Turkish summers are an attractive proposition, with the promise of white sandy beaches and boat parties providing the perfect summer escape.
But following the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as president last month, members of the LGBTQ community believe they are being sent a message that Turkey is not a country where they will be welcome.
At the end of May, President Erdoğan used his victory speech to speak out against what he termed "LGBT forces." "In our culture, family is sacred; no one can interfere," he told supporters. "We will strangle anyone who dares to touch it."
Here's everything LGBTQ+ travelers and their allies should know if considering a trip to Turkey.
What's the situation with LGBTQ+ rights in Turkey?
Still, Turkey scores low on the LGBTQ+ acceptance meter compared to the rest of Europe. In 2022, ILGA-Europe ranked Turkey 48 out of 49 countries regarding LGBTQ+ equality. The absence of support keeps many locals in the closet: several people living in Turkey chose not to speak or to give only their first names when interviewed for this piece.
Erdoğan has said the LGBTQ+ community is "spreading like the plague," and Pride parades regularly lead to arrests. In 2015, police sprayed Istanbul Pride marchers with tear gas and water cannons. Last June, authorities detained over 300 Pride participants at events around the city.
For Kaan, a Turkish-born gay man who grew up in the nation's capital and relocated to the Netherlands in March, a lack of LGBTQ+ protections is one of the main reasons he chose to leave his home country. He cites the right to marry and gender discrimination as two of his deciding factors. "Hidden governmental pressure to make LGBTQ+ people invisible on TV influenced my decision to move most," he says.
Mustafa Korkmaz, an Istanbul-based tourism professional who runs two sites dedicated to LGBTQ+ travel in Turkey and identifies as gay, remains optimistic. "LGBTQ+ life is better than it was 20 years ago," he says. "Taksim, the neighborhood where I live in Istanbul, is sort of a gay ghetto," he says, using language that started to define urban gay enclaves in cities like San Francisco in the 1960s. "I have transgender neighbors. There are 10 LGBTQ+ bars nearby."
What should LGBTQ+ tourists know while touring Turkey?
Kaan and Mustafa believe Turkey is safe for LGBTQ+ travelers if they take certain precautions. "Same-sex couples can walk hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm," says Kaan – a common way Turkish men express friendship. But public displays of affection like kissing are "not in the country's culture, even for straight people."
What's expected of locals only sometimes applies to tourists. "People in the travel industry are more liberally-minded, in general," says Mustafa, and it's unlikely they'll experience discrimination in hotels or on tours. Still, it's best to use discretion – particularly in small, conservative towns, where adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about sexuality and gender can safeguard against hostility.
But even in Bodrum, which Mustafa likens to rainbow flag-flying Mykonos, it's possible to run into prejudice. In 2021, travel blogger Ben Schlappig reported that several local hotels would not allow two men to stay in the same room - a policy that discriminates against gay couples. Travelers worried about a potential issue should call ahead before booking a stay.
What considerations should travelers make before visiting an anti-LGBTQ+ destination?
Some LGBTQ+ rights advocates call for travel boycotts to nations like Turkey, arguing that tourist dollars shouldn't line the pockets of unwelcoming regimes. Others see LGBTQ+ visibility as a form of grassroots activism achieved by supporting progressive local businesses that build bridges toward acceptance.
But before getting caught in the crosshairs of travel ideology, it's essential to consider personal comfort and safety. If you have an easy time passing as straight or cisgender, discrimination might not pose a threat. Likewise, if the physical expression of same-sex desire isn't necessary while traveling, local customs might not hinder your happiness.
Kaan has visited 39 countries and doesn't allow discrimination to stop him from seeing new destinations. Still, when it comes to personal pleasure, he prefers countries where he doesn't have to hide his sexuality.
The amount of intolerance you're willing to accommodate in your itinerary, however, is entirely up to you.