Queer and feminist Palestinian leadership defies pinkwashing and resists the Occupation

Photo: Al Qaws
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Pinkwashing by Israel is a propaganda tool designed to present the Zionist state as a democratic and queer-friendly haven and Tel Aviv as a gay mecca for tourists. This cynical campaign dates back to 2003, when marketing gurus with multi-million dollar budgets were brought in to launch “Brand Israel.” The goal? To market Israel to the world as modern and progressive, in contrast to the “backward” surrounding countries of the Middle East.

The term “pinkwashing” was first used by Ali Abunimah, Palestinian American journalist and editor of The Electronic Intifada, in 2010. A year later, after Sarah Schulman, author, activist and anti-Zionist Jew, used the term in an opinion piece in the The New York Times, “pinkwashing” became part of everyday language among LGBTIQA+ activists.

With Israeli bombs flattening Gaza and the population facing a genocide, the Zionists have ramped up their propaganda. Last November, Israel posted two photos on official government social media, which went viral. Gay Israeli soldier Yoav Atzimoni held a Pride flag emblazoned with the slogan “in the name of love.” In one, Atzimoni stands in front of a huge tank. In the other jarring image, he is positioned among a pile of rubble that was once a neighbourhood in Gaza. The caption declared that Atzimoni was sending “a message of hope to the people of Gaza living under Hamas brutality.” This galling idea spectacularly fails to appreciate that people are being killed in Gaza — not for being queer, but for being Palestinian!

Pinkwashing condemns Palestinians as regressive homophobes who have created an environment in which no dissenting voices can survive. In contrast, Israel is presented as a civilised friend of the queer community. The reality is rather different.

It is time to amplify the voices fighting for LGBTIQ liberation and feminism inside Palestine. Aswat (Voices), founded in 2003, is a feminist queer organisation campaigning for sexual and gender freedom for Palestinian women. Tal’at (Stepping Out) is a militant, intersectional, anti-capitalist feminist movement which argues that there can be “No free homeland without free women.” Al-Qaws (Rainbow), campaigns against homophobia, patriarchy and the Occupation, arguing, “our answer to pinkwashing is to say that liberation is indivisible, and that there will be a place for all of us at the rendezvous of victory.” The group organised a 200-strong protest after a 2019 homophobic attack on a Palestinian teen. Calling this an “historic milestone,” they held Palestinian, rainbow and trans flags to “insist that they are both queer and Palestinian.”

Far from a queer nirvana, Israel’s coalition government led by Netanyahu is the most rightwing, ultra-religious and chauvinist government on record. Ministers in his government are outright bigots. Among his Coalition partners is the Religious Zionism Party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, who declared himself a “proud homophobe.” Noam, a far-right religious party, advocates conversion therapy and calls to prevent Pride marches from taking place. Same-sex marriage is also banned in Israel, where there is no civil marriage, only religious marriage.

Of course there are homophobes in Gaza, just as there are in Israel, the U.S. and Australia. But there are also Palestinian activists who are feminists, socialists and queer liberationists. Palestinian politics is often presented as a binary with the corrupt Fatah party on the one side and Hamas, which is a militant Islamic fundamentalist movement, on the other. These are not the only choices. To achieve a single, secular, socialist Palestine as a safe home for all, other leadership will be vital.

Al-Qaws refuses to allow themselves, as queer Palestinians, to be alienated from their own communities, and they are starting to win support. In the wake of the homophobic assault in 2019, they released a statement assertively and collectively calling for an end to violence against LGBTIQ people in Palestine. Thirty-seven organisations across historic Palestine signed the statement. Al-Qaws intends to continue fighting. We will “raise our voices against the patriarchal, colonial, and capitalist oppressions on LGBTIQ and queer Palestinians, and to demand an end to violence against our bodies and lives.”

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