforts of his colleagues and team on this ongoing struggle. In this sense, social echo, came after the simple words and expressions of elected individuals, magnify and strengthen a mentality that stands against those tremendous efforts. Although we witness it less frequently, the opposite of this sentiment also exists in this context. However, what is often overlooked is that these three municipalities and even many municipalities that were not included in this study, were elected as candidates of a party that is written "social democrat" in its program.

Going back to the billboards, the first individual who started the debate by tweeting “We condemn Kadikoy Municipality, who did not comply with our family and societal values while celebrating Women’s Day”[3] was AKP Kadikoy District Director, Isa Mesh Sahin who then started a petition against Kadikoy Municipality to remove the billboards on Change.Org[4]. This petition was then followed by an “anti-removal” petition[5]. Throughout this back-and-forth process, Mayor Aykurt Nuhoglu issued a press statement on their responsibilities and dedication as local governments to represent every citizen[6].

When I ponder on the internal reflections of this event, what I remember about that period is the "internally cowed" reactions rather than the reactions "provoked from the outside". “Internal”, in this case, refers to both CHP executives and professionals who consider themselves experienced in communicating with the public. The essence of this internally cowed reaction could be reflected with the "Let's not exaggerate" sentiment in the statement issued by Hazinedar. To further elaborate on this sentiment, the “Let’s not exaggerate” is reflected in the list of senses that falls align the lines of “Let’s be in touch with the supporters, but let’s not take aside”, and “Let’s do not reflect any opinion; instead let’s focus more on the general overview of the society” or “Let’s not put this forward in the agenda”, as opposed to “Let’s defend” and “Let’s support”. When billboard debate was ongoing, the mantra of the “anti-exaggerators” was “Let’s change the billboards before it becomes a further issue, without engaging in a press statement or a political debate”. However, due to the (actions taken by the) Mayor, the will of the administration was to protect the visuals for the specified period and to make a statement on the subject and emphasize that this is a matter of management mentality.

I believe that “Let’s not exaggerate” cynicism and “Let’s strategize to entire public” is an undertaking of populism that caused a lot of losses, and unfortunately, municipalities are on their way to becoming a symbol of this attitude. In line with this, I believe that it is important that the social opposition and actors who are engaged in the struggle should be bolder in their expectations from local governments and their claims on these administrations. What I meant by bold is that aiming to hold municipalities consistent with the programmes of the political entities/ parties that they represent, beyond holding them responsible for the service and support that they are essentially supposed to be providing to the public. This consistency is precisely about the language of politics that deeply affects our lives. Politicising the local is one of the ways to change this rhetoric.

To understand how public life is involved in the political programming of officials elected to municipalities, it is necessary to examine the definition of “privacy”. “My inability to express myself publicly is a tyranny of privacy”, Kluge states[7]. In our context, the tyranny is represented by the politicization of “traditional Turkish family values”, which would make many topics such as caring services, domestic services, violence, daily routines, at-home (in)accessibility of infrastructure services into public matters. Therefore, how “privacy” and “sacred” are defined through the programming and rhetoric of any local government used as a channel to promise the public, is reflection of how public life is imagined by them. Evaluating the services of local governments as piecemeal projects by separating them from the society's dream will prevent local politics from being a transformative power. Because of this, demanding a holistic approach in local politics and expecting consistencies in policies and rhetoric, without being dismissive of the impact provided by agencies or individuals and projects is essential to keep local governments accountable.

The second issue to consider while focusing on consistency of political programming is

the habit of "speaking on behalf of", which can also be defined as a crisis of representation or legitimacy. Another element that makes billboards important in their impact is their “directness”. Providing the space for individuals’ direct messages on behalf of themselves and remaining inactive to be a part of this message is a necessity of a political attitude. The direct intention here, indicates a crisis of representation, including the parody of a group of men starting every sentence with "our women", but also the absorption of all kinds of social mobility. To further elaborate, like the service-provider and service-receiver relationship that municipalities established with the public, the social opposition should appropriate itself to serve the public struggles, and gain visibility on this service provision. Municipalities should be open to take actions or engage in public struggles, provide support, and monitor the legal grounds of institutionalization for the public struggles. Municipalities should also provide timely and accurate knowledge dissemination, reflect an attitude, and take an action based on this attitude. However, instead of supporting and strengthening existing organizations, making themselves a spokesperson or putting all their support in the name of visibility works prevents the socialization of struggles. Therefore, municipalities should be forced to be a political subject rather than just being a donor or supporter. The necessity of remaining as a political subject here is that elected officials are responsible for the transparent and effective management of public resources, budget and investments of their political programs, and not to conduct individual activism.

In summary, the most creative way of expressing ourselves can often be to say something as it is and with the simplest tool at our disposal, rather than the cunningness of communication agencies. As the message given here is as effective to the extent of its power, it’s also impactful in its forcefulness on change of attitude. Today, however, there is the problem of taking a very open stance in the country. Whatever keeps politics away from taking a stand is the same thing that makes politics synonymous with nepotism. For this reason, in addition to holding municipalities accountable for the services that they are supposed to be provided, we should define these services together, demand the basis of implementation and consistency with their political programs on our behalf, and disclose the situations where they are not available.

*This article was prepared within the scope of the Strengthening Advocacy for Equal Rights Project supported by the European Union. This does not mean that the content of the article reflects the official view of the EU.

*The article was originally written and published at KaosGL.org in Turkish and translated to English by Yiğit Mahmutoğlu.

[1] It is written in my personal notes that the billboard has never been hung. The news reports mention Kadıköy and Şişli. https://t24.com.tr/haber/chpli-belediyeler-billboardlarini-lgbt-orgutune-acti,330410

[7] Quote from Alexander Kluge, translated by Meral Ozbek, “Introduction: Public-Private Space, Culture and Experience”, Public Space, Hil Publications, 2015, pp. 601-659

Tags: human rights