To be queer during South Africa’s Apartheid era was to be isolated from both sides of the political spectrum: both the anti-Apartheid movement and the pro-slavery bigots employed homophobic and transphobic violence. After the brave work of queer activists like Simon Nkoli, South Africa became the first country in the world to include sexual orientation in its Bill of Rights in 1996. Many countries have since followed suit. As gay rights become coterminous with “human rights,” the two words that were previously silenced have become widely discussed components of political platforms in these countries. This does not necessarily mean, however, that these nations don’t institutionalize violence against other marginalized communities -- or have fully abolished homophobia within their governments.
Tel Aviv is ranked as the “World’s #1 Gay City” by an airline-conducted survey of gay travellers; it’s not uncommon to find a rainbow flag hoisted adjacent to an Israeli one. After all, the city’s tourism board invested $90 million to brand themselves as the “international gay vacation destination.”3 It’s also not uncommon to see a billboard that reads “Where in the Middle East Can Gay Officers Serve Their Country? Only in Israel!”, making an obvious snub at their Palestinian neighbors. The picture of Israel’s benevolence is created while simultaneously painting Muslim-majority countries as barbaric. This is ironic, Tel Aviv University professor Aeyal Gross suggests, since “conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic [in Israel].”3 From public speakers giving racist University talks to NGOs like A Wider Bridge - that promote gay tourism as much as they promote gay rights - Israeli grassroots organizations are engaging in what we now call “pinkwashing.”
Pinkwashing refers to “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”3 Despite the UN’s comparison between Israel’s treatment of Palestine to South Africa’s Apartheid system, Israel has created a self-image of rainbows and tolerance while treating Palestinians as, like their deputy defense minister would say, “not human.” This strategy is disrespectful to both the Israeli and Palestinian queer communities. The valiant work of Israeli queer activists – who also had to grapple with the homophobic legacy of the holocaust – has been manipulated by the state to secure international approval, and the stereotype of Muslims as ultra-conservative gay-bashers is promoted in the process.
Queer advocacy within Palestine is also rendered invisible. LGBTQ grassroots organizations such as alQaws are committed to fostering change for queer lives in the present, while also representing the history of activism in Israel and Palestine. In fact, there was a time when the Israeli and Palestinian queer movements were not too far apart. In 2001, before the pinkwashing trend took over, Palestinian and Israeli queers gathered together at the Jerusalem Open House. Various independent grassroots movements were created and branched off from the Open House to better represent the differing histories and lived experiences of both sides of the green line. alQaws was one of them. Working towards a “de-colonized Palestine,” the group recognizes the importance of addressing the systemic barriers of race, class, and gender, alongside sexual orientation, to create sustainable change in the lives of queer Palestinians.7 alQaws has also collaborated with the hub “Pinkwatching Israel” to co-opt the forces that prevent the recognition of their advocacy.
“When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldier is,” said Haneen Maikay, the alQaws director.3 Palestinians still must fear for their lives. The number of gay soldiers, while a step in the right direction, cannot fully indicate the tolerance of the regime it represents. As Israel aims to promote queer rights as universal human rights, they are excluding Palestinian queers from this vision. It’s thus important for organizations to be cautious of universalizing one lived experience and instead recognize the complex and varied components of one’s identity, alongside differing histories of discrimination. Grassroots organizations, moreover, must be focused on serving the interests of their targeted communities -- not serving government ambitions under the table.
South African queer activist Simon Nkoli fought not only for his rights as a gay man but also as a black South African in his advocacy work. Both strategies, used simultaneously, helped to holistically transform human rights within South Africa: the goal that queer activists should be striving for.
Soske, Jon, and Sean Jacobs, eds. Apartheid Israel: the politics of an analogy. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2015.
South Africa: New Constitution Protects Gays and Lesbians." OutRight. March 20, 2015. https://www.outrightinternational.org/content/south-africa-new-constitution-protects-gays-and-lesbians.
Schulman, Sarah. "Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’." The New York Times. November 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/opinion/pinkwashing-and-israels-use-of-gays-as-a-messaging-tool.html?mcubz=0.
Wilson, Colin. "A Wider Bridge." No to Pinkwashing. July 21, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.nopinkwashing.org.uk/tag/a-wider-bridge/.
White, Ben. "UN report: Israel has established an 'apartheid regime'." Al Jazeera. March 18, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/03/report-israel-established-apartheid-regime-170315054053798.html.
Subir. "Filastin: "Palestinians are beasts, they are not human" - new head of West Bank civil administration." Daily Kos. May 10, 2015. https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/5/10/1382338/-Filastin-Palestinians-are-beasts-they-are-not-human-new-head-of-West-Bank-civil-administration.