Increasingly we’re seeing Western politicians like Hilary Clinton call for LGBT rights on the global stage. Domestic LGBT organizations are now looking abroad as the ‘new’ site of work – as if things are wrapping up in the United States with the repeal of DADT and DOMA. Across the board the logic remains the same: the West figured it out and has successfully ushered in LGBT rights victories! David Cameron of the UK made this way of thinking most explicit when he called for the exportation of gay marriage across the world!
It’s kind of funny because these people actually like believe that Western LGBT rights are working and have brought about increased equality. Newsflash they have not.
Even though the white supremacist gay movement in the West wants to pretend that ‘it’s getting better,’ economic inequality in this country is actually increasing along with racialized state violence (in the form of surveillance, detainment, incarceration, torture, deportation, murder). What this means is that poor queers and queers of color are at increased risk of harm.
What becomes apparent is that those of us invested in queer liberation and racial justice in the West have to develop new models for our activism. Gay politics in the United States is stale and no longer useful. We are often totally and completely behind the times. Some of the most dynamic queer politics is being generated outside of the United States and we have not been attentive enough to it. Not only that, our countries are supporting policies and corrupt state regimes which systematically prevent these ideas from coming to us.
Specifically, on our solidarity trip to Palestine we met some of the most shrewd, brilliant, and critical queer activists and we realized that we had a lot to learn and reflect in our own US based organizing.
We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Here are some tactics and strategies that we could actually learn from and apply better in our own movements. These lessons do not come from one homogenous queer Palestinian movement – obviously there is dissent, departure, and disagreement. But these are some political strategies and tactics we particularly resonated with. We also want to note that learning these strategies is not a linear, copy-paste process—we have to make them relevant to our own contexts.
1. Our queer politics should be generated from our racial justice work.
Queer Palestinian activists often reject the idea that their struggle is about ‘gay rights’ or ‘acceptance.’ What organizations like alQaws are committed to is gender and sexual liberation in the context of Palestinian liberation. Queer Palestinians come at their work first with a commitment to ending the occupation. Gender and sexuality politics do not exist somehow in isolation from shared oppression as Palestinian people. There is a commitment here to an understanding of how all Palestinian people – regardless of their personal identification – are oppressed on the basis of their gender and sexuality by colonial pinkwashing narratives that depict them as backwards and repressed.
Similarly in the United States political organizing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity makes little sense for those of us invested in racial justice. What does a rich white gay man gentrifying a neighborhood in Brooklyn really have in common with a poor black lesbian who lives down the street? Similar racialized narratives continue to shape people of color sexualities in the United States: where Asian American women are hypersexualized, African Americans are seen as sexually perverse, etc. People of color experience gender and sexual oppression due to white supremacy and settler colonialism. The very framework of LGBT identities is a continuation of settler colonialism. These terms are not actually bases of real and meaningful solidarity. Coming at our work from this perspective means like issues like marriage equality will never really be on the table when many of our peoples are currently incarcerated, surveilled, detained, and/or living in poverty – conditions and institutions that actually create gender and sexual oppression. White LGBT folks should view their movement work then in a way that is aligned with racial justice – recognizing that the oppressions they might experience on the basis of their gender and sexuality result from a loss of white power. That the political platforms white LGBT movements often make are actually about ascension into this white power, not actually abolishing it.
2. Visibility politics are overrated. Coming out no longer means liberation in a context where when people come out on the streets they are thrown into jail.
Many queer folks in Palestine are not actually invested in ‘coming out’ or being ‘visible.’ Movement emphasis does not prioritize the ritual of ‘coming out’ and does not pressure Palestinians to ‘come out’ in order to be involved with movement work. People are critical of the idea that there even is a ‘closet’ let alone how the West associates being a ‘bad’ queer with being closeted (repressed) and a ‘good’ queer with being out (liberated?). What is more, coming out narratives rely on the personal choices of individuals — a framework that largely does not make sense for Palestinians who may see themselves as part of a larger family and community structure.
Similarly, coming out as an imperative has a fraught relationship with communities of color and other oppressed peoples in the United States. Whom have we isolated with our emphasis on visibility politics in the US? Has this actually been advantageous for the majority of poor folks and other queer folks of color? What narratives of hyper visibility do is erase the very real and important work that gets done on the interior and in private – the slow work of building community and generating ideas and resistance. Who are we asked to become visible to in the US? The State? So they can count our numbers on their census and then throw bombs across the ocean because they accept gay people here right? (even though they throw low income people of color in prisons, in shelters, and criminalize us walking on the streets). In the contemporary racist state refusing visibility can actually be a radical strategy of resisting state violence, resisting state appropriation, and resisting our own country’s imperial agendas.
