Though small, Palestine’s queer movement has big vision

12 July 2013

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Posters of young people against colorful backgrounds

Al-Qaws’ “Singing Sexuality” project involved photographs, videos, music and written testimonials and information.

(Singing Sexuality)

Although quite young and small, the Palestinian queer movement is far from homogeneous. It includes numerous groups of diverse, dynamic and nimble activists who, within the framework of the wider social justice and national liberation struggle, seek to raise awareness about issues considered taboo in their society.

There were no documented or known gay, lesbian or transgender groups in Palestine before the second intifada.

That changed in 2001, when Palestinian queers from the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel started to convene in the Jerusalem Open House, an Israeli initiative that primarily offered Palestinians a space for expression and interaction, and served as an umbrella organization in terms of securing funds and international outreach. The following year, the group Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women was founded as part of an independent project within the Palestinian feminist organization Kayan in Haifa.

In 2007, activists broke away from the Jerusalem Open House and established Al-Qaws, a group campaigning for “sexual and gender diversity” in Palestinian society.

This move reflected a political development in Palestinian society more generally. Rather than working within Israeli organizations, the activists became more politicized and independent.

Haneen Maikey, the director of Al-Qaws, said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada: “During the Oslo years [the time period following the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization] a lot of Palestinian organizations or committees followed the process of either being twinned with or part of Israeli organizations.

“Most of these organizations broke off in the early 2000s, as part of the understanding the Palestinian civil society had reached, in that they couldn’t continue working as a single call and had to examine their work in relation to their own society,” she added.

No exclusive bubble

While recognizing that the term “queer” was the outcome of a US political movement, Maikey explained that by using the word, new politics and meanings are created that remain rooted in the local Palestinian context.

“We use queer as a short cut to avoid the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] identity-based terms, and to refer and relate to different organizing approaches that focus on sexual and gender oppressions rather than on gay rights or homophobia,” she said. “’Queer’ was used by Al-Qaws to open to new definitions … we constantly work on shaping the term to suit our needs and struggle, and not to eclipse diversity of experience.”

The queer movement is a work in progress, changing and adapting its tactics in response to changes in society. The current framework of the movement is to grow as part of a universal struggle against all forms of oppression, instead of as a cause relevant only to people who identify as queer.

“We understood that we couldn’t just put our Palestinian identity and politics on one side, as they represent a fundamental aspect of our work and movement,” said Sami, a 26-year-old queer activist.

“We learned quickly in our first year with JOH [Jerusalem Open House] that discussions about gender identity and sexuality could not be separated from the political context that is our reality, nor could they be further developed without linking them to the other struggles that take place within Palestinian society,” Maikey stated.

“We put these questions on the table and took our time to explore them, such as: do we want to develop a discourse that is relevant to our society? What does it mean to be queer and Palestinian?”

Combining different methods of approach, the queer movement has sought to find a way to facilitate open discussion within Palestinian society. Queer activists were aware that other civil organizations feared alienating themselves by supporting or meeting with them candidly.

There is “real or imaginary fear of losing their legitimacy” for some non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to Maikey.

“People involved in the movement are affected by the NGO-ization of the Palestinian civil society, the funding, and the lack of direction in how to bring about change itself,” she said. “But we’re not asking for these organizations to publicly announce their support of what we do, but to engage each other on how we can work together to bring about change.”

“Radical change”

Al-Qaws challenges the idea that Palestinian society is homogenous and views its grassroots work addressing issues related to gender and sexuality as part of the wider Palestinian decolonization and liberation process and social justice struggle.

“Oppressive powers do not differentiate between gay or straight people,” Sami stressed. “You cannot work against the [Israeli] occupation and forget patriarchy or capitalism, as they are interlinked as part of the bigger oppressive system.”

“The goal of the queer movement is to change society,” he said. “Palestinian society is [diverse] and so we cannot represent or generalize who or what Palestinian gays are. That’s why we don’t aim to represent Palestinian gays and lesbians, nor do we only work for gay rights.”

Al-Qaws has a firm stance against any joint work with Israeli gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, and refuses to participate in the annual Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv or even stage a counter-protest.

“Our role is not in reforming Israeli society as we don’t believe in reform but in radical change,” said Sami.

In 2009, the group Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (PQBDS) was formed by activists within Al-Qaws.

The aim of PQBDS is to target the Israeli government’s “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is part of the bigger Brand Israel campaign which aims to divert international criticism from Israel’s human rights abuses and to whitewash its crimes by promoting itself as a haven for gay rights.

Moreover, the “pride” paradigm dominant in the West isn’t necessarily the model for Palestine, according to some activists. The western queer narrative is characterized by binaries, such as “pride” versus “shame” and “coming out of the closet” or not.

The Palestinian LGBT movement generally views these binaries as irrelevant, sometimes counterproductive, and dependent on the context of the individual and their communities. Promoting collective public discourse and and community events is therefore prioritized over promoting the visibility of individuals who identify as queer or LGBT.

Singing Sexuality

One of the biggest such events organized by Al-Qaws so far was a project called Singing Sexuality in Haifa during May this year. Hundreds of people attended the launch of an album featuring local Palestinian musicians.

Al-Qaws is hoping to organize similar concerts in the occupied West Bank and the group is also working on a number of other projects at the moment, though Maikey admitted that they under constant evaluation and subject to change.

These projects complement Al Qaws’ wider goals, such as providing peer-to-peer support for Palestinians who identify as gay or lesbian, and developing community-building by offering space for activists and hosting intellectual and cultural events dealing with sexuality.

The group is particularly focused on public education underneath the banner of social change; after holding forums on sexuality in Haifa, it is examining the possibility of expanding to other cities and towns.

Building alliances with other organizations in Palestinian society requires patience and commitment, Maikey said, as the movement works to adapt to an always changing political and social context.

But the enthusiasm for Al-Qaws’ vision was articulated by one attendee at the Singing Sexuality concert in Haifa, who yelled: “This audience is a lovely bubble, and hopefully this bubble will burst and reverberate through our society.”

Linah Alsaafin is a graduate of Birzeit University and a writer based in Ramallah, West Bank.