22/02/2021 | Writer: Yıldız Tar
Mert from BÜLGBTI+ explained what LGBTI+ people have experienced in the university since 2017, the irregularities and solidarity during the process led to the closure of the club: You will not be successful in the effort to eliminate LGBTI+'s, we are in every club!
Boğaziçi University became our main agenda since the first moments of 2021. The appointment of Melih Bulu as the rector instead of an elected academician of the university drew reaction. The demonstrations have been going on for almost two months. "We don't want a Trustee Rector," says the academicians and students. The university is under police blockade, police attacked protests in many cities, more than five hundred people were detained. Not to mention the warrants of arrest and numerous house arrests.
While all this was happening, smear campaigns against LGBTI+ were launched. This project started in January gained momentum with a social media post of the Boğaziçi Islamic Studies Club (BİSAK) over a collage work in an exhibition at Boğaziçi University, which exhibited free works that were gathered through an open call.
Statements against LGBTI+'s came from all levels of the government. This whole process evolved into the termination of the Boğaziçi University LGBTI+ Studies Club by a midnight operation.
We talked with Mert, a student of Boğaziçi University and a member of the club, about the process leading to the closure of the club. Explaining that the pressures on the club increased during the rectorship of Mehmed Özkan, who was the first trustee of the university, Mert described how the demonstrations at the school, the exhibition, the artwork in the exhibition, the police raid on the club room, the irregularities and the Özkan period practices reached to the point of terminating clubs during the Bulu period.
1st Trustee Period: Scholarship cancellations, event censorships and more
As Boğaziçi University students, how did you wake up to the first day of 2021?
We knew that a new rector will be appointed in 2021, and there was constant talk at university. "Who will come, I wonder if the new one will be worse than the last?" But at 00:00, the news came that a person who was not even considered was appointed to the university. It caused a shock. It was shocking to everyone. Nobody expected such an appointment. Although the first appointment was a politically disturbing and methodically wrong, it was a person who was not that disturbing to the majority of the academics in the university. It was not a person from outside of the university. Gülay Barbarosoğlu, who was elected and received the great majority of the votes, was not appointed, she was even forced to resign. Mehmed Özkan was appointed to replace her. He was someone from the school. Protests were carried out by the students, but a part of the academics said, "No, children, don't do it because he knows our culture, he is from Boğaziçi, he was a professor here anyway." And the teachers built a flesh wall in front of the protests. They did a little bit of protest-breaking. These things a year before I came to Boğaziçi. It was continuing the year I came. I did not live these incidents personally, but I know from what was told.
I too remember that at that time it was said that “He is from Boğaziçi and he cherishes the values of Boğaziçi”. So, was that the case for the LGBTI+'s? Was he a Rector upholding these values?
“Boğaziçi culture” in these discourse and arguments that we have mentioned disturbs me a lot. This vaunted Boğaziçi culture is not that magnificent. The argument "We are against the appointment of the Rector because Boğaziçi culture will deteriorate" is not true at all. The dreamed culture is actually a universal living space that respects human rights. But when we look at what was done in the Boğaziçi, especially during the Özkan period, we see that there is no culture that respects universal human rights at all. Examples of this are the events LGBTI+'s experienced during Özkan's period. In the first year he came, he canceled the Hande Kader Scholarship organized by the BÜLGBTİ+ club. There was a performance night that year, Akit newspaper made news of it and a call came from the university to "cancel this event immediately". We went and talked, which was actually something we didn't do until then. Until then, the club refused to meet with the Rector. But when the event was canceled, they had to sit down. As a result of the negotiations, it was concluded that the event to be postponed and not be announced publicly. That was censorship, after all. It was a method utilized by the trustee to suppress LGBTI+'s. There are more examples of such. In 2019, an artificial agenda was set up again and the BÜLGBTİ+ club was targeted through social media. The attitude of Mehmed Özkan and the administration of that time was completely victim accusation. When we went to meet with the administration, they blamed us during a lynch campaign against us. We became lonely, marginalized, and even a disciplinary investigation was initiated against our two friends at that time. We realized that the trustee, even though he was from Boğaziçi, he was a product of the mentality that appointed him. It doesn't matter whether he's from Bosphorus or not. His duty is to do the things dictated by the power that appointed him.
