Every summer since 2017, Istanbul has played host to a sporting event known as the "Queer Olympix." Created by a handful of soccer-loving Turkish queer activists, the annual event — which is not affiliated with the international Gay Games organization, though they have similar goals — includes beach volleyball, dodgeball and soccer.
The organizers see it as an opportunity to create and reclaim spaces for the LGBTQ community in Turkey, and to rethink how sports are practiced and played. Unlike traditional sports, the Queer Olympix doesn't keep score solely by counting goals; instead, they emphasize fair play (the lack of which can result in a loss of points) and fun over competition.
The LGBTQ-friendly games have continued despite opposition from the Turkish government, which also banned Pride starting in 2015. In 2019, organizers of the Queer Olympix faced a police ban for including the word "queer" in the event's name. To enforce the ban, the police arrived at the games that year with water cannons and detention buses. The event organizers, prioritizing the safety of the participants, canceled the event and cleared the park. Since then, other than a hiatus in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have rented a private field so the games can continue.
Even so, they have faced challenges: the owners of some fields refuse to rent to them, and when they're able to hold the games, they do so in near-total secrecy and without online promotion.
Organized teams and individual players come from across Turkey to compete. Secil, one of the event's organizers, describes it as an "alternative Pride for the people — they [come] together in public, not in a party, not in a workshop or behind [closed] doors."
Secil and others photographed and interviewed asked NPR to use only their first names to be able to speak freely about LGBTQ issues without fear of retaliation.
The Queer Olympix have given many participants — including those who had to abandon sports in their teenage years due to their sexual orientation or gender identity — a safe place to play. "People came to the field and realized they missed playing [soccer]," Denzi, another organizer, explains. "We like this sport — there is nothing bad inherent in [soccer], it's the environment."
Changing that environment is part of the goal for Queer Olympix organizers: people with bodies of all shapes and sizes are welcome to play in non-competitive matches. Their aim, organizers say, is to have fun and feel safe.
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