3. Art should be an integral part of any queer movement. Supporting queer art is a radical political-culturalinvestment.
AlQaws recently launched a project called “Singing Sexualities” which gave a platform for Palestinian artists to produce songs about gender and sexuality in Arabic. The organization created an album, hosted concerts, and distributed this CD across Palestine. Most of the songs were recorded in participant’s homes and private spaces. The idea here is that legal policy and state recognition aren’t actually going to change peoples hearts and minds. Art has a unique way of tearing at the fabric, and reweaving, of culture.
Meanwhile in the US we see a largely professionalized NGO sector invested in doing the “real” work of lobbying politicians, passing laws, and writing reports. At the same time thousands of queer cultural workers find it difficult to get anyone to seriously engage with their work. We’re not actually going to eradicate heteronormativity unless we create media that breaks through formality and gets at the core of hatred and prejudice – envisioning new ways of loving, relating, and being in community.
4. We don’t actually need more money. Our communities already have everything we need to change the world.
One of our favorite moments in Palestine was when our friend came over with his grandma’s old sheets, a couple of cheap makeup sets, a lamp he borrowed from school, and his cell phone camera and set up one of the most elaborate and queer photoshoots we have ever been apart of in our apartment. In US professionalized organizing spaces we’ve become so obsessed with applying for grants and amassing more that we don’t take the time to actually acknowledge and evaluate the resources we are already surrounded by. If we build meaningful relationships with one another and don’t feel afraid to ask how different would our work look like? Our first question should not actually be about where the money is but rather: what do we already have? Capitalism makes us organize with a logic of scarcity – that we never have enough – rather than one of abundance. This is not to romanticize not having resources — we definitely need a radical redistribution of wealth and resources in this country – but this is about being more real about how we can make the best of our situations and do radical work with them.
5. What we call the LGBT community is often rhetorical and not actually real.
In the US we like to throw the idea of an ‘LGBT community’ around all the time. But what becomes evident in a lot of places is that this is just political and rhetorical solidarity. Where is our so-called community when we experience sexual violence, find ourselves terminally ill, or processing depression? Community only appears to be there at the clubs and on our sex and dating apps – not actually there day to day. In Palestine the type of family and commitment among queer folks wasn’t actually just some trite “alternative kinship politics–it was about cooking for one another, driving one another, giving a place to sleep. What would it look like in the US if we really practiced the community we pretend to have? Would queer homeless kids still be on the streets? Would queer people be confined in mental institutions? Our community can’t just congregate for the good times – we have to learn how to hold one another more ferociously even if it is boring or painful.
6. We need to reframe what it means to be ‘political’ and to be an ‘activist.’
One of the violences the non-profit industrial complex has done in the West is it has professionalized activism. Now one can become a ‘professional queer’ or ‘gay for pay’ and live a life that’s about doing activism from 9-5 and then going home and being ‘off time.’ This is ridiculous. We all can resist power. Every moment in our lives is political. In Palestine we witnessed an unprecedented commitment to politicizing the personal. In one of our workshops one of our participants declared: “If I’m attracted to an Israeli woman I will suggest that she leaves my land and we can meet up and have sex in another country!” No part of our lives – no matter how intimate – are outside of our politics. This doesn’t mean that ‘politics’ has to look like participating in a protest every day. Politics can also be laughing and building community. Our humor and joy can be part of our collective healing as bodies often disregarded by mainstream society.
7. We have to reject the borders and divisions created by our oppressors.
AlQaws is one of the only organizations to work with Palestinians both in the West Bank and in ’48 (Israel). The idea here is that these borders are colonial imports meant to divide Palestinian people amongst one another rather than unifying to fight the enemy.
Breaking borders also means that we need more of an emphasis on immigration justice in our queer organizing working in solidarity with undocumented queers to challenge the arbitrary marriage between ‘citizenship’ and heteronormative relationships. It means abolishing deportation and detention centers. It means challenging immigration justice group to account for queer family formations, and challenging queers to find solidarity with all immigrants.
8. We need a queer movement against gentrification.
In Palestine queer activists have organized against apartheid drawing our attention to the ways in which Israeli occupation relies on a pinkwashing narrative that it is more friendly for LGBT peoples. What this narrative masks is the forced displacement and state violence against all Palestinian people regardless of their gender and sexuality. Similar dynamics are at play in many urban centers in the United States around issues of gentrification. Gentrification relies on a narrative that it is making neighborhoods ‘safer’ for LGBT folks and women. What this narrative erases is the resistance of black and other people of color queers, increased (police) state violence against people of color, and the forced displacement of poor people of color. We need similar political movements in the US that include queer people refusing the ways in which our identities and politics are appropriated in service of systemic racism and displacement. The queer movement must challenge security culture and the very notion of ‘safety’ – drawing attention to the ways in which narratives of criminality have always relied on racist and classist tropes and unquestioned ideas of ‘safety.’