It seems very strange to me that there are people that immediately take action over sayings of Yeni Akit, a joke of a media organ whose main task is to spread enmity against LGBTI+'s. I remember with great joy that I prepared news of the Hande Kader Scholarship and that the scholarship was canceled five minutes after I published the article... Right here, I want to move on to the appointment process of Melih Bulu and hate campaigns. How were the first days of January?
Boğaziçi started its semester later than the others this year. Therefore, it was very close to our exams in January. In the middle of the night, when the students learned that the trustee appointment had been made, we tried to understand what was going on. It was a very rapidly developing process. The organization at that time was rushed. A protest that was publicly announced was held right in front of the South Gate of the campus. Everyone was called to that. I was with my family in Izmit at that time, but I tried to monitor it by watching five different live broadcasts. The students were chanting their slogans, singing, dancing and protesting. Later, a forum was held in the north campus. Then, they wanted to go to the south campus again. It was reported that Melih Bulu was on the south campus. With the arrival of Bulu, there was an incredible police blockade. Nobody was allowed to enter the south campus at first. Later they started to admit students, but this time neither the graduates nor those who came to support, who were not from Boğaziçi University, could. Some could get in, some couldn't. There was tension there too.
The next day we learned that what happened was exaggerated beyond belief. They tried to overshadow the resistance with outrageous news… We learned from the newspapers that “folk dances were performed with the DHKP-C marches”. The march they were talking about is a version of Ruhi Su's song… The government has set up such a system that when people start talking about a topic, they were smearing someone with the newspapers and broadcasting organizations they have. While the war in Syria got heated up and Turkey intervened, a mail sent by BÜLGBTİ+ covered by newspapers like Akit, Yeni Şafak to target us. We saw a similar cama similar campaign against the Istanbul Convention. They targeted the LGBTI+'s during the Boğaziçi incidents. LGBTI+'s, especially Havin and Yıldız, were targeted. Then it came to the rainbow flags in the demonstrations. Again, the mentioned newspapers made news of them. These issues were being discussed within the school too. In school, we heard things like "Let's not move away from our purpose, let's stay on our main subject". But our main subject is the thing we call trusteeship, something that concerns us all. We saw from Mehmed Özkan what was the attitude of trustees against LGBTI+'s. Therefore, there is nothing more natural than LGBTI+ participation in these protests from the very first day. Of course, we will participate in a subject that is very relevant to us. Here I see an effort to create a common enemy. Esra Aşan has explained this strategy very well in the Istanbul Convention event we organized earlier. The government sees LGBTI+ as an identity that it can position against a large part of society. And it moves forward by constantly targeting it, creating a duality. It did the same at Boğaziçi University.
"Punishments are being issued over the public agenda, not the laws"
Do you think this strategy has been successful? Despite all this effort, many people and institutions adopted the rainbow flag. There is a colloquial prejudice that "this society will never accept fagots". As if LGBTI+'s are not a part of this society…
I think the process has progressed towards a very good point despite all the attempts. Since I could monitor closely, I would like to talk about it. We, as the LGBTI+ people, received very good support from the university. Boğaziçi Solidarity supported with a discourse like "We are all LGBTI+'s". It was a very correct statement. The LGBTI+'s were on the target that day, but it would be to the others in the future. I was very happy to see this solidarity. We have seen that the government was no longer successful in creating a "common enemy" and this perception has been broken. Everyone is also aware of what is trying to be accomplished there. I am very happy to see that solidarity.
Since nobody except Boğaziçi University students can enter the campus, the public is not fully aware of the events taking place there. For this reason, we are only able to look to the incidents from the outside.
