Eight questions Palestinian queers are tired of hearing

27 November 2013

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Graffiti in Ramallah reads “Queers passed through here.” (Image courtesy of Al-Qaws)

You might think that the main goal of a group of queer activists in Palestine like us in Al-Qaws should be the seemingly endless task of dismantling sexual and gender hierarchy in one’s own society.

It is. But you might think otherwise, judging from the repetitive questions we get during our lectures and events, or from inquiries we receive from media and other international organizations.

We intend to end this once and for all. Educating people about their own privilege is not our burden. But before we announce our formal retirement from this task, here are the eight most frequent questions we get, and their definitive answers.

1. Doesn’t Israel provide Palestinian queers with a safe haven?

Of course it does: the apartheid wall has sparkly pink doors lining it, ready to admit those who strike a fabulous pose. In fact, Israel built the wall to keep Palestinian homophobes out and to protect Palestinian queers who seek refuge in it.

But seriously: “Israel” creates refugees; it does not shelter refugees. There has never been a case of a Palestinian — a descendant of a family or families who were forcibly displaced, sometimes massacred, often thrown in jail without charge — magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.

If some people manage to cross the wall and end up in Tel Aviv, they are considered “illegal.” They end up working and living in horrible conditions, trying to avoid being arrested.

2. Aren’t all Palestinians homophobic?

Are all Americans homophobic? Of course not. Unfortunately, Western representations of Palestinians, particularly lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Palestinians, tend to ignore diversity in Palestinian society.

That being said, Palestinians are living under a decades-long military occupation. The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.

However, homophobia is not the way we contextualize our struggle. This is a notion comes from specific type of activism in the global north.

How can we single out homophobia from a complex oppressive system (patriarchy) that oppresses women, and gender non-conforming people?

3. How do you deal with your main enemy, Islam?

Oh, we have a main enemy now? If we had to single out a main enemy that would be occupation, not religion — Islam or otherwise.

More fundamentalist forms of religion are presently enjoying a global resurgence, including in many Western societies.

We don’t view religion as our main exceptional challenge. Still, increased religious sentiment, regardless of which religion, almost always creates obstacles for those interested in promoting respect for gender and sexual diversity.

Palestinian nationalism has a long history of respect for secularism. This provides a set of cultural values useful in advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians.

Furthermore, religion is often an important part of Palestinian LGBTQ people’s identities. We respect all of our communities’ identities and make space for diversity.

4. Are there any out Palestinians?

I’m glad you asked that question. We have great Palestinian gay carpenters who build such amazing closets for queers with all the Western comforts you can dream of — we never want to leave.

Once again the notion of coming out — or the politics of visibility — is a strategy that has been adopted by some LGBT activists in the global north, due to specific circumstances. Imposing this strategy on the rest of the world, without understanding context, is a colonial project.

Ask us instead what social change strategies apply to our context, and whether the notion of coming out even makes sense.

5. Why are there no Israelis in al-Qaws?

Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money). Being super “good” doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.

Our organization works within Palestinian society, across borders imposed by the occupation. The challenges that LGBTQ Israelis face are nothing like the ones faced by Palestinians.

We are talking about two different societies with different cultures and histories; the fact that they are currently occupying our land doesn’t make us one society.

Moreover, being queer does not eliminate the power dynamic between the colonized and colonizer despite the best of intentions.

We resist the “global, pink, happy, gay family” sentiment. Palestinian-only organizing is essential to decolonizing and improving Palestinian society.

6. I saw this film about gay Palestinians (Invisible Men/Bubble/Out In The Dark, etc.) and I feel I learned a lot about your struggle

You mean the films that were made by privileged Israeli or Jewish filmmakers portraying white Israelis as saviors and Palestinians as victims that needed saving?

These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society.

Moreover, these films rely on racist tropes of Arab men as volatile and dangerous. These films are simply pinkwashing propaganda, funded by the Israeli government, with a poignant oppressed/oppressor love story the glitter on top.

If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites.

7. Isn’t fighting for gay rights a more pressing issue than pinkwashing?

Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia.

But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.

Furthermore, pinkwashing is a strategy used by the Brand Israel campaign to garner the support of queers in other parts of the world. It is simply an attempt to make the Zionist project more appealing to queer people.

This is another iteration of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy — that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves.

Pinkwashing strips away our voices, history and agency, telling the world that Israel knows what is best for us. By targeting pinkwashing we are reclaiming our agency, history, voices and bodies, telling the world what we want and how to support us.

