Sportif Lezbon: the LGBT Club Using Soccer as a Weapon Against Discrimination in Turkey

While Turkish society has become increasingly conservative during recent years, the LGBT football club Sportif Lezbon are making a stand for openness and inclusivity.

Mar 28 2016, 1:05pm

Image via Sportif Lezbon on Facebook

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

"Football is one of the strongest bastions of manhood," says Selin, a star player and co-founder at Turkish club Sportif Lezbon. "Therefore, it's a place where LGBT people, and women particularly, struggle to be heard."

The rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the ensuing domination of the Turkish political scene by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has seen the country shift towards a more conservative society, characterised by an increasingly repressive state.

Against this backdrop, Sportif Lezbon looks to combat homophobia and discrimination in the country. Branding itself as Turkey's first open LGBT football club, and welcoming of all sexes and sexual orientations, its story began a couple of years ago when a group of bisexual and homosexual women started gathering in Ankara to play friendly matches. The club is the result of a merger between two smaller teams: "Strapon" and "Elle", who after two years of organising games in their neighbourhood decided to join forces and form a single entity. Sportif Lezbon was born.

The team – whose name is a playful reference to Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon – quickly joined Ozgur Lig, an alternative Turkish football league standing "against racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia." Founded in March 2015 in Ankara, the division is mostly made up of university students and LGBT activists.

Ozgur Lig is one of many alternative football leagues that have flourished around the country in recent times, all of which stand as testament to a new kind of fight against homophobia in Turkey. Others include Gazoz Ligi, Efendi Lig, and, Karsi Lig, all based in Istanbul. Two LGBT teams have also been formed in the city: Queen Park Rangers, and the ironically named Atletik Dildoa.

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The cultural and social significance of an LGBT football team in a country as socially conservative as Turkey is clear. Since June 2015, when the AKP failed to secure a parliamentary majority for the first time since its creation, the country has become increasingly unstable. This culminated with the Ankara bombings on 10 October, which resulted in over 100 deaths and injured more than 250 civilians.

A direct consequence of this repressive climate has been tightened restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. In 2015 alone, three journalists were killed and 14 imprisoned.

The LGBT community has been deeply affected, too. In its Enlargement Strategy 2015 report on Turkey, the European Commission wrote: "Turkey [...] needs to effectively guarantee the rights of women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals [...]. Gender-based violence, discrimination and hate speech against minorities, and respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are major areas of concern."

According to a hate crime report by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), bias against LGBT people was at the root of 34 violent attacks and two serious threats in Turkey in 2014. The website LGBTI News Turkey regularly lists reported hate crimes against the LGBT community; recent examples include a transgender woman who was stabbed to death while working on the street in the Avcılar district of Istanbul. In July 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also expressed "deep concern over attacks and incitement to violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey." This came shortly after Turkish police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water canons to disperse crowds at Istanbul's gay pride parade and arrested several demonstrators, causing mayhem and panic in the streets of the country's largest city.

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules British Football

So, although Turkey's LGBT community has become more visible and LGBT organisations have significantly increased (over 40 different groups now exist), violence and discrimination have undeniably regained momentum under the AKP's rule.

"The government has always approached LGBT members as couch grass and as being deviant," explains Secin Tuncel, a member of KAOS GL, one of the country's largest LGBT support and research groups, as well as a fierce supporter of Sportif Lezbon and Ozgur Lig. "They are generating a big amount of homophobia that reflects in our society."

While there are no laws directed specifically against the LGBT community in Turkey, there are also none that protect them against violence and discrimination. In February 2015, the main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), proposed a bill to prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Although signed by 10 MPs, it was not voted into a law.

Football remains a male-dominated sport the world over; in Turkey, however, this seems to carry an even greater meaning. Games in Turkey are all too often overtaken by violence and confrontations between supporters in the stands, to the extent that it threatens to kill the sport. The stadium has become a place where Turkish men enjoy displaying their strength and virility, and where women and homosexuals are therefore neither welcome nor tolerated.

Sportif Lezbon star Selin is a 25-year-old student at Ankara's Middle-East Technical University. She began playing football in the streets of Istanbul as a child, mostly against boys; many years later, she and her teammates came up with the idea of forming an alternative football club.

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"We were looking for ways to unite women who dare not say anything against obvious violations of their basic rights," she explains.

As Sportif Lezbon makes it a point of honour to be inclusive of everyone, the team is not just open to women but also men. But the primary goal, Selin insists, is to give women and LGBT persons a chance to be part of a world they're usually excluded from. The club does not limit its role to football. They regularly take part in marches – in May 2015 they stood alongside Turkish workers – and host solidarity events.

Their place in the sport is clearly important. Selin recalls how, a few months back, male supporters set fire to a female dummy dressed in a tight red dress – highlighting some men's contemptuous image of women – in the stands following a Fenerbahce–Galatasaray derby in Istanbul. The incident prompted a huge backlash, with women taking to social media to denounce the violence and sexism displayed during games and calling the act an "insult."

"What happens during football games is nothing but a reflection of all the other abuses we experience in other spheres of life," says Selin.

What Sportif Lezbon, Ozgur Lig and the other alternative Turkish football clubs and leagues have taken on is no easy task: they are trying to combat deep-rooted behaviours and cultural values which have been part of Turkish society for many years. Whether their actions will make a change, only time will tell. Regardless, there is merit in their work and the way they go about it.

"Lezbon is going on the pitch to put up a fight against heteronormativity and male dominance," Selin says. "It's a big weapon against sexism. With it, we realised there was a new battleground where we could raise our voice and fight."