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Georgia public school calls ‘Gay Is OK’ Art a swastika, won’t back down

How do you trust school administrators who lie? How can Superintendent Brannon Gaskins in Athens be trusted?

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Photo of student art courtesy of Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary parent

By James Finn

See that lovely rainbow poster?

A child made it, a real child whose identity is being withheld to protect their privacy. Can you imagine them smiling as they bent over their markers or watercolors? They made that art, unprompted, for inclusion in a classroom exhibit at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School in Athens, Georgia. I don’t know why the child felt the need to say “Gay Is OK.” I don’t how old they are, if they’re a boy or a girl, if they identify as LGBTQ, if an older sibling or parent does, or if this is just something they care about.

I bet they knew deep in their hearts the message was needed. If they didn’t, they sure do now, and so does the rest of the school. Because of the horrible thing that happened next.

The child’s teacher loved the poster and hung it up with all the other student art. Then … This is really hard to write about. It’s not just sad, it’s … well, you decide.

Reportedly, one or more parents called the school to complain. An administrator asked the teacher to take the art off the wall. They refused. They got called into the principal’s office where two administrators ordered them to. A vice principal told the teacher that displaying a “Gay is Good” poster is the same as hanging a Nazi flag in the classroom. She literally said rainbow flags are like swastikas.

The child’s art disappeared, and the whole school knew why

Who removed the art is unclear, though I’m told the teacher refused to. The principal ordered it, and somebody obeyed him. I don’t know who broke the story to the press, but some accounts say the teacher did. If so, I wish I could buy them a beer. Reports say much of the Oglethorpe faculty was outraged over the homophobic censorship. So were many parents. Some of them told reporters bigotry has long been a problem with administrators at Oglethorpe Elementary.

Jemelleh Coes, a parent and professor at the University of Georgia, told Atlanta’s NBC affiliate WXIA-TV 11, “There are ongoing complaints about this current administration has been discriminatory against women, being discriminatory against LGBTQ people, being discriminatory against English language learners or emerging bilinguals, emerging multilingual and Spanish speakers. So we have seen a pattern of inequity at our school and we have been asking for support at this point for years.”

Kids got the homophobic message loud and clear

The story made a big media splash. All the the local news affiliates picked it up; so did Athens newspapers. It even drew national coverage. Kids learned being gay is controversial. Shameful. As bad as being a Nazi. The professionals running their school taught them that.

I’m writing today because of what happened next

This story was big a week ago, and I didn’t write about it then because I had nothing to add. Coverage was extensive and events spoke for themselves. Then the other shoe dropped.

The Clarke County School District released a vague statement on January 25, saying they support “diversity and inclusion” and “stand with our LGBTQIA+ community,” writing that they intend to “continue having sensitive and appropriate conversations with our school communities.” They didn’t put the art back on the wall, though, they didn’t issue an apology, and they didn’t fire the assistant principal who likened “Gay is Good” to Nazi messaging.

That’s not the other shoe. This is →

The district issued another statement Tuesday, which has not been reported outside the local community. They wrote more nice words about diversity and being sensitive. They even say, “We absolutely and unequivocally support our LGBTQIA+ community.”

But that’s a lie, and that’s why I’m writing today.

The full text of the statement IS the other shoe. The District is going to do … absolutely nothing. Seriously. Nothing at all. Vice Principal Sandra Scott made the Nazi remark. Principal Bipul Singh agreed with her that children should not see the “Gay is Good” message. Both of them ordered the art removed, and they’ve stuck to their guns.

The district will not discipline them. That’s a huge part of the other shoe.

The other part is the hypocrisy of Acting Superintendent Brannon Gaskins, whose words about absolute and unequivocal support are — effectively and practically — lies. Unequivocal support would BEGIN with putting the art back up on the wall. Would begin with holding a student assembly to tell kids how deeply sorry administrators are for sending a horrible message about LGBTQ people.