8. Why do you use terms from “the West” like LGBT or queer to describe your struggle? How do you answer that critique?

Though we have occasionally been branded as tokenized, complicit with Israel, naïve and Westernized (by those based in the West), our activists bring decades of experience and on-the-ground analysis of cultural imperialism and Orientalism.

This has provided the raw material for many an itinerant academic. However, the work of those in the Ivory Tower is rarely, if ever, accountable to those working in the field nor does it acknowledge its power (derived from the same colonial economy) on activists.

We are accountable to our local communities and the values developed over years of organizing.

Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do. The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context.

The language that we use is always revisited and expanded through our work. Language catalyzes discussions and pushes us to think more critically, but no word whether in English or Arabic can do the work. Only a movement can.

Ghaith Hilal is a queer Palestinian activist from the West Bank who has been part of Al-Qaws leadership since 2007.

Comments

This especially spoke to me: "Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do. The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context."

I think too often solidarity from folks based in the West hinges on a particular politics of naming, i.e. if someone is "like" me, then I can stand in solidarity.

Thanks for writing this! Hope to see more from this writer.

http://www.indiegogo.com/proje...

Fascinating article. In the US, queers are hammered with the idea that gay marriage somehow gives us equal rights, even though most are too isolated or otherwise compromised due to Capitalism to benefit from it. Gay rights is used to separate the West from places like Iran and Russia, (even though I experienced a good deal of homophobia growing up here in America). I am sometimes left wondering if there is something to be said for cultural conservatism and queerness remaining underground, because it hardly seems like much progress when culture is so much on the decline. Of course, violence and discrimination should be done away with, but I also don't like feeling my sexuality is being used as a wedge issue.

This is an excellent awareness raising tool as many Palestinian queers are often confronted with these biased questions that come to reinforce Israel’s public relations efforts starting with Brand Israel campaigns, promoted by mainstream Israeli media, a central advocate of Israel’s ‘Hasbara’, and ultimately, ending with Israeli LGBTQI organizations, who serve as key collaborators with Israel’s nationalist agenda.
Unquestionably, Israel’s efforts are disproportional when compared with means and resources, let alone, opportunities allocated to Palestinians in general and Palestinian queers in particular. The added value of this document, especially if translated into Arabic, is allowing Palestinian queers opportunities to engage in local discussions about their role in promoting our struggle for freedom and equality locally, since only a handful of Palestinian queers are privileged to meet with international audiences in North America and Europe.
Well Done!

Respect.

This article is brilliant. Thank you. I would like to show it to so many people that could be allies if only they understood the answers to these 8 Q's. I realize that it is not so simple, and I realized that it is also meant as instructions to me, too: white US Lesbian. It helped to make me stop and question my own privelage and western assumptions. I will study this article. No, it is not your job, but thank you. And I assume this article is for those who think they are, indeed, your allies.
And to EI, thank you for publishing this article. And, perhaps in time for next June, I would like to see an article like this, generally speaking, from the Palestinian Gay Women's Community.(whether in Palestine '48 , West Bank, or Gaza); to peel away another layer of privelage and show us would be great. It would facilitate respect and understanding, I am sure.

An excellent analysis and one that should make all of us working in solidarity with Palestine sit up and take note. Thank you Ghaith Hilal for this thought-provoking article.

Hi there, can I make a friendly suggestion to use more inclusive pronouns in the following sentence that would also include non-binary folks?
— magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.

Thanks!

Fantastic article. More, please.

Kudos to Ghaith Hilal for succinctly and wittily summarizing the critique of the discourse of 'pinkwashing.' As a member of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, I get questions like these all the time in attempting to explain why I do the Palestine solidarity work that I do through QAIA. This should be required reading for all LGBT and non-LGBT people who are interested and/or involved in Israel/Palestine as an issue.

As a queer Palestinian living in exile, this article has been one of the most beautiful and influential things I've ever read.

Since I can never argue against anyone in the voice of a member of the LGBT community without outing myself, this will be my go-to reference. I have met plenty of American and Israelis who seem to enjoy telling me about the suffering of queer Palestinians. They go on this tangent to describe non-existent situations before actually finding out I'm Palestinian.

I just find it insulting that people are telling me that I should rally with apartheid scum than with my own people. I'd sooner have myself impaled on a cactus than set foot in occupied Palestine under their pretences.

More then anything I felt sad for the author this article. While carefully sidestepping the most basic issues of prejudice he works hard to blame it all on someone or something else, (in this case Israelis). The conflict in Islam is profound around this issue and even has similarities to Christianity. The difference today is Christians create dialogue. Sadly there is not one primarily Muslim country or group that is willing to address this issue in an open forum with other Muslims. Without Israel butting up against West Bank there would be no discussion or even topic to discuss. OPEN dialogue among Muslims, with other Muslims is long overdue. Nothing can be done until this begins. (with or without Israeli support or pressure) Let us get on with the real issue and stop pretending some outside force like Israel is damaging the dialogue needed for the LGBT community to exist. It is us not them, it is us.

