As debates about Israel’s war on Palestinians proliferate, LGBTQ people are increasingly finding themselves caught in the rhetorical crossfire. These conflicts reveal the fault lines of progressive queer politics between those in service of intersectional solidarity and those who advocate homonationalism in service of racism and militarism.
Queer supporters of the Israeli state are utilizing their platforms to support Israel’s bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip. For instance, a November 12 post on X, formerly known as Twitter, by Oscar-nominated writer Lee Kern has now garnered 3.7 million views:
LIBERATION🏳️🌈THE FIRST EVER PRIDE FLAG RAISED IN GAZA!— leekern (@leekern13) November 12, 2023
Under Hamas, being gay means death. Israeli Yoav Atzmoni wanted to send a message of hope. See his story below.
To Gaza’s hidden LGBTQ+ community: STAY HOPEFUL of a future where you can live and love free of Hamas! pic.twitter.com/9NOGfqhNVQ
Prominent queer Israeli TikToker Yaakov Levi (who was recently exposed for faking being a member of the ultra-Orthodox community) has been producing videos criticizing Hamas and supporting Israel’s war on Gaza. Gal Nissim, an Israeli gay actor, has also been outspoken in urging queer individuals to support Israel. In an October 21 TikTok video, Nissim juxtaposes what he characterizes as an Israel that supports gay love with a Palestine defined by Hamas, homophobia and terrorism. While such discourse is far-reaching, it has been offset by a proliferation of queer advocacy for Palestine that does not reduce the Palestinian people to Hamas and that names Israel’s disproportionate violence and oppression.
One of the most high-profile queer advocates has been famed actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. Jolie, who is openly bisexual, has gained her reputation as an ally to the queer Palestinian movement through her outspoken support for Palestinian rights. Throughout the weeks of Israeli bombardment and the humanitarian catastrophes now engulfing Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, Jolie has taken to social media to express her indignation. On October 24, Jolie posted a sober assessment of these realities on her Instagram page:
Her post has received over 4 million likes.
We continue to see massive popular mobilization and pro-Palestinian protests in many major cities. Whether in the streets or online, queer people are disproportionately lending their voices to the cause of Palestinian liberation. This does not come as a surprise to me as a queer Palestinian and researcher on these issues, and author of the book, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. My book traces the rise of the queer movement in Palestine and how it has become a transnational solidarity movement. Within most progressive queer spaces around the world, solidarity with Palestine has become a salient feature of intersectional organizing and advocacy.
These expressions of solidarity have also been met with campaigns of repression and censorship as well as significant blowback from right-wing forces. Supporters of the Israeli state and the U.S. state are able to marshal formidable resources and platforms to intimidate, harass and silence Palestinian human rights activists. Online spaces can become centers of gravity for racist and homophobic incitement, including against LGBTQ individuals expressing support for Palestine, and especially against queer Palestinians. Queer non-Palestinian commentators advocating for Palestine are often met with retorts such as, “Why don’t you go to Gaza yourself where you could be harmed by Hamas for being queer?” They are told that they are naive to support Palestinians when there is so much homophobia in Palestinian society.
These responses are often leveled in bad faith to further dehumanize Palestinians and stigmatize people of conscience who call for an end to Israel’s oppression. And others genuinely believe that individuals from a marginalized background are being misled in their support for Palestinian groups that do not accept them in the fullness of their humanity. This question is posed over and over: “Why would a queer person be allied with a homophobe?” Commentators such as British columnist Brendan O’Neill accuse ‘Queers for Palestine’ of “condemning ‘Queers in Palestine’ to further torment and tyranny” (while ignoring the torment and tyranny of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation).
The knee-jerk responses that often condescend to queer folks for expressing concern for Palestinian lives and humanity reflect the pervasiveness of pinkwashing discourse. Pinkwashing is a form of propaganda marshaled by supporters of the right-wing Israeli state to draw attention to the state’s purported advanced LGBTQ rights record in order to detract attention from its gross violations of Palestinian human rights. The brutality against Palestinian civilians has only intensified since Hamas’s horrific massacre of Israelis on October 7. Meanwhile, Israeli brutality has a 75-year-history in Palestine/Israel — and it is problematic to associate all Palestinians with Hamas and to erase the heterogeneity of Palestinian society and politics. Pinkwashers want us to ignore Israel’s atrocities by giving the state an LGBTQ-friendly veneer. One devastating reality lost amid the pinkwashing obfuscation is that Israeli intelligence and security services have a long history of blackmailing queer Palestinians to serve as informants.
