Touching Elbows: The Turkish Concept of “Dirsek Teması”
Life & Language: the Dictionary of the Queer International (9/9)

Touching Elbows: The Turkish Concept of “Dirsek Teması”

When LGBTI+ people occupy physical spaces alongside other social groups in struggle, a solidarity network becomes possible. That is dirsek teması.

As a member of the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey, I have come across the concept dirsek teması at many events, conferences, and social gatherings. The direct translation of the concept is “elbow contact.” Inspired by the physical contact—touching elbows—when standing close to others at protests, dirsek teması indicates a need to be near physically and learn to construct and share actual safe spaces for and with people coming from different SOGI positions,[1] ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses, ages, and so on. Dirsek teması includes but goes beyond the discursive tools that would make intersectional politics of solidarity and resistance possible in Turkey. Dirsek teması calls for learning how to share physical spaces, and to make those spaces safe for everybody. 

Mainstream mentions of dirsek teması in the LGBTI+ movement can be traced back to unprecedented enmeshment of various social groups during the protests and communal life at the Gezi Park Movement in 2013.[2] Within the physical space of Gezi Park and Taksim area,[3] actors in the LGBTI+ movement fostered political alliances with social groups with which they had little previous dialogue: soccer fans, nationalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, blue-collar workers, communists, Kurds, Armenians, and so on.[4] The Istanbul Pride Walk in 2013 attracted around 100,000 people, making it the biggest pride march in the history of Turkey.[5] The press release marking the start of the Pride Week noted that the LGBTI+ movement’s “dirsek teması has increased: We got closer to çArşı[6] and ate kandil simidi[7] with anti-capitalist Muslims.”[8]

The overarching theme of the Istanbul Pride Week events in 2014 was chosen as temas (contact) since the intimate political and physical encounters in the Gezi Park Movement were still fresh in everybody’s minds. Pride Week had two consecutive panel discussions named temas and dirsek teması. Description of the panels said, “While 20 years have passed since birth of the LGBTI movement (in Turkey) with the Gezi Resistance it has come into contact, more than ever before, with the subjects of social opposition varying from soccer fans to revolutionary Muslims.”[9] The panels aimed to reflect upon “the experiences of establishing contacts with the subjects of social opposition both before and after Gezi; upon what these physical and discursive contacts mean; and upon how to move forward in the future.”[10] Thus, dirsek teması moves beyond discourses of toleration and liminal political representation as a minority group. It envisages the LGBTI+ movement occupying the same physical spaces alongside various social groups and establishing intersectional solidarity networks.

Drawing that depicts five people standing in a line with linked arms, with flowers floating in the foreground.

The first time I heard dirsek teması being used in the context of queer migration was in a roundtable workshop organized by the Women’s Solidarity Foundation in December 2017. The year 2011 marked a monumental turn for Turkey, the Mediterranean Region, as well as the EU. The Syrian War displaced millions of people. Many scattered around the Mediterranean Region, hoping to arrive in the EU or use it as a transition point to cross the Atlantic Ocean and go to North America. Turkey ended up hosting 3.5 million refugees from Syria in addition to half a million refugees from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Sahara. Hosting 4 million refugees has earned Turkey the title “the country with the world’s largest refugee population.” With their increasing numbers and visibility, queer refugees have become an integral part of the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey. 

In a bid to coordinate efforts to support queer refugees, Women’s Solidarity Foundation sent out a general call for a roundtable workshop.[11] The number of organizations that sent representatives to the workshop was impressive: thirty-three organizations including long-established LGBTI+ NGOs such as KAOS GL, Lambdaİstanbul and Pembe Hayat, as well as recently mobilized groups such as Genç LGBTİ Association İzmir or Zeugmadi- Gaziantep LGBT. For four hours, every participant shared their encounters with queer refugees, their observations of problems that queer refugees face, and possible ways in which NGOs and groups could establish a solidarity network with queer refugees. As the workshop progressed, a few participants questioned why there were no queer refugees in the workshop. Their remarks sparked a heated debate over the adverse effects of speaking on behalf of queer refugees and the lack of dirsek teması. They argued that queer refugees must be physically present in such conferences and workshops to be able to articulate and convey their grievances and demands. They noted that NGOs must provide necessary resources for queer refugees to self-organize and to sustain their participants at such events.

