Palestine as a Queer Struggle
Coauthored by Nada Elia
“You cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.”
– Ghaith Hilal, AlQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society
All systems of oppression reinforce one another, and none can be fought in isolation. One cannot advocate for queer and trans people in the US while supporting Israel’s daily aggression against queer and trans Palestinians, whose oppression is compounded by multiple marginalized identities.
Oppression becomes compounded because state violence—including militarism, occupation, the proliferation of prisons, and economic neocolonialism—is both gendered and racialized. In cases of settler-colonialism, such as Palestine and Turtle Island (present North America), Indigenous women, and queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks—and especially those at the intersections of those identities—bear the brunt of the nexus of these systems of oppression. It is impossible to seriously address sexual and intimate partner violence within communities of color without addressing those larger structures.
As we struggle for freedom, justice, and equality together, we can work to liberate our own minds by “queering our politics”: shifting our thinking away from seeing the world through binaries: white supremacy, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression operate by defining one right and “normal” way of being (straight, cisgender, white, male, Christian, able-bodied, etc.) contrasted with everyone else, who is “Othered.” The forced assignment of people as either male or female (sex), or either man or woman (gender), are examples of these oppressive binaries, which are scientifically ungrounded. Audre Lorde Project’s Cara Page and AlQaws director Haneen Maikey speak on queering and decolonizing political struggle in their panel Queer Anti-Colonial Struggle from the US to Palestine.
As Israel tarnishes its international image with continued and systematic violence against the Palestinian people, Israel is working hard to do PR damage control. Brand Israel, a campaign by the Israeli foreign ministry, prime minister, and finance ministry—in consultation with U.S. marketing experts—aims to re-brand Israel as progressive and modern instead of militaristic and based on a system of ethno-religious supremacy.
Pinkwashing is a component of Brand Israel. Pinkwashing refers to Israel’s campaign to distract from its egregious violations of international law and the human, civil, and political rights of Palestinians by shining a bright light on its supposed cultural liberalism and its supposed fun, fabulous, and gay-friendly culture.
Pinkwashing juxtaposes a falsely progressive image of Israel with a racist portrayal of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim societies as backwards, repressive, and intolerant. This is part of a long-standing colonial logic that uses racist, orientalist portrayals to justify Western colonization as a way of “saving” and “freeing” the colonized, who are too “uncivilized” to rule themselves.
Examples of pinkwashing include Israel’s promotion of its capital, Tel Aviv, as a welcoming gay tourist destination, without mentioning that Tel Aviv is built on top of several Palestinian villages and is off-limits to most Palestinians who carry West Bank or Gaza Strip IDs (unless they are lucky enough to get a permit from Israel), and in exile, even if they are queer.
Another example is Israel’s touting of a long-standing policy of accepting openly gay and lesbian soldiers in its army. Of course, Israel fails to mention that those soldiers are still part of an illegal occupying army, and that a bullet fired by a lesbian is just as lethal as one fired by a straight man, and a bomb dropped by a transgender pilot onto a building where Palestinian families are attempting to take shelter is just as likely to kill them as one dropped by a straight man. And of course, Israel’s “gay friendly” army does not stop to ask the sexual orientation of its next victim before shooting or bombing. As Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions point out, “Israeli oppression, racism, and discrimination does not distinguish between queer Palestinians and heterosexual Palestinians.”
Many Palestinian couples—straight or queer—are systematically prevented from living together by Israel’s apartheid marriage laws and ID system. With checkpoints, an apartheid wall, incarceration, and racist laws, Israel’s apartheid system undermines Palestinians’ basic right to love freely at every turn. And of course, Israel’s occupation severely limits the ability of queer Palestinians to meet and organize together.
As articulated in Gay Rights with a Side of Apartheid: “Colonialism and dishonesty have always gone hand-in-hand. Nineteenth and twentieth century colonial powers sought to justify their imperial designs through a myopic denunciation of the circumstances of women in the colonised societies. These imperial countries pretended to ‘save brown women from brown men’ by dispossessing and disenfranchising entire peoples. Twenty-first century colonialism has evolved to justify occupation and apartheid as a new and improved ‘civilising mission,’ one that distinguishes itself as gay-friendly, while the downtrodden societies are represented as homophobic. On the other hand, Palestinian queer activism, and the non-violent Palestinian strategy of BDS, which seek equality for all people regardless of their ethnicity, sexuality, or religion, present the model for a queer state, which allows individual citizens to define themselves as they wish, without losing power, entitlement, or safety.”