Unequivocal support would mean — at the very least — firing the woman who made the odious Nazi remark, which all the children in her school know about now. Unequivocal support would have to mean Principal Singh would face serious discipline, up to and including being fired.

Parents are demanding all that and more, but all the school district has to say is that they will “continue” being “sensitive” and “continue” to prohibit discrimination based on LGBTQ identity, even though they are actively discriminating right now by keeping the art off the wall.

Tyler Johnson in his viral TikTok. Image used with permission.

How to you trust school administrators with terrible track records?

Remember Tyler Johnson in the photo above? I interviewed him just under a month ago when his high school principal and district superintendent refused to let him write in a school publication that he’s gay and has overcome bullying.

Tyler took to TikTok and his viral story about anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Tully, New York reached much of the nation: Being gay IS okay. Overcoming bullying IS something to proud of. Silencing LGBTQ students is wrong and contrary to the human ideals most of us try to live by. Positive representation rocks.

There’s more to the story, though. Much of Tyler’s community rallied around him, but accountability and trust remain elusive. District administration apologized and reversed their censorship decision. The school board hired a lawyer to investigate the censorship, but that’s not the end of the story.

At least one Tully radio broadcaster openly mocked Tyler, and his friends are deeply worried about a lack of school-district transparency. They tell me they want accountability and positive change, but they don’t believe Superintendent Robert J. Hughes and Principal Mike O’Brien are capable of delivering.

They say both men have long track records of discriminating against LGBTQ students and members of other minorities. They say neither man, in light of what happened, is trustworthy.

How do you trust school administrators who lie?

Critically, Principal O’Brien lied to Tyler and his mother Pamela Johnson separately and more than once, telling them a district policy barred mentioning “sexuality, orientation, religion, or illegal drugs” in the publication Tyler was supposed to be featured in. The Board of Education later admitted no such policy exists and that if it did, it would violate New York State education law.

It’s possible O’Brien thought he was telling the truth, but if so, then Hughes lied to him about a non-existent, illegal policy. Neither man has addressed the truthfulness issue, and (oddly) local media haven’t asked which one of them lied or if both of them did.

Tyler’s Tully supporters ask how they can be expected to believe anything either man says. How can they be expected to work with professionals who have demonstrated they will lie? How can the men be trusted to implement positive change for LGBTQ students at Tully High School?

How can Superintendent Brannon Gaskins in Athens be trusted?

“We absolutely and unequivocally support our LGBTQIA+ community,” is a lie. When Gaskins writes that, while refusing to discipline an employee who calls a “Gay is Good” poster a swastika, he demonstrates he holds truthfulness itself in high contempt. Like Superintendent Hughes in New York, he demonstrates that he cannot be trusted.

What’s going on in Georgia right now is enough to make any decent person weep. But let’s not end there. I reached out yesterday to Tyler to ask him what he would say to students and community leaders in Athens.

Let’s end with some of Tyler’s powerful, positive words:

“I want the Georgia student whose artwork was taken down to know they are not alone and that being gay is in fact not an issue like people are making it out to be. I also want them to know that even though it may not feel like it in this exact moment, it will get better and eventually, things will change.

If I could have a talk with this class, I would ask them to understand the importance of this issue and to show support to their classmate.

To the community members pushing for accountability, don’t give up. Whatever you do, do not give up. No matter how little you feel you are accomplishing, do not give up. I promise that your work is necessary. Holding these people in positions of power accountable is the first step to change and to making sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else again.

So please, for the sake of this student, past students, and future students, do not give up.”

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James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, a frequent columnist for the LA Blade, a contributor to other LGBTQ news outlets, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Florida school district to force teachers to Out LGBTQ+ students

Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ is doing EXACTLY what LGBTQ advocates warned it would do even though formal written LGBTQ policies not yet released

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Orange County Public Schools logo, public domain image. Photo of bullied teen girl licensed from Adobe Stock.