Dirsek teması has also become an important tool to counter homonationalist tendencies within the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey. The ever-increasing number of queer refugees and their need for social, economic, and political support has revealed cracks in the LGBTI+ movement through which homonationalism seeped into the discourses articulated in events and conferences. During one of the panels in the 2016 Pride Week events, some people heatedly argued that “we (queer citizens) must first save ourselves before saving others (queer refugees).”[12] In other instances, a few workers of LGBTI+ NGOs voiced their concerns over using already limited resources on queer refugees instead of queer citizens. Queer refugees noted that they stopped going to events organized by LGBTI+ NGOs because they were subjected to racist remarks from the other participants. As queer refugees become more visible, a handful of queer citizens attempted to draw borders around queer spaces in Turkey to exclude the non-citizens. It seems like for these people, belonging to the Turkish nation-state became a way to demonstrate being deserving of solidarity. 

However, it is crucial to say that these homonationalist discourses and practices have not established roots in the movement. Powerful voices have risen within the movement to counter homonationalist tendencies. They have fiercely argued against discriminatory remarks and taken crucial steps to open queer safe spaces for refugees. They have taken the necessary steps to establish elbow contact. “Tea and Talk”—a group of Arabic-speaking refugees meeting every Sunday – used SPOD’s[13] office for their weekly meetings. HEVI LGBTI+[14] incorporated Arabic and Persian into its publications and establish close ties with the queer Iranian community in Yalova and organizing social events for them in the city. 

All in all, dirsek teması signifies corporeality of solidarity networks. Discursive acts of solidarity are necessary to establish a shared political repertoire through which various social groups coordinate their demands, yet they are not sufficient. Overlooking subjectivities of queer refugees and lacking physical encounters between these social groups can prevent the formation of solidarity networks or create asymmetrical power relations in which one social group speaks on behalf of the other, misrepresenting their needs and demands.


Endnotes

[1] SOGI is an acronym for “sexual orientation and gender identity.”

[2] The movement started as a protest against the cutting of trees in Gezi Park and the urban development plans for the area. On 29 May 2013, the sit-in protest in the park was attacked by the police. The police brutality against the peaceful protesters drew widespread criticism all around Turkey. What started as a small sit-in protest soon turned into an area-wide clash with the police as more and more people arrived in Taksim to land their support. From 1st to 15th of June, the park was occupied by the protestors, criticising neoliberal and neoconservative economic, and cultural politics of the ruling government. On 15th of June, the police attacked the park, burning the tents and forcing people out of the park. This caused protests to disperse across Istanbul and Turkey. In various cities, people came together to protest, chanting “Her Yer Taksim, Her Yer Direniş” (Everywhere Taksim, Everywhere Resistance). The political effects of the Gezi Park Movement are still deeply felt, since a group of civil society actors were arrested in 2017 on the grounds of ‘being masterminds’ behind the protests. Some of them are still behind bars to this day. 

[3] Taksim is located in a historical district of Istanbul. It has always been an important space for LGBTI+ activism in Turkey. In 1987, in a first-ever public protest, a group of LGBTI+ people went on a ten-day hunger strike in Gezi Park. It was the home of one of the first LGBTI+ organizations, Lambdaİstanbul, which was founded in 1993. Istanbul Pride Walks have taken place in the Taksim area since 2004. 

[4] Mehmet Sinan Birdal, “Between the Universal and the Particular: The Politics of Recognition of LGBT Rights in Turkey,” in Sexualities in World Politics: How LGBTQ Claims Shaped International Relations, ed. Manuela Lavinas Picq and Markus Thiel (London and New York: Routledge, 2015). 

[5] Ozlem Atalayn, and Petra L. Doan, “Reading the LGBT Movement through its Spatiality in Istanbul, Turkey,” Geography Research Forum 39.

[6] The most influential soccer fan group of Beşiktaş, the football club.

[7] A pastry that is baked and distributed on the holy days of Islam.  

[8] https://m.bianet.org/bianet/lgbti/147897-21-lgbt-onur-haftasi-basladi. Accessed July 28, 2022.

[9] From my personal archive of pamphlets for Pride Week programs.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Information about the content of the roundtable comes from my PhD research which includes participant observations and interviews with queer refugees and transnational, international and local NGOs that work with queer refugees. In total, I interviewed 124 people: 65 of them workers of transnational, international and local organizations. Fifty-nine of them were queer refugees.

[12] PhD field notes. 

[13] An LGBTI+ NGO operating in Istanbul. 

[14] An LGBTI+ NGO operating in Istanbul.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

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Mert Koçak is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University (CEU). He holds an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science and an MA in Gender Studies from CEU.

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Hagra is an artist living in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He was born in 1992 almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hagra is a transgender person and a pansexual, so naturally the study of gender and sexuality and their place in post-Soviet culture has become the main focus of his art.

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