This is just ridiculous.

Open dialogue is so rare in Arab nations because of the lack of education and cultural awareness. I mean, let's be fair here, don't you think the people in Syria, Iraq, Palestine or Egypt have bigger problems than gay rights? I really doubt they lie awake at night thinking of it when they probably hear gunshots outside.

There are several open-minded Muslim LGBT organisations. One of them being Ahlam in Lebanon (which has a lot of Muslims within it). Of course, there is a persistent problem within Arab society regarding this subject, but it merely stems from our inability to organise ourselves. We've been living in this protective cultural bubble for 50 years now. We've never learned empathy. This is a problem present in Christian households as well. You'll find that Arab Christians are just as discriminatory as Muslims.

Hell, a lot of Arab Christians would prefer you married a gay man than even dare have the audacity to think about marrying a Muslim. This is coming directly from my household and what I've experienced here.

'The problem isn't them, it's us. '

I agree completely. But when this sociological problem is being used as an excuse for mass-genocide and murder by a third party, then of COURSE we're going to bring up counter-arguments. The problem is bad, I admit. We need LGBT friendly laws and gay rights bad. But first, the people need bread.

I realise that that's a poor excuse to deprive people of their rights, but you can't really jump to freedom of sexuality, skipping over freedom of speech, freedom of ownership and the most basic of human rights denied to the people by their own governments and Israel.

Israel has not and is not committing mass genocide. This is purely dangerous, and irresponsible propaganda. Even 1948, there was not mass genocide. Mass genocide would be killing 700,000, not expelling. These words have power. You are very irresponsible for using them this way.

English is not my first language. I didn't really ever consider what mass genocide implies. Even then, this is purely semantics. My argument didn't rest on the mass genocide part, rather on the fact that there is no excuse to commit evil.

"Mass genocide would be killing 700,000, not expelling. "

--you must be kidding.

I am not kidding -- look up words before you use them.

Geno - latin word for race and -cide derived from latin word to kill.

Genocide is "the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group". No one has committed genocide against the Palestinians. There is not and has never been a systematic killing of Palestinians in order to wipe them out. It's just not the reality.

That's stupid. You know that?

Israel systematically killed Palestinians for their racial and ethnic profile. You only assume that genocide equates a few million dead. It's merely a cultural opinion.

However, this is purely semantics. Let me explain it simply, Israel has been committing crimes against the Palestinian people ever since its creation. Did that suddenly stop because of a semantic argument? When you say 'this is not the reality' I assume you mean that Israel is being misrepresented by the media. Correct?

Well, the reality is the exact opposite. Simply because one awful adjective doesn't technically fit doesn't mean Israel is the nation of sainthood.

from wikipedia, citing the OED: "Raphael Lemkin, in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), coined the term "genocide" by combining Greek genos (γένος; race, people) and Latin cīdere (to kill).[5]
Lemkin defined genocide as follows: "Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups."
Unfortunately, it is reality.

This is a helpful exposition of genocide. It's more than mass killings.

Europeans didn't kill all the aboriginal inhabitants of what are now the United States and Canada, but they did try to wipe out indigenous languages and cultures. And are still trying, in various ways.

Was it accidental that the U.S. invasion of Iraq included attacking civilian infrastructure such as schools and acquiescing to the looting of the national museum?

Did Israel accidentally attack Gaza's water supply and sewage system as well as schools and much else? Was Israel's theft of Palestinian books during the Nakba (brilliantly recounted in a recent film) merely for their resale value?

Can we say "cultural genocide"? When you wipe out a people's identity, culture and history, you are committing genocide -- even if you aren't (literally) killing all of them.

Though interesting and entertaining (the black humor), the author fails to answer the questions.

1) Queer Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship and live in Israel, do have legal rights and cultural privileges *as queers* that do not exist in many states, societies, and cultures. The cultural liberalism and the accompanying consumer capitalism that exists in Israel creates an environment of self-expression and liberalism that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship enjoy. Life as a queer Palestinian in Tel Aviv-Jaffa is much easier than life as a queer in many other places. Shouldn't this be addressed?

