A professor reflects on teaching the American civil rights movement amidst unrest abroad.
June in Greenwich Village is the sticky sense of an impending thunderstorm, mingled with the rich perfume of ripe flowers and trash. It is also a time when New Yorkers—and people the world over—celebrate that heated moment in the early hours of June 28, 1969 when the gay community took a stand against police harassment at the Village’s Stonewall Inn. At the time, raids were customary in the Mafia-owned gay bar, but that night a crowd gathered outside as the NYPD was confiscating liquor and hauling "cross-dressers" into a paddy wagon. When the cops showed signs of force, the crowd started booing and beer cans were thrown. The officers lashed out—and so began days of conflict in and around the nightspot. Those protests gave rise to the modern Pride movement that spans the globe.
Stonewall didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course: the ’60s were a decade of mass uprising against oppression of all kinds, including movements promoting civil rights, women’s liberation, and an end to the war in Vietnam. This transformative period is the specialty of NYU history professor, labor archivist, and activist Kevyne Baar, who journeyed to teach it as part of a Fulbright exchange at Hacetepe University in Ankara, Turkey.
When Baar arrived in Turkey in September, 2013, the country was in the midst of its own civil rights moment. In Istanbul’s Gezi Park, a sit-in protest of the government’s decision to demolish the space for corporate development soon morphed into a national movement for greater religious, ethnic, and sexual tolerance. Baar couldn’t have predicted the change that those protests would encourage—and their strange symmetry with the tumultuous decade she was about to teach. A photograph from the events in Istanbul —a woman offering börek, a Turkish cheese pastry, to a wall of riot police—would eerily echo the iconic image of an anti-Vietnam War protester Jane Rose Kasmir presenting a single pink daisy to a barricade of armed guards outside the Pentagon.
When Baar settled into her new home in Ankara, the protests that had been shaking the nation were entering their third month, and the professor encouraged her new students’ involvement, excusing them when they missed class or arrived late because of new developments, such as an all-night vigil to mourn the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, a boy who was hit in the head by a gas canister while out buying bread for his family. “The next morning they were all dragging into class,” she said with affection.
But despite her generosity, Baar initially struggled to get her students to connect with the American events of the 1960s. When she screened various docudramas about that period, many of the students whispered to each other throughout. That all changed when she showed them a PBS film on Stonewall and the buzzing classroom finally fell silent. “The documentary made the point that nobody came. The media did not come,” she notes of the initial Stonewall confrontation, of which there is no footage. “And that they could relate to.”
When Occupy Gezi happened, the international media was present, but the Turkish press—under pressure from the government—was nowhere to be found. “There’s that famous comparison made between what was showing on different CNN channels,” said Baar. “On CNN World were the uprisings, but on CNN Turkey there was a wildlife feature on penguins.”
But it wasn’t only the local media’s refusal to cover the events that struck a chord with Baar’s students. Like Stonewall, Gezi has been a turning point for sexual politics in Turkey. In a country where the former family affairs minister, Aliye Kavaf, once referred to homosexuality as a “disease,” and where the LGBTQI community has faced discrimination and abuse without formal legal protection or political representation, Gezi Park marked a historic moment when the community took a visible stand in a political arena.
The protests were also a significant moment for feminism. While Turkey has a majority Islamic population, the country was founded on secular laws, which, although they were created with civil liberties in mind, ultimately became a form of oppression. “It’s only in recent history that girls wearing headscarves are allowed to come to school without taking them off,” Baar explains.
The power of the movement that began at Gezi—sometimes called “Taksim,” after the nearby square where many of the protests took place—was that it mobilized people of different backgrounds and viewpoints. In Baar’s class alone, an openly gay man as well as a Muslim woman in hijab shared a passion for their mutual struggles. Outside, LGBTQI activists joined in solidarity with other factions of the Turkish resistance movement, including Kurds, Armenians and nationalists. Perhaps this spirit, and Gezi’s lasting effect, was best represented within Turkey in February 2015 by the mass rallies in protest of the murder of 19-year-old college student Ozgecan Aslan, who was killed while resisting rape. A national outcry against the government’s insufficient response and the normalization of rape prompted women to speak out in great numbers, taking to social media on February 16 to share their own stories in what was dubbed “Black Monday.” It is quite telling, notes Baar, that in the streets at the time, “old women in headscarves marched alongside men in skirts.”