The pinkwashing focus on Palestinian homophobia is therefore deployed to mark Palestinians as “less civilized” — and less human than Israelis — and to therefore normalize Israeli policies of apartheid and military occupation. This is akin to arguing during apartheid South Africa that Black South Africans are not worthy of solidarity because some were homophobic. Or during Jim Crow in the U.S. that Black Americans are not deserving of support because some were homophobic.
Homophobia is nearly universal across societies — it is not unique to the Palestinian body politic — and there is nothing endemic to Arab “culture” that makes Arabs or Muslims predisposed to homophobia. Pinkwashing elides the experiences of homophobia within Israeli society and the experiences of queer agency and empowerment within Palestinian society. There is a spectrum of receptions of queer people across lines of difference in Palestine/Israel.
One of my favorite films, Pride, beautifully captures what reciprocal solidarity can look like when we challenge the narratives that demean the “other.” This 2014 British film is based on the true story of U.K. LGBTQ activists who worked in solidarity with the National Union of Mineworks during its 1984 strike. Initially, many miners resisted aid from queer people due to their homophobia, and many queer people resisted extending aid to the miners due to stereotyping as well as pain from homophobic violence. A fruitful partnership between these two communities ultimately coalesced — and the voices of individuals who were both queer and from mining backgrounds surfaced.
When Israeli pinkwashing is challenged, it similarly expands horizons and opens avenues for social change. Queer Palestinians remind us that queerness and Palestinian-ness are not mutually exclusive categories. Queer Americans often care about Palestine because they are appalled that their U.S. tax dollars are funding Israel’s violence against Palestinians, recognizing that the fates — and humanity — of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians are interconnected. There is no denying that homophobic violence exists in Palestine, but how can that be addressed fully while Israel starves and massacres the Palestinian people?
Millions of protesters have been marching across the world over the past few weeks calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and an end to the U.S. financial and political backing of genocide and apartheid. For instance, in Toronto, LGBTQ activists carried this banner at their pro-Palestine rally to draw attention to the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in an “open-air prison” with literally no safe space.
Police estimate 20,000 for Gaza in Toronto says CP24 pic.twitter.com/0moG154jiZ— judyrebick (@judyrebick) November 4, 2023
On November 4, Washington, D.C. witnessed an estimated 300,000 people march in the largest Palestinian solidarity protests in U.S. history. In their advertising, organizers accounted for the large numbers of LGBTQ folks in attendance with directions for a “Queer Bloc.”
Many friends and people whom I deeply respect took part in the Queer Bloc. At these marches, there is a palpable cry for justice for Palestinians, but there is also a celebration of love. As Palestinian anthropologist and feminist Sarah Ihmoud recently reflected, “Our love is vital in this moment because it is revolutionary love that gives us the courage to continue the struggle to affirm Palestinian life and a future in our homeland. This is our Palestinian litany for survival.”
A viral video from the Queer Bloc features an interview with Mo Dabbagh, a gay Palestinian American with a rainbow keffiyeh, who shared his motivation for joining the march and calling for a ceasefire after 42 members of his family were killed by Israel in Gaza since October 7. The interviewer asks him, “What’s your response to people who say that you’re not safe in Palestine as a queer person?” Dabbagh responded, “First and foremost, I would go to Palestine in a heartbeat. I have no fear. I love my people and my people love me. And I want to be there and be part of the movement that ends up leading to queer liberation for liberated Palestinian people. If you feel that such violence exists for queer people in the Middle East, what are you doing to change that for that community? The first step is the liberation of Palestine.”
I’ll conclude with London, where queer activists replaced over a hundred ads across the city’s tubes with testimonies from Gaza assembled from a queer Palestinian archive as part of the Queering the Map platform.
The queer Palestinian narratives featured in this action were displayed with pinpoints on the maps of Gaza where the testimonies came from, including:
“The only thing that helps me bear living in Gaza is the sea and you.”
“Here was our first date, we sat talked about our childhood, queer culture, food and bagpipes.”
“If I had known that bombs raining down on us would take you from me, I would have gladly told the world how I adored you. I’m sorry I was a coward.”
It is haunting to now wonder whether these queer Palestinians have survived Israel’s bombs and whether they will be able to express their love more freely in the future.
When asked about this action in London’s tube, queer activist Jess Elliott commented, “We did this in response to Israeli pinkwashing propaganda that puts queerness in opposition to Palestinian people. The roots of all our oppressions are the same.”
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