Right-wing homophobes are some of the more vocal pinkwashers. A particularly illustrative example comes from the organization A Wider Bridge, the Israel advocacy organization that brings queer Israelis to the US, and queer Americans to Israel, to win over support for Israel from queer communities and progressive political bodies. Not only does A Wider Bridge partner with StandWithUs, a right-wing Zionist organization, but it is funded by individuals and organizations that finance bigoted anti-gay groups and agents and politicians in the Republican Party, including Donald Trump.
Ironically, contrary to the image of being overwhelmingly gay-friendly, a 2009 poll commissioned by Haaretz showed nearly half of Israelis consider homosexuality to be a perversion. Professor Aeyal Goss at Tel Aviv University writes, “conservative and especially religious [Israeli] politicians remain fiercely homophobic.” Many of these same leaders cynically weaponize queer struggle against Palestinians with pinkwashing, enlisting queer and progressives communities outside Israel in violence toward Palestinians.
Take Action: #NoPrideInApartheid Toolkit (June 2023)
There’s no pride in apartheid, police violence, and transphobia! At a moment when trans people around the world are under attack from right-wing institutions and politicians, and Palestinians of all gender and sexual identities are resisting Israel’s oppression, we must join together to build safety and justice for all, including queer and trans people. Read more.
Here are three ways you can take action with this toolkit:
- Fight pinkwashing on social media, using the graphics and sample social media posts.
- Print #NoPrideInApartheid posters for pride marches.
- Fight for trans and queer liberation everywhere by uplifting actions to #ProtectTransKids and #StopPinkwashing.
Anti-Pinkwashing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Activism
Challenging pinkwashing is part of answering the Palestinian call for BDS. Here are some inspiring examples of anti-pinkwashing campaigns:
- Seattle LGBT Commission: In 2012, the Israeli consulate funded a “Rainbow Generations” pinkwashing tour in the Pacific Northwest. Local queer activists exposed the tour as propaganda and got several events cancelled, most significantly at Seattle’s LGBT Commission. Check out the inspiring film to see how they did it and what happened.
- Creating Change LGBTQ Conference: In 2016, the Creating Change Conference included an event hosted A Wider Bridge. In response to outcry, the National LGBTQ Task Force cancelled the event, but later reversed their decision following backlash. Queer Palestinians and their allies showed up in the hundreds and shut down the Wider Bridge event. As of early 2019, when this was written, Creating Change has continued to exclude discussion of pinkwashing at the conference, prompting continued calls on the Task Force to #cancelpinkwashing.”
- Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival: In 2018, following global anti-pinkwashing advocacy, eleven artists pulled their films from the Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival (TLVFest) after they learned the obscured, deeper motivations of the festival.
Watch and Learn: Palestine As a Queer Struggle Webinar
As explained in the webinar below, queer Palestinian people face the challenge of denouncing Israel’s violations of their human rights, even as they are engaged in decolonial struggle and a visioning of a future of full equality in Palestinian society. The agency of queer Palestinian people, whether in the homeland or the Diaspora, is central to the Palestinian struggle, and takes on unique aspects as queer Palestinian people navigate the complex layers of oppression.
Queer Organizations Challenging Israeli Colonialism and Pinkwashing
A non-exhaustive list of organizations working on this issue:
- AlQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society
- ASWAT: Palestinian Feminist Center for Sexual and Gender Freedoms
- Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (PQBDS)
- Queer Palestinian Empowerment Network (QPEN)
- Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT)
Check out these videos, articles, and other resources:
- VIDEO: Queer Anti Colonial Struggle from the US to Palestine – panel by directors of AlQaws and Audre Lorde Project
- VIDEO: Liberation in Palestine, A Queer Issue – talk by Haneen Maikey
- Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
- Boycott National Committee section on Pinkwashing
- Gay Rights as Human Rights: Pinkwashing Homonationalism – Maya Mikdashi, Jadaliyya
- A Documentary Guide [and timeline] to Pinkwashing – Sarah Schulman
- From Pinkwashing to Pinkwatching: Palestinian Queer Resistance – interview with Haneen Maikey
- Israel’s Gay Propaganda War – by Jasbir Puar