Why queer and trans people need to resist pinkwashing

OPINION: Israel’s genocidal campaign is no victory for LGBTQ+ rights

On Nov. 13, 2023, the official X (formerly known as Twitter) account of the State of Israel posted a photograph of Israeli soldier Yoav Atzmoni standing in front of several tanks, apparently in the Gaza Strip, holding a rainbow flag in his outstretched arms. Written on the flag in Hebrew and English are the words “In The Name of Love.” The caption of the X post reads:

“The first ever pride flag raised in Gaza [rainbow flag emoji]. Yoav Atzmoni who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community wanted to send a message of hope to the people of Gaza living under Hamas brutality. His intention was to raise the first pride flag in Gaza as a call for peace and freedom.”

As of this writing, the post was “liked” over 18 thousand times, and reposted over 8,800 times—though a significant number of those reposts have included sharply critical commentary decrying the post as an attempt by the State of Israel to justify the violence it’s commiting in Palestine—violence that many Palestinians, members of the international community and even some Israelis decry as war crimes. As trans journalist Erin Reed wrote in an X post: “The point of LGBTQ+ liberation is not to kill everyone and then declare ‘liberation.’” 

https://www.tiktok.com/@xtramagazine/video/7301060138964765958?is_from_webapp=1&sender_device=pc&web_id=7296915659362698757

It has been a little over a month since the Palestinian resistance group Hamas broke out of the Gaza Strip—which has been subject to an austere military blockade and periodic bombardment by Israel since 2005—and launched an attack that claimed the lives of approximately 1,200 people (more than 200 others were also taken hostage). Israel’s response has been a military campaign consisting of both carpet bombing and ground invasion, which has resulted in the deaths of over 12,000 Palestinians and displaced over 1.4 million Palestinians from their homes at the time of writing. 

In that time, the international community has responded with extreme polarization, which can be roughly divided into those parties supporting Israel’s actions as justified “self defence” and parties decrying them as genocidal war crimes. One prominent rhetorical strategy from the former has been the framing of Israel as a champion of LGBTQ+ human rights and freedoms, while Gaza (and at times by extension all of Palestine, or even all of the Arab Middle East) are cast as virulently homophobic. 

 

This dubious style of argumentation has been dubbed “pinkwashing” by critical thinkers and activists such as Jewish queer writer Sarah Schulman. Pinkwashing, sometimes also called “rainbow-washing,” can broadly be defined as the use of supposedly LGBTQ+-friendly politics to disguise, downplay or justify morally objectionable actions on the part of an institution or nation-state.

The deceptive logic of pinkwashing argues that queer and trans people, and all of our allies, ought to support Israel’s actions as a matter of our own self-preservation, an argument entrenched in Islamophobic and anti-Arab propaganda that claims Arabs and Muslims are inherently homophobic and violent. This style of propaganda that has been intensely present in the cultural sphere of the Global North since the so-called “War On Terrorism” began in 2001. Notably, this argument seems increasingly popular even among individuals who themselves are no great supporters of LGBTQ+ rights. 

In a recent example, Abigail Shrier, noted “gender critical” author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, wrote in Commentary (a publication that self-describes as “conservative Jewish thought”): “According to a popular meme, ‘Queers for Palestine’ is like ‘Chickens for KFC’: To sign on to that slogan, you’d have to be suicidal or an idiot.” 

She goes on to write that the only logical reason to take such a stance must be wholesale hatred of civilization, writing: “[Progressive activists for Palestine] simply want to inflict fear and instill chaos in a peaceable civilization they despise.” 

I suppose that’s one possibility. Another might be the notions that—oh, I don’t know—all human life is sacred, that collective punishment is a moral atrocity and that Palestinians, queer and otherwise, deserve life and freedom as much as the rest of us.