2) And what about homophobia in Palestinian society? Why can't this be talked about? If people from around the world who have never been to Israel and know nothing of it's cultural complexity, can criticize and boycott Zionism and the State of Israel -- why can't non-Palestinians talk about homophobia within Palestinian society? Must someone be of a certain group or society in order to talk about it's problems and injustices? In that case, the BDS movement should stop courting the support of left-wing Europeans who still have not learned from their own histories of anti-semitism.

3) The occupation is worse and more oppressive than Islamic fundamentalism? That sounds bizarre -- are Gay Palestinians in Jaffa and Haifa running from the threat of capital punishment for being gay? I don't think so.

4) So coming "out" is a western construct -- ok...but what about the Palestinians who do come out? Who do embrace this process as an expression of their sexual or gender identity, what do they face? What are their challenges and struggles within Palestinian society?

5) There are Israelis in your organization. Israeli is a citizenship, not an ethnicity. 1.6 million Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship participate in your organization.

6) White Israelis portrayed as saving Palestinians? This is a color issue??

1) Why does this matter? You do realise there are hotlines in Israel to inform Jewish families if their son/daughter is dating an Arab? Not to mention the special housing privileges, voting restrictions, and many other rights that are granted to minorities in states like Jordan which Israel seems so eager to dismiss as fundamentalist.

2) Of course there's homophobia in Palestinian society. In the same sense there is in every other society. This argument answers the ridiculous claims that Palestinians are living a life of luxury in Israeli society, and can only find misery in their own. Thus portraying the Israelis as saviours, giving them a perfect excuse for their crimes against the Palestinian people. I don't think the argument was headed towards this point.

3) Of course the occupation is worse than fundamentalism. Why? Because it's Zionist Jewish fundamentalism. Islam may have it's wacky moments I admit, but it doesn't overshadow the sight of a guy in sandals telling you and everyone else that it's wrong and immoral to study anything other than Hebrew and Religion. There is absolutely no difference between fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam or Christianity. The only difference is that Israel can hold all the wack-jobs inside. We can't. Hell, even then, Ashkenazi Israelis regularly march into towns and cities attack Africans and Palestinians, have you seen the Jaffa for Jews campaign? Dear God, they're building a freaking prison for a couple thousand African refugees.

5) Is semantics, when they say Israeli they mean the cultural significance of the word. Even then. That makes little difference.

"Israeli is a citizenship, not an ethnicity. 1.6 million Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship participate in your organization."

Wrong. 1.6 Mil Palestinians hold Permanent Residency and are not allowed to identify as "Israeli" in the eyes of the law because their is no such thing/would undermine Jewish character. Which is exactly the opposite of what you're saying.

Being Jewish IS an ethnicity which entitles you to greater rights than Permanent residence.

While I understand the fervor here, I question how necessary or justified it is when the indignant tone starts to take over.

Not more than 6 months ago I didn't know the answers to many of these questions. I can't help but feel if someone responded to me in such a condescending manner then I may have been shamed away from ever becoming informed and invested at all. And that's a problem: turning away potential allies.

Because after being presented with what I didn't know I went and did my homework, but at the behest of very encouraging and patient voices. Not condescension. Carrot > Stick.

As a GAY Palestinian, I get these questions and many more all the time. I always respond with courtesy and respect. I do understand there are numerous misconceptions among westerners but my job is to clarify and "clean" the mess media has created. The results I get are allies, friends, and supporters. The tone which al-Qaws has been using to address even local gay people who seek help or foreigners who want to learn more is both disrespectful and does not show an interest by a self-proclaimed representative of Gay [or as they call it Queer] Palestinians to be inclusive of anyone but the few faces that meet everyday to blab on and on about how oppressed they are, while living a completely Westernized-life styles. In fact, I can refute much of the claims in the article, the idea of coming out is a personal choice, some chose to expose their identities, some do not believe it is required of them, that's only an example. Hilel's cynicism should have stopped right after the stereotypical (yet funny) joke about striking poses. We should admit first that as Gay Palestinian we do face multiple hardships and that surviving Palestine alone has been one of our greatest achievements yet. Do not glorify our own mistakes and do not pink-wash an oppressive society. And no, do not call me queer, I am Gay and would rather you use that term to describe me.

Hi,

Thank you very much for your article. As a lesbian and Palestine Solidarity activist I attend weekly boycott demonstrations outside Sodastream's Brighton shop. Every week I am subjected to abusive, sexist and homophobic abuse from Sussex Friends of Israel - the local Zionist group. This is interspersed with their ridiculous attempts to pinkwash Israel. They don't even recognise the contradiction in what they do, because their only aim is to ensure that the truth about Israel's brutal occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is not heard.

Your article has given me some food for thought that I hope to fed into our local campaign.

Again, thank you.