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Queers for Palestine: Identity Politics at Its Most Absurd

In Palestine, they’d be killed.

· 6 min read
Queers for Palestine: Identity Politics at Its Most Absurd
Marble Arch, London, UK. 21st Oct, 2023. Alamy

A version of this piece first appeared in Queer Majority here.

On the morning of 7 October 2023, the militant Palestinian group Hamas orchestrated a multi-pronged assault against Israel from the Gaza Strip. Their fighters breached the heavily fortified border and murdered more than 1,400 Israeli civilians, including young children. Here in the West, the political discourse surrounding these brutal events and the war that has come in their wake has been coloured by a misguided transposition of Western identity politics onto the Middle East, which collapses all nuance and reduces a complex situation into a simple binary of oppressor versus oppressed.

Leftists in English-speaking nations tend to see Palestinians (including Hamas) as an oppressed, brown victim class, whose freedom-fighting “resistance” against their oppressive, white, US-backed colonizers in Israel is a righteous cause with which to stand in solidarity. This facile view of the long-standing conflict in the Middle East leads to confused and contradictory thinking, as seen in the incoherent slogan (and now meme) “Queers for Palestine,” emblazoned on banners brandished at anti-Israel rallies.

“Queers for Palestine” attempts to meld LGBT advocacy with Palestinian liberation, a juxtaposition that has precipitated a whirlwind of criticism and ridicule, since LGBT rights scarcely exist within the Muslim world; and the Palestinian territories are no exception. The slogan has been widely satirized. Variations like “Chickens for KFC” and “Blacks for the KKK” highlight its proponents’ basic lack of awareness of just how incompatible the values of the Western left are with those of the Islamic right they so readily champion.

The reality of the situation could not be starker. Though there is room for improvement in Israeli attitudes towards these issues, Israel is at the forefront of LGBT rights in the Middle East. In Israel, LGBT people are visible members of society with legal protections and civil rights, and are accepted by a plurality of its citizens.

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Palestine is quite a different story. A 2021 report on LGBT acceptance by UCLA’s Williams Institute rated Israel 44th out of the 175 countries/territories they examined. Palestine came in at number 130, behind Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Georgetown University likewise placed Palestine 160th out of 170 countries on their women’s peace and security index, in company with most of the countries in that region. Amnesty International’s 2020 report on human rights highlights the fact that, in Gaza, male same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and points out the conspicuous absence of legal protections against anti-LGBT discrimination and harassment. This lack of civil rights has led hundreds of gay and bisexual Palestinians to flee to Israel to escape persecution. One such refugee, Ahmad Abu Marhia, a 25-year-old gay Palestinian man, was living under asylum in Israel when, in 2022, he was kidnapped and beheaded in the West Bank city of Hebron. His murderers uploaded footage of the killing to social media.

Every time these disparities are mentioned, critics are quick to lob accusations of “pinkwashing”—a concept invented to frame any discussion of Israel’s progressive stance on LGBT issues as a distraction from their mistreatment of Palestinians. But the fact remains that these “Queers for Palestine” could march in Pride parades in Israel if they wanted to. In Palestine, they’d be killed.

Another disconcerting element of “Queers for Palestine” is that the slogan popped up in prominent left-wing anti-Israel/pro-Palestine rallies in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attacks, before Israel had even had the chance to respond. There is no way to interpret this slogan and the surrounding leftist fervor except as a signal of support not merely for Palestine, but specifically for Hamas, a jihadist movement with the explicit aim of eradicating the state of Israel. It’s imperative to understand that Hamas, as detailed in its 1988 Covenant, is propelled by a fundamentalist Islamist ideology whose goal is not only to eliminate all Jews but to conquer the world—just like ISIS. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar has stated on record, “The entire planet will be under our law, there will be no more Jews or Christian traitors.”

Western support for Hamas, under the guise of support for Palestinian liberation, betrays an ignorance of the deep-seated radical Islamist ethos driving that organization, which, if left unchecked, would jeopardize the very freedoms cherished by LGBT people across the developed world. Anyone who doubts this should try being gay, bi, or trans in most of the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) Muslim-majority countries. Almost all these nations have laws that criminalize both homosexuality and transsexuality, some of which carry the death penalty. Human Rights Watch’s report "Everyone Wants Me Dead" succinctly encapsulates in its title alone the perilous environment faced by LGBT individuals in these regions.

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Many on the Western left, including the LGBT left, have become enamored with Critical Social Justice, through whose warped lens they perceive all of humanity as fitting into two classes: oppressors and oppressed. Armed with this simplistic, binary worldview, leftists gravitate toward perceived liberation movements for other so-called oppressed groups. This narrow prism obscures the universalist ideology of Islamism espoused by groups like Hamas, which under a facade of anti-imperialist rhetoric, harbors a brutal dogma that is antithetical to the liberties and rights championed by LGBT activists. No matter how much they complain about “pinkwashing,” they can’t conceal the absurd irony of this situation, in which folks who believe in LGBT liberation are cheerleading ideological movements from which they would flee as refugees were they to live under such regimes.

To be sure, the Palestinian people have endured more than their fair share of suffering, and it’s easy to see how the Palestinian resistance narrative can carry the allure of righteous rebellion, especially for those factions of the hard left that aspire to dismantle liberal society. The vicarious thrill of romanticized revolution leads some to go far beyond simply advocating for the Palestinian people to express solidarity with Hamas, ignoring the jihadist ideology at the core of that organization. The followers of this ideology are oppressing LGBT Palestinians at this very moment. Given half a chance, they would oppress the very leftists now voicing support for the Palestinian cause. And, indeed, this has happened before.

The aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran is a harrowing tale. Leftists were tortured and executed en masse by the very Islamic regime they supported for the sake of their anti-imperialist goals; many Iranians who aligned with leftist organizations supported the revolution only to find themselves persecuted by Islamists they helped put in power.

Immediately following the revolution, the new regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini began systematically oppressing LGBT people and publicly executing them by the thousands. These atrocities were justified as a means of “eliminating corruption” and preventing the “contamination” of society. Between 4,000 and 6,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have been executed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran’s legal system, rooted in Islamic law, criminalizes consensual sexual relations between same-sex individuals, with penalties ranging from lashes to death. Iranian law does not distinguish between consensual and non-consensual same-sex intercourse; allowing authorities to prosecute both perpetrators and victims of sexual assault.

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Images of gay and bi men hanged from cranes so that they slowly suffocate to death serve as grim reminders for anyone interested in human rights: align with Islamic fundamentalists at your peril.

The phenomenon of “Queers for Palestine,” and the realities it glosses over, underscore the need for a more informed and discerning discourse—a discourse that transcends catchy slogans and moral binaries and delves into the complex, often discordant ideologies at play in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That way, we can advocate for a better future without bolstering forces antithetical to liberal values, and without betraying LGBT people by undermining their very rights and freedoms. We can’t do that if we overwrite the complicated dynamics of a 75-year foreign conflict with our own provincial identity politics.

The original version of this piece appeared in Queer Majority, a publication that champions the sexual rights and freedoms of consenting adults, while eschewing identity politics and retaining a firm commitment to liberal values. You can find more articles from that unique perspective here.  

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