In June last year I was in Tel Aviv, marching in the pre-Tel Aviv Pride ‘alternative’ pride parade. It was fucking awesome to walk down the street surrounded by so many crazy sexy radicals, people involved in queer, feminist, anti racist, anti occupation, disability, immigrant and workers’ rights struggles. It was powerful.
Then we turned a corner and suddenly we were surrounded by activists from Im Tirzu. They were waving Israeli flags, wearing rainbow stickers that read ‘proud to be a Zionist’ and holding placards with slogans like ‘stop the occupation of Tel Aviv Pride by the left’. Suddenly I felt less powerful and more nauseated. Somehow the queer pride parade had been hijacked into a Zionist pride parade.
Later that day my friend The Cat told me stories about going to Tel Aviv Pride as a teenager in the 90s: ‘the cops wore latex gloves so they wouldn’t catch AIDS arresting us’.
I guess things have come a long way in a decade or two, since Tel Aviv Pride is now officially endorsed by the municipal government. A large part of that is due to the brave and inspiring and tireless work of queer activists like The Cat.
A part of it is also due to the fact that some people in power have worked out ways that they can co-opt queer struggle to their own economic and political benefit. So we get concepts like the ‘pink dollar’ which says that if you can brand Tel Aviv as the queer friendly oasis of the Middle East you can make a lot of money from queer tourists.
We also get the ‘pinkwash‘. Which says that if we can convince the world that Israel is some kind of queer-loving utopia, and Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs are all backwards homophobic fundamentalists, then we can distract everyone from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians (and other ethnic and religious minorities). Because apparently being queer friendly cancels out being racist. Maybe it’s like carbon credits: if you respect one marginalised group you can offset your oppression of another. That’s why we get slogans like ‘proud to be a Zionist’.
Fast forward a year to June 9 2011. Wellington had its first Queer the Night march against transphobia and homophobia. I didn’t go – I was out of town. But I wish I could’ve been there. I watched all the footage on youtube the next day and it looked like the most powerful congregation of crazy sexy radicals – people involved in queer, feminist, anti racist, anti occupation, disability, immigrant and workers’ rights struggles – to hit the streets in a long time.
Then there was this:
Two young men had brought along placards designed to incite hate rather than fight it. One said ‘Iran executes gay people – which side are you on?’ the other ‘Israel is the most gay-friendly state in the Middle East.’
Friends who were at Queer the Night say they didn’t try to challenge the pro-Israel placards because they didn’t want to derail the march by getting into an argument about Zionism. Which I totally understand. But since it’s come up, I wanted to make some points about Zionist pinkwash, and why you can’t use queer liberation to justify or minimise oppression of Palestinians.
First of all, it has to be said that Palestinian (and Arab, and Muslim) culture does not have a monopoly on homophobia and transphobia. Transphobia and Homophobia are a huge problem in Israeli culture. Just because the Tel Aviv municipality endorsed a pride parade doesn’t mean that queers living in Israel have respect, freedom and autonomy over their bodies and sexualities. Homophobia and transphobia are rife in Western countries, including New Zealand. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to queer the night in the first place. Constructing a dichotomy of progressive, queer friendly West versus conservative heterosexist cissexist East is not just an imperialist propaganda tactic, it also minimises the oppression of queers in Western countries.
That aside, being a homophobe or a transphobe doesn’t mean that a person isn’t entitled to respect of their freedom and autonomy. I’m not denying that there are Palestinian people and organisations that are transphobic and homophobic, and we should support the struggle of Palestinian queers against them. But the countless abuses perpetrated against Palestinians by the Israeli state: stealing land, demolishing homes, uprooting olive trees, holding people in administrative detention without charge, torture and more – these don’t magicly become ok if the person suffering from them is transphobic or homophobic.
I guess these are all fairly obvious points that have already been made by lots of people. The thing is, lots of people I’ve talked to seem to accept the idea that queer liberation and Palestinian liberation are two separate struggles. The argument keeps getting framed as whether we should be willing to overlook oppression of Palestinians because Israel is queer friendly (which like I already said, it really isn’t).
This kinda misses the point, that struggles against racism and colonisation and struggles against transphobia and homophobia aren’t opposed to each other and they aren’t even separate struggles. You can’t concentrate on fighting one and ignore the other. I don’t just mean that they intersect occasionally because some people (like queer Palestinians) are affected by both. I mean that homophobia, transphobia, racism and occupation are all intertwined, they are part of the matrix of violence and oppression in Palestine. The violence of the occupation permeates all aspects of life in both Israeli and Palestinian society.
In Israel the occupation has created a culture of militarism where aggressive masculinity is reinforced, binary gender norms are enforced and women are relegated to the role of raising Jewish children to be cannon fodder for the IDF. In this context anything that threatens male dominance and nuclear family structures is a threat to the state. Israeli culture will continue to be homophobic and transphobic as long as it continues to be racist and militaristic. Which is what Israeli feminist organisations like New Profile have been saying for a while now.
I don’t have the same experience of Palestinian society that I have of Israeli society but I can imagine that living under military occupation for generations has had many of the same effects as perpetrating military occupation. There are also the specific effects that military occuption has on people’s lives: poverty, lack of freedom of movement, and so on. All of these are going to disproportionately affect the most marginalised people in any society, including queers. Ending the occupation (of all Palestinian land) is an intrinsic part of Palestinian queer struggle. Which is what Palestinian queer organisations like Aswat and Al Qaws have been saying for a while.
Zionist pinkwash like ‘Israel is the most gay-friendly state in the Middle East’ doesn’t just undermine Palestinian liberation, it also undermines queer liberation.
As an aside: a lot of this is also relevant to discussions about queer liberation and tino rangatiratanga here in Aotearoa. For example the debate about the Mana Party and Destiny Church.