A couple of weeks ago I talked at Beyond as part of a panel titled Nationalism, Imperialism and Queer Liberation. This is adapted from that talk.
Note: for the purpose of this article I’m using ‘queer’ as a broad term to describe all of us who are marginalised because our gender or sexual identity isn’t normative. That includes trans, intersex, pansexual, lesbian and gay folks, among others. I know that ‘queer’ is a culturally specific label and that not all gender/sexually diverse people identify as such.
Let me start by explaining a few concepts that are useful for understanding the relationship between struggles for queer liberation and nationalism.
Homonormative: a normative way of being gay. The ‘proper’ gay person is someone who’s cisgendered, monogamous, White, middle-class, and definitely not disabled—because disabled people aren’t supposed to have a sexuality. The normative gay just wants to be allowed to serve in the military, to get a job, get married, have babies, and fit in to heteronormative society.
Homonationalism: means homonormative nationalism. This is about the way that the cause of GLBT rights—but more often than not just G and L rights—gets used to prop up nationalism and justify imperialism and militarism. One example is when people justify military attacks on Iran by arguing that it is a homophobic country. Another example is when people blame homophobia in New Zealand on Māori and Pacific Islander communities, who are portrayed as conservative and homophobic.
It’s worth thinking about the correlation between the social acceptance of some queers (normative ones) and racism, especially anti-Arab and Muslim racism. Identity is always formed in opposition to someone else, it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’. Normative gays are allowed entry into ‘proper society’ in order to emphasise the dichotomy between the White West (modern, progressive, liberal) and the Brown East: Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and other populations who are constructed as conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, violent, backwards and terrorists.
Pinkwashing: a term used to describe the way that GLBT rights are used to whitewash over unethical behavior. We see this when corporations use gay-friendly marketing to distract from the terrible way they treat their workers. We see it when NZ Defence wins an award for being an equal opportunity employer, which is another way of saying that anyone, regardless of sexual or gender identity, can join in the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan.
For the purpose of this talk I’m going to focus on the state of Israel as an example of pinkwashing—partly because I’m an Israeli, or to put it more accurately, I’m a settler-colonist on Palestinian land. Israel is a state that consistently oppresses its Indigenous Palestinian population in order to maintain an ethnically-exclusive state. In other words, it’s an apartheid state. Maintaining an apartheid state requires a huge amount of PR work to convince the rest of the world that they should allow you to continue oppressing people. So the state of Israel has come up with a marketing campaign called ‘Brand Israel’.
Part of ‘Brand Israel’ is to promote Israel as a queer-friendly country. This is really a two-pronged approach: (1) situate Israel as a progressive, modern, pro-LGBT country and (2) construct Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular as conservative, patriarchal, and violently homophobic.
What’s wrong with this picture?
First of all the image on the right is a bit misleading. The two soldiers in this photo aren’t lovers, and actually one of them is heterosexual. The photo was staged by the Israeli Defence Force Spokesperson’s Office and posted on its facebook page with the caption ‘It’s Pride Month. Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? Let’s see how many shares you can get for this photo.’
The image on the left is just plain incorrect. This photo isn’t from Palestine, it’s from Iran. The two boys in this photo were hanged—though their supposed crime is unclear. Originally Western media outlets were reporting they were hanged for having consensual sex with each other, but human rights NGOs haven’t found any evidence that corroborates this claim, it’s more likely that they had raped a younger boy. Either way, what happened to them is horrific and inexcusable—the death penalty is never ok, especially against children. But this is an example of how information about human rights abuses is manipulated to justify imperialist intentions, whether against Palestinians or against Iran.
Part of this ‘Brand Israel’ campaign has been to promote Israel as a gay tourism destination. These are Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, the first gay French couple to get married after France legalised same-sex marriage. Hila Oren, the CEO of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, came up with a great marketing idea. She invited this couple to come honeymoon in Tel Aviv during Tel Aviv pride week. According to Oren, ‘the meaning beneath is our mission, to broaden the conversation about Tel Aviv, for people to know that Tel Aviv is a place of tolerance, of business and tourism, a place beyond the conflict’. Vincent Autin told Israeli media that ‘for us it’s very important to be a bridge, especially here in the Middle East, so that what’s happened in France, and the way we are received and embraced here, can become an example for the rest of the Middle East.’ This is homonationalism—the idea that Westerners constitute ‘an example’ that the Middle East should follow.
This kind of pinkwashing has found its way into the queer community in New Zealand too. At Queer the Night 2011 someone showed up with a pro-Israel placard. Queer the Night was supposed to be about standing up against transphobia, homophobia and oppression. But somebody managed to derail it and use it as an opportunity to incite prejudice against Arab and Muslim people.
Sometimes pinkwashing is a lot subtler than that. I was pretty shocked when I read this article in the June issue of Express. The author was clearly impressed with the Gay Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv, and on the surface this seems pretty innocuous. But celebrating Tel Aviv as a queer-friendly city without acknowledging that it is a city built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is pinkwashing racism—as the Jewish American lesbian writer Sarah Schulman puts it ‘Tel Aviv is a theater set, behind it is the reality of profound oppression and violation of human rights.’
Pinkwashing arguments are built on a false logic. Transphobia and homophobia aren’t limited to Arab and Muslim societies. Israel is also a homophobic and transphobic society. New Zealand has its own problems with anti-queer oppression. More than that, struggles against racism and colonisation and struggles against transphobia and homophobia can’t be fought separately. Homophobia, transphobia, racism and occupation are all intertwined; they are part of the matrix of violence and oppression in Palestine. This isn’t just an abstract idea, it has real consequences for people’s safety. For example, there’s a history of the Shabak, Israel’s General Security Services, blackmailing Palestinian queers into becoming informants—because they know that outing them could endanger their lives. The lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank means that queers living in transphobic or homophobic communities cannot easily leave.
This is why Palestinian queer groups like al-Qaws, Aswat and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions all work to fight both anti-queer oppression, and the racism and colonialism of the Israeli state.
Palestinian queer groups endorse the Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Palestinian civil society groups launched the BDS campaign in 2005, and part of the campaign is ‘queer BDS’ which is specifically about challenging Israel’s pinkwashing. Joining the BDS campaign is one way that we can be solid with all Palestinians—queer and straight.
Here in Aotearoa we’ve recently established the Aotearoa BDS Network, and our first campaign is focusing on G4S, a private security company that provides prisons and checkpoints for Israel. We’re inviting queer organisations to endorse the campaign by signing the letter we’re writing to Super Fund asking them to divest their shares in G4S. If you want to learn more, you should come along to our campaign launch on November 2 at Thistle Hall.
al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society
Aswat (lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning & queer Palestinian women)
Palestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment & Sanctions
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
Palestinian BDS National Committee
Palestinian Campaign for Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel
Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press: 2007)
Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press: 2012)
Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli–Palestinian Impasse (Picador: 2007)
Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press: 2009)
Omar Barghouti, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Books: 2011)