Abstract

In 2012, Palestinian anticolonial-queer activists organized a workshop and conference at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine in Porto Alegre, Brazil, titled “Queer Visions at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine.” Queer Visions brought different activists together who had been organizing against Israel’s state-sponsored pinkwashing campaign and for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Since 2010, Palestinian queer activism has publicly engaged with the Palestinian Call for BDS and has urged the Palestinian BDS movement and those in solidarity with it to mobilize around Israel’s pinkwashing campaign and work to better understand Zionism’s underlying settler-colonial sexual politics. Taking the WSF: Free Palestine as a crucial moment in queer engagements with the politics of boycott, this essay reflects on the challenges faced by anticolonial-queer activism in the context of Israel/Palestine and the challenges it poses to Zionist settler colonialism and normative understandings of queer politics and Palestinian liberation.

In 2012, alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, Palestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (PQBDS), and Pinkwatching Israel (PWI) organized a workshop and conference at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine in Porto Alegre, Brazil, titled “Queer Visions at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine.” Since 2010, Palestinian queer activism has publicly engaged with the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and has urged the Palestinian BDS movement and those in solidarity with it to mobilize around Israel’s pinkwashing campaign and analyze Zionism’s underlying racial-sexual politics that make pinkwashing possible. Taking the WSF: Free Palestine as a crucial moment in queer engagements with the politics of boycott, this article explores the challenges faced by Palestinian queer activism and the challenges it poses to normative understandings of queer politics and Palestinian liberation.

Several Palestinian queer activists groups are active in Israel/Palestine. alQaws is the largest Palestinian national grassroots organization working to inspire a conversation on gender and sexual diversity in Palestinian society on both sides of the Green Line. Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women, based in Haifa, supports the needs of gay and trans women mostly living inside the ever-shifting borders of what is now known as Israel.1 PQBDS was founded by Palestinian queer activists in 2010, publishing its first call to encourage transnational queer activists to join the Palestinian BDS movement. PQBDS transformed into Pinkwatching Israel, which is now the main platform from which queer BDS activities are organized. Its most recent campaign is the Boycott Tel Aviv Pride campaign,2 which aims to discourage gay tourism to Israel until Israel meets BDS demands of ending Israeli occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the wall; ensuring the fundamental rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and implementing, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.3 I was asked to co-organize Queer Visions, as I had been collaborating with PQBDS, PWI, and alQaws for several years and continue to do so today.

The 2012 WSF: Free Palestine was a special topical forum