The Boğaziçi graduates cannot enter the campus, there are a lot of police inside. We were walking with a lot of policemen behind us every day at the end of our watch. The police are at the campus while the ones that owns the university cannot enter there. Police are constantly waiting in double rows in front of the gates. I saw at least three buses of police every day. We could enter the campus by passing through the policemen, some of them carrying long-barreled guns. For example, I was exposed to hate speech many times passing by. From what I have heard, I know that disabled friends also have a lot of difficulties. The accessibility of the campus has dropped so much. Nobody feels secure while entering that campus. The cops do whatever they want.
In the meanwhile, the resistance and police violence continue. Detentions and arrests are still taking place intensely. Especially during the detentions and arrests, they try to detain those who are not Boğaziçi students and issue an arrest warrant against them. They say, "Their problem is not the Boğaziçi." Right. Our concern is not only for the Boğaziçi. It's the trustee system. As a matter of fact, many things our non-Boğaziçi-student friends never deserved happened during this process, but the support given to the students of Boğaziçi is not provided to those who are not. While Twitter is trembling during the hearings of Boğaziçi students, there is no voice in the hearing of the next day. We need to stop this. If we are showing common solidarity, we must make a common voice against injustices. We cannot say let's support this friend but not the other. Punishments are being issued over the public agenda, not the laws. Unfortunately, the decisions are made through public opinion, not the law.
"Why did the LGBTI+ flag become a criminal element?"
There was a lot of information pollution in the process leading to the closure of BÜLGBTİ+. Can you explain the process that starts with an anonymous artwork sent to an exhibition?
That exhibition was ongoing for several days. As you said, anonymously collected works were on display. There were a lot of artworks. Cartoons, collage works… One of them was the collage work with the Kaaba figure that created all this hassle. It was stolen for a while. It was gone for two or three days. A report was also filed about it. Who took it, what was done with it are all unknown, but suddenly it was found back. It continued to be exhibited. Again, one day, while being taken to the areas where they will be exhibited, all the works were being put on the ground, taken from there and put to their stands. In that while, this work was photographed and shared on the internet to create an incident. It is projected as if it was deliberately placed on the ground, but the students collect all the artworks, take them and hang them. This was an exhibition after all.
That exhibition was not affiliated with any club, but it was a Boğaziçi exhibition. As a matter of fact, the two clubs were targeted because of the LGBTI+ flags on this artwork and it was a work of art. One of the clubs was BÜLGBTİ+, the other was the Fine Arts Club. The next day we learned that our club room had been raided. The cops went with their cameras, rummaged around and recorded videos. These videos were then served to the press. But the posted videos were edited so well, you could never understand which room they are in. They created an atmosphere like FAC and BÜLGBTİ+ used the same room, a single room was searched. The "criminal elements" listed in the video a book, LGBTI+ flags and banners. This is how we understand how this proceeding was hate-driven. Why did the LGBTI+ flag become a criminal element? They suddenly created an artificial incident, labeled these items as "criminal elements" and seized them. They also locked the doors of the rooms. Currently, neither students nor club advisors can enter those rooms. Because they were sealed with the order of Melih Bulu. Not allowed for use while the investigation is in progress. There are such irregularities in this case that disturb you. No club members or advisers were present during the raid. We do not know if the police left anything there. We don't know where that book came from. Neither BÜKAK nor BÜLGBTİ+, that we shared the room before, has not seen that book. One day there is a raid, with only the cops inside and the building supervisor and security chief who will, allegedly, ensure that the objectivity of the investigation. A record is drawn, but it is not shown to anyone. Since they closed the room, we don't know if they damaged the room.
It is also problematic that this work in this exhibition has become such a big issue. If we live in a state of law where there is freedom of expression, how is it possible to arrest two people over an artwork? Maybe that artwork disturbs you. For example, Muslim friends from Boğaziçi published a very nice statement. They said they opposed the arrests. If there is a work made in a university, students and academicians can talk about it, write on it, and explain why they dislike it. The work of art can be criticized, but the arrest of two people by creating a public opinion and showing them as targets is contrary to freedom of expression.