By James Finn | ORLANDO – The 9th largest school district in the U.S. just advised its 25,000 teachers and staff that they must inform parents if a student “comes out” to them.

That’s just for starters. Keep reading, because Don’t Say Gay exploded this week in Orange County, Florida, home of Orlando and a dense population that includes 205,000 public school students.

LGBTQ advocates and teachers in Florida are shouting, “We told you so!” as Orange County Public Schools announces policies to enforce Governor Ron DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay law, formally known as the Parental Rights in Education Act. Advocates have warned for months that the law’s vague wording and provisions to allow parents to sue school districts would prompt draconian anti-LGBTQ regulations. That’s exactly what’s happening in Orange County today.

* Outing LGBTQ teens to unsupportive parents isn’t just bad policy. It’s a moral outrage, an affront to human decency. *

ABC affiliate WFTV reported on Monday that Orange County Public Schools held an administrators-only seminar last week to advise principals on what behaviors would and would not be permissible under the new law. They also report that representatives of the Florida Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) have informed them of new policies they’ve learned about through other channels.

Here’s the lowdown so far on Orange County schools and new LGBTQ polices:

  1. Teachers must report to parents if a student ‘comes out’ to them.
  2. Teachers must use pronouns assigned at birth, regardless of what the parents allow, meaning teachers must misgender trans students in class.
  3. Teachers must remove stickers denoting a particular classroom is a “safe space” for LGBTQ students and others.
  4. Teachers cannot wear rainbows on their clothing, “including lanyards distributed by the district last year.”
  5. Elementary-level teachers are discouraged from putting pictures of their same-sex spouse on their desk or talking about them to students. Teachers are not being discouraged from putting pictures of opposite-sex spouses on their desks.

Teachers are alarmed and speaking out

Several LGBTQ teachers in Florida’s Miami/Dade and Orange counties have reached out to me privately saying they’ve quit their jobs or they’re planning to soon. The Washington Post and NBC News reported recently that LGBTQ teachers in Florida are leaving the profession in significant numbers. Many, however, are staying, determined to fight for justice and equality, and to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ kids.

CTA President-Elect Clinton McCracken is on the record urging Orange County Public Schools to rethink policies: “It will be alarming if our district chooses to interpret this law in the most extreme way. We want them to protect student privacy. We want them to make sure that they’re creating and helping to create safe classrooms. We believe our school board supports that.”

The consequences of outing are STAGGERING.

According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ students are already at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. These risks multiply bigtime if a student is outed to unsupportive parents.

Also, outing teens to unsupportive parents dramatically increases their risk of homelessness. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has found that 45 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, a hugely disproportionate number. They further found that 43 percent of LGBTQ youth were kicked out of the home by unsupportive parents.

Outing LGBTQ teens to unsupportive parents isn’t just bad policy. It’s a moral outrage, an affront to human decency.

Mandatory misgendering of trans students will cause serious harm

I don’t know if anyone at the district level thought the misgendering policy through, but the implications, as with outing, are staggering. Many trans students attend schools where their peers have no idea they’re trans, often because they transferred into the district fully presenting as their gender. Usual school privacy practice around the nation requires teachers not to out these students, regardless of what’s on their birth certificate.

I can’t imagine the justification for suddenly forcing teachers to violate student privacy instead of protect it. I can, however, imagine the anguish that will result. And the jeers. And the bullying. And the tragic consequences.

I can also imagine the anguish of newly transitioning students who started their summer vacations thinking of school as a safe, supportive space where they were free to be themselves, only to return in the fall to a school where their teachers must misgender them.

Forbidding rainbows and safe-space stickers sends a cruel, bullying message

Little rainbow flags and stickers that let LGBTQ kids know they are safe and truly welcome do a great deal of good and no harm. They say, “We value you for who you are. You can come here to this space, and know you will find an adult you can trust. You can report bullying here and be assured the adult you’re reporting it to accepts and values LGBTQ people.”

