A battle in Seattle: outing the truth behind Israel’s gay-friendly spin

Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back directed by Dean Spade (2015)

In 2012, the Seattle LGBT Commission — a body which advises the city’s mayor and council on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues — announced that it would be hosting a public meeting featuring a delegation of LGBT speakers from Israel.

The meeting was to be co-sponsored by StandWithUs, a lobby group with links to the Israeli government.

This film tells the story of how a group of Seattle activists confronted the commission and what happened after their historic success in having the meeting canceled.

Euphoria and dismay

When activists — some of them queer Palestinians, others members of Jewish Voice for Peace — turned up at an LGBT commissioners meeting the night before the event, they thought that their attendance would be largely symbolic.

But after hearing testimonies like those of Palestinian queer activist Selma al-Aswad and Dean Spade, the film’s director who had visited Palestine just weeks before, the commissioners voted to cancel the Israel delegation meeting.

In moving audio recordings from that night’s discussion, some of the commissioners confess to their total ignorance of Palestine and of the pinkwashing agenda to which they had fallen prey.

Pinkwashing is a public relations strategy that projects Israel’s supposed enlightenment toward LGBT issues to deflect criticism from its violations of Palestinians’ rights and to build support for Israel among Western liberals and progressives.

After the Seattle decision was announced, StandWithUs meetings in Tacoma and Olympia were also canceled or downscaled.

Unsurprisingly, a backlash was coming.

It began with abusive and sometimes threatening personal emails — anonymous or pseudonymous — to the main campaigners. Ironically, given the claim that the planned meeting had been about Israel’s much-vaunted claims to being “gay-friendly,” many of these were grotesquely homophobic and anti-Semitic in nature.

But attacks on the commissioners and lobbying of Seattle’s council by StandWithUs and by mainstream Zionist, Christian and business organizations led to official retractions and apologies by the commission and by councillors.

Among the campaigners, the euphoria of the initial victory initially turned to dismay. But, as the film shows, one of the outcomes of the incident is a reevaluation by Palestine solidarity campaigners of what constitutes success and the importance of long-term movement building over short-term wins.

Pinkwashing for the uninitiated

If this all sounds rather dull and parochial, it’s not. The 55 minutes of Pinkwashing Exposed are generally well-paced, engaging and sometimes very moving.

The early sections include a neat explanation of pinkwashing for the uninitiated, with examples of “Brand Israel” advertisements and the kind of uncritical, ill-informed press which pinkwashing hasbara generates.

There’s also a good backgrounder on StandWithUs, highlighting the downright two-facedness of their promotion of LGBT events while also allying themselves with homophobic organizations and preachers from the Christian Zionist right.

The main narrative of the film, as it traces the experiences of the activists involved, also raises critical issues for those involved in Palestine solidarity campaigns. Its questioning of what success means is significant in weighing up campaign aims, strategies and tactics.

As one speaker notes, the “launching of QuAIA [Queers Against Israeli Apartheid] Seattle was the biggest win of all.” While the initial retractions by Seattle councillors and LGBT commissioners must have been heartbreaking for the campaigners, they rapidly learned that institutional ups and downs weren’t nearly as significant as the debates provoked and awareness raised.

The film also highlights key, but rarely-discussed, aspects of pinkwashing, including the role of race and class. If Israel is indeed a haven for gay men, it seems to be largely for white, affluent ones who want to take holidays to Tel Aviv, not for the Arab queers who Israel’s advocates claim take refuge there.

As Nada Elia, an academic living in the Seattle area, points out, she would never be allowed into Israel to take such “refuge” precisely because she is Palestinian.

It would have been nice to hear the voices of Palestinian queers living under Israeli rule to provide more context.

The lengthy footage of speakers supporting Israel at the city council hearing is too long, though the chasm between reality and the claims of Zionist propagandists does make for comedy gold.

But overall, this is a compelling portrait of the ups and downs of a local campaign group tackling a high-profile issue with useful reflections on movement dynamics and the experiences that activists face.

Given that the film is freely available on Vimeo, LGBT and Palestine solidarity community and student groups should screen it widely.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.