Though emotionally powerful in an age when Islamophobia still reigns, pinkwashing is a small and craven logic. It is essentially a form of emotional bullying—at base it says, “Those people (Palestinians) don’t like people like you (queers), and they’d kill you. If you were smart and honest, you would applaud us killing them.” In the first place, the idea that all Palestinians are homophobic is a racist stereotype, and ignores the existence of Palestinian queer communities. In the second, it appeals to the base notion of violence as a solution to social problems. While it is true that some Palestinians may be homophobic, and life in Gaza as a queer person can be extremely difficult due to anti-gay legislation and attitudes, it remains a fact that all Palestinians are human beings who don’t deserve to be murdered in their homes.

Rayan Anton, a Palestinian trans man and social worker currently living in Toronto, whom I spoke with recently, says if Israel were to complete its current course of action, “I think they would just kill all the Palestinian queers along with the straight people […] the bombs don’t discriminate between queer and straight Arabs.”

Anton is the co-founder of Meem Toronto, which supports queer Arabs to meet and form community with each other. He says that “this month has been terrible; one of the hardest experiences I’ve had in the past decade […] I got called a terrorist by a neighbour while I was with my kid in a park.” Anton says that the situation “escalated quite badly, and she did say that line—that if ‘you were gay in Gaza you’d be killed.’”

“The most dangerous part of pinkwashing is that I believed it.”

Pinkwashing and its implicit anti-Arab messaging can have a serious psychological impact on Palestinian queer people like Anton. “The most dangerous part of pinkwashing is that [growing up], I believed it. I really did believe that Arabs are just worse and more violent.” Yet although Anton did experience rejection from some family members while coming out, many were also deeply supportive, which he now attributes in part to Palestinian cultural values: “Palestinian families have a quality that supported my queerness, which is an unwavering commitment to supporting one another even when we don’t agree with each other. […] We criticize Arab culture, but we don’t look at the positives that it has to offer. We are a deeply warm and loving people.” 

Queer Jewish voices from within and outside Israel are also pushing back sharply on the pinkwashing narrative and its apparent hypocrisy. At times this comes at great personal cost: some Israeli citizens have faced imprisonment for refusing compulsory military service. Anti-apartheid advocates are a small minority in Israel, and those who do dare to speak out face backlash: recently, Israeli demonstrators were beaten by police as they tried to engage in a silent protest in solidarity with Palestinians. 

Jordan Zaitzow is a trans organizer with a group called Jews Say No to Genocide. “Israel has been committed to a narrative, presenting themselves as the moral oasis in a sea of Arab ‘savagery’ […] Pinkwashing is a modern take on that [idea], that the only place you can be safe and queer is in Israel. Of course, a lot of Palestinian queer folks have been like, for who? Safe for who?” Zaitzow says.

Queer and trans Palestinians living in Israel have reported experiencing racist discrimination, and even blackmail from the Israeli government, with officials forcing them to work as informants on their own communities under threat of being outed to their families if they don’t comply. Anton says that during his time as a young adult visiting family in Israel, “I tried to find queer Jews, I thought maybe they were going to connect with me. They did not. They see the Palestinian before they see the queer.”

Zaitzow is quick to point out that Jewish queer and trans Israelis also experience discrimination in the country, saying, “The effusive marketing of queer-friendliness in Israel [has] felt so dirty and wrong. When considerations around queer safety are authentic, there’s action that’s connected to those statements, but I don’t see the evidence of community-based efforts to create safety for either Israeli queer people or any queer people.” Same-sex marriage is not legal in Israel, and trans people continue to experience significant discrimination, according to Israeli trans community organization Project Gila

Queer and trans people worldwide deserve safety and liberation, but it seems abundantly clear that militarism, war crimes and genocide are not the path to such a future. Only peace and humane action can do that. Anton says that if allies want to support queer Palestinians, “They would fight for all Palestinian liberation.” 

Zaitzow agrees. “ I am fighting for a free Palestine, not just because it is intrinsic to my Jewish values, but because I desperately believe that our liberation is intertwined. I am fighting because we need each other and I can’t get through this moment without you.” 

Indeed, all queer and trans people need each other to survive—and it is time for the queer community to stand up in the service of solidarity, political clarity and moral courage. We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated and exploited by pinkwashing—an ideology that was created not to protect us, but to shield atrocities from the light of truth. No community should be slaughtered in the name of love.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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