Forcing teachers to remove those symbols doesn’t just remove the safe space, it sends a toxic message to the entire student body: “LGBTQ people and ideas are too controversial to be open about in school. Rainbow flags are not positive symbols of diversity, love and, acceptance. They’re so toxic, and some people hate what they stand for so much, that they have no place in school.”

I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, or nonbinary, that message spreads intolerance and even hatred.

Discouraging same-sex married teachers from being open about their families also spreads intolerance and hatred

We Americans live in a pluralistic society where people of all races, ethnic origins, and religions live and work together. An overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. have no problem with same-sex marriage, and while a loud minority have a serious problem with it, it’s legal and common and not going anywhere.

Telling gay and bisexual teachers not to talk about their families or display photos of their families in circumstances where straight teachers ordinarily do so sends a terrible message to school employees and students. “Something is wrong with you and your family, so wrong that students must not see or hear anything about your family.”

That message is not pluralistic, it’s not American, and it’s certainly not healthy. It demonizes LGBTQ people as it promotes shaming and discrimination. Utterly unacceptable.

None of this is set in stone yet. Raise your voice!

According to WFTV, that district-wide meeting with administrators last week did not include formal written LGBTQ policies, which have not yet been released. There’s still time to tell Orange County Public Schools policy makers that their proposals will do great harm, that their leaked policies are toxic and morally outrageous.

Outing LGBTQ kids to unsupportive parents? What are they THINKING? Reach out to Orange County Public Schools today, right now, and demand they do do better.

You can contact the district office here, and find contact information for school board members here.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Major Pride events disrupted as Extremists go after small children

In Nevada, masked Proud Boys threatened a group of small children and their parents observing Pride, causing the families to flee in panic

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Proud Boy members protesting a Pride Event at a Nevada library, minutes before one of the men stalked toward the event with a gun in his hands, causing children and parents to flee. Screenshots/KRNV

By James Finn | DETROIT – Chaos broke out over the weekend in New York City and San Francisco as participants at the two largest, oldest U.S. Pride parades panicked over reported gunfire. In Nevada, masked Proud Boys threatened a group of small children and their parents observing Pride, causing the families to flee in panic.

According to the Washington Post, “loud noises” on Sunday sent Pride crowds in New York’s Washington Square Park “fleeing and nearly caused a stampede.”

Some witnesses, who reported minor injuries requiring medical attention, say “nearly” misses the mark. The noises were later determined to be fireworks, according to parade organizers, who suggest ongoing threats of violence had Pride attendees on edge.

Panic over reported gunshots, and a gun, at weekend Pride events

Chaos broke out over the weekend in New York City and San Francisco as participants at the two largest, oldest U.S. Pride parades panicked over reported gunfire. In Nevada, masked Proud Boys threatened a group of small children and their parents observing Pride, causing the families to flee in panic.

According to the Washington Post, “loud noises” on Sunday sent Pride crowds in New York’s Washington Square Park “fleeing and nearly caused a stampede.”

Some witnesses, who reported minor injuries requiring medical attention, say “nearly” misses the mark. The noises were later determined to be fireworks, according to parade organizers, who suggest ongoing threats of violence had Pride attendees on edge.

Thousands flee San Francisco Pride

On Saturday, panic broke out at San Francisco Pride, as reported by Kylie Robison of Insider, who was there. “I was at pride, she tweeted, “and people started screaming, running, saying there was shots fired. I started running with the crowd but its just wild to live in a country where we’re all prepared to run or die like that.”

According to NBC News, San Francisco Pride ended early after somebody started spraying mace near the San Francisco Civic Center: “The incident caused a panic and in the hour that followed there were reports of street brawls as people left the event.”

Other reports suggest people stampeded over sounds of gunfire. A security guard told NBC that “two stampedes broke out with crowds running for the exits amid rumors of a gun.”

Details are unclear, but it appears no shots were fired. Reports of mace are conflicting and unconfirmed, but the fear and panic were very real.