And then we learned that the club was closed with a midnight tweet of the Presidency's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun… Did BÜLGBTİ+ learn about this decision at the same time as us?
The club never received any notification that day. Melih Bulu closed the club with the so-called evidence obtained from an illegal raid and upon an event that the club did not organize. None of us knew on what basis he made this decision. We learned the decision via tweets at midnight, and the club was informed the next day. According to university practices, the club should not be closed like that. First of all, this decision must be taken by the Inter-Clubs Board, then step by step to progress in the bureaucracy and finally the Rector must sign it. But in the middle of the night, Melih Bulu prepares such a document, and then Fahrettin Altun shares it on Twitter and thus we learn. They also presented a document posted at 2am in the middle of the night as the justification for the taking 159 people into custody. There was a decision that nobody knew about. In short, the club was closed completely without justification and illegally. The evidence is not reliable. It's not something about the club anyway…
"This is not just the termination of a club"
It was a very interesting night. While checking the detentions, we suddenly came across such a document at night. And the document was not signed either. The Communications Director shared an unsigned document with the name of Melih Bulu. After this decision, it was also emphasized that BÜLGBTİ+ has the status of "candidate club". Has the application in 2014 been held in candidate status for 7 years? As far as I know, applications are not kept on hold for that long at Boğaziçi University.
First applications are made in 2014. According to the statute of the school, the clubs that carry out the activities listed in the statute during three academic semesters pass from the candidate club status to the status of official club. BÜLGBTİ+ was supposed to be an official club in 2017, the year I first came to Boğaziçi. As a matter of fact, every time we brought this up for four years, we were hushed down with various excuses. They gave us different reasons each time. "We are not ready right now" they said, then "You already are a club". When we insisted, for example, one of the people we talked to from the Dean of Student Affairs was saying that we were a club, and the other was telling us that we were a candidate club. These answers also varied according to the situation. If there was an incident, they were telling us that we were a candidate club, and when we went with another request, we were becoming a club. This was one of the pressure policies of Mehmed Özkan, the first trustee period, against the LGBTI+'s. Although we had completed everything, they did their best to keep it from becoming official. We supposed to become an official club in 2017, but they postponed it again and again. One of the biggest reasons for the club's closure today is this candidate status. Those who defended Mehmed Özkan that day, those who caused this delay together with Mehmed Özkan, are also the people who caused the club to be closed today.
By keeping it in the gray area for years, keeping it on an ambiguous status, it is ensured to be closed during a crisis. This situation is a tradition in Turkey . Bending all the regulations for the benefit of the government… But as far as I could follow, there was a big reaction to the closure of the club. Almost all clubs have added LGBTI+ to the end of their names. I remember the time I left the Boğaziçi in 2013, and I don't remember such support. Such enormous support. How did that happen?
We received great support indeed. Because everyone is aware now. From the very first day, we started telling that one of the first things the trustee would do would be attacking the LGBTI+'s. There was no basis for the club's closure, it was irregular, and it was against the university regulations so it has drawn this much of a reaction. I think it is a very good example of solidarity. The clubs prepared a joint statement and published it. The protest you mentioned was carried out with the joint effort of other resistance communities in the school. Clubs have added LGBTI+ to their names. A march was held against the closure of BÜLGBTİ+. Banners with the name BÜLGBTİ+ were left in front of the trustee building. It was possible because we all opposed common oppression.
There is no guarantee that any club will not be closed while such an irregularity is at play. What has been done to us, can be done to others tomorrow. It won't end with us. Other clubs are also aware of this. The closure is depressing, of course, but to see that this decision was not embraced by other constitutuents of the university and to know that the closed club does not recognize this decision are uplifting. The e-mail address and website of BÜLGBTİ+ has been closed, but it still continues to be active in social media channels. The so-called Rector signed a so-called document. So what? The club will still continue its work. There is a person occupying that office and making a decision...
Translation: Yiğit E. Korkmaz
Tags: human rights, education