“I was at the SF pride event with my son,” one witness comments. “I can only describe it as World War Z type of panic. At first a group of a few hundred sprinters dodged through the area near the exit. The second wave was thousands of people, many crying, most in fear running to the exits.”

Children flee Nevada Pride event when Proud Boy approaches with a gun

So far as reporters are able to confirm, no actual guns were involved in the San Francisco and NYC Pride stampedes, but on Sunday, Proud Boys protesters menaced a Pride event at the Sparks Library in Reno, Nevada. Multiple news sources, including the LA Blade, report that a group of Proud Boys disrupted a drag queen story hour, chanting obscenities and screaming that parents who brought their children to Pride are “groomers” and “molesters.”

Reno police had been monitoring, but when protesters began to drift away, officers reportedly left the scene. Then one of the Proud Boys pulled out a gun and approached the crowd of parents and children. Details are conflicting, some witnesses reporting that the masked man screamed and waved his gun, others that he just held it in his hands as he approached the children.

Witnesses all agree that the families fled into the library, many of the children screaming and crying.

LGBTQ people face rising tides of violence and extremism

Pride observers in NYC and San Francisco may have over-reacted, but not without cause. Most of them were probably aware of a mass shooting early Saturday in Oslo, Norway that claimed the lives of two people and seriously injured ten more outside a popular gay club. Police charged a 42-year-old man with murder, and Oslo’s Pride parade, scheduled for later in the day, was canceled.

Attendees were likely also aware that several U.S. Pride events this year have been menaced by Christian nationalist groups like the Patriot Front, 31 of whom were arrested — with body armor, riot gear, and at least one smoke grenade — on their way to terrorize Pride in Idaho. Groups of masked Proud Boys have terrorized children at several library events this month, including at the San Lorenzo Library in California and at a North Carolina library near Wilmington. Sherriff’s deputies in the latter case tacitly encouraged the Proud Boys, fist bumping them and engaging in casual banter instead of stopping them from screaming at small children.

God, guns, and glory, shout Christian nationalist extremists

Social media is a frightening place to be LGBTQ these days, with conservative Christian leaders openly calling for transgender and gay people to be executed. Their posts and media accounts, like this Steadfast Baptist Church account on Twitter and this one on Facebook, are often left standing by managers at Facebook and Twitter, who cite freedom of religious expression.

Steadfast pastors at several U.S. churches this year have called for LGBTQ people to be killed, and if their threats frighten us, can you blame us? Instead of being arrested and incarcerated or committed, these religious extremists continue to incite violence and call for their supporters to arm themselves.

Gods, guns, and glory is the conservative rallying cry today, which married to rising anti-LGBTQ extremism, makes violent threats sound all the more ominous.

Also ominously, just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York State that makes it a crime to carry a concealed firearm without a license. The decision will mean that nearly anyone who wants to carry a gun in public will be able to.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said, “This decision isn’t just reckless, it’s reprehensible.”

Maybe that’s what some of those stampeding people in Washington Square were thinking about when they thought they heard gunshots.

Americans of good will have to act together to take our country back

The pro-LGBTQ media organization GLAAD calls for Americans to resist the increasing arming of our society, to protest the recent Supreme Court decision that blocks sensible gun licensing and regulation.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis also calls out anti-LGBTQ laws and false propaganda messaging, calling on politicians and social media managers to reign in toxic rhetoric that equates LGBTQ people to sexualizing “groomers” who prey on children:

Ellis says, “Lawmakers and Governors like DeSantis and Abbott, along with their co-conspirators at Fox News, better pause today and recognize that their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and the nearly 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year are responsible for this dangerous climate.”

She adds that “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media platforms must also take responsibility and urgently stop fueling the hate and misinformation that inspire white supremacist groups like the Patriot Front.”

I join Ellis in calling for an end to the vilification of LGBTQ people for political gain. What we saw this weekend in New York City, San Francisco and Reno should be a wakeup call. Do we need another tragic anti-LGBTQ mass shooting like Pulse, or like JUST HAPPENED in Norway, before we confront the dangerous reality of the path we’re on?

What’s the solution? I don’t have all the answers, but I know we must turn out in massive numbers this November to elect an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, which no matter what our political views, is the only way to stop the minority of extremists who now dominate the Republican Party, the only way to bring the increasingly reckless Supreme Court under control.

If we don’t act together now, mark my words, near-future articles won’t be about stampedes at Pride, they’ll be about massacres.

Breaking update: Pink News is reporting that a trans teenager is hospitalized with a fractured skull and brain abnormalities, and that two other people were hospitalized in a terrifying attack after Pride celebrations on Saturday in Dublin, Ireland. Five people in total were attacked at St. Stephen’s Green while celebrating Pride after the official event concluded.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

********************

The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Turkey Pride crackdowns only strengthen LGBTQ+ resistance

Hundreds arrested in Istanbul on Sunday

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Police crackdown on the Istanbul Pride march on June 26, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Hayri Tunç)

The waving colors of the thousand shades inside of a rainbow,

The sparkling joy from the pride and honor of self-declaration, 

The echoing sounds of the steps for solidarity in the cobblestone streets of İstanbul, 

To unite for equality, for justice, for solely our right to be. 

This was our goal, our expectation and our hope for Pride Turkey 2022. It has, however, been overshadowed by the government’s vicious attempts to repress the colors of the LGBTQI+ community. 

First, it started with the ban of Pride speeches and panels that many district governors and other local authorities across Turkey announced. Local police officers raided the many event venues as if “illegal” activities were being conducted. 

As in the last couple of years, it was already expected the government would ban the Pride marches in many cities. It was, however, the first time the government officially tried to prevent even face-to-face community gatherings of LGBTQI+ organizations. It was a type of intervention reflecting the level of fear and intolerance of the government regarding the growing connection, solidarity and public visibility of LGBTQI+ community.

Nevertheless, oppression often brings out the most creative means. As such, Pride committees have carried all the activities on digital platforms. Many activists and civil society representatives have shown support by participating in live broadcasts from event venues, and the voice of LGBTQI+ solidarity still reached a wide audience. 

Subsequently, the most drastic pressure by the government has manifested itself during the Pride marches. The police violently intervened and used unproportionate force against marchers in many cities, which resulted in a radical number of unwarranted detentions. 

While 530 LGBTQI+ activists were taken into custody over the last 37 days across Turkey, 373 of them were arrested during the Istanbul Pride march on June 26. This constitutes a first, since the Istanbul Pride arrests constituted the largest number of people taken into custody during a street march since the Gezi protests.

Will these enormous efforts to pressure win the day? The answer is “definitely no.” On the contrary, it sparked a backlash by triggering strong solidarity among Turkey’s queer community. The outstanding resistance of LGBTQI+ marchers gained public recognition on social media, while persistent legal support of LGBTQI+ initiatives canceled all the detentions. In the end, the exhaustive pressures of the government could not manage to fade the multicolor of LGBTQI+ identity. In fact, it helped our rainbow flag to shine even more glamorous and visible.  

We, as members of the LGBTQI+ community, have once again proved through this entire experience that solidarity, togetherness and collective resistance are the most powerful facilitators in our fight to exist equally.   

In honor of the unbreakable resistance of Turkey Pride 2022 supporters, 

Thanks to you, the cobblestones of Istanbul and every street in Turkey echoed with the steps of LGBTQI+ solidarity.

Dilek İçten is a journalist, researcher and civil society expert with a demonstrated history of working in interdisciplinary and investigative research projects examining the socio-cultural dynamics of media, gender and migration. The focus of her work varies from freedom of expression, media censorship and journalistic independence to gender based-discrimination and hate speech against disadvantaged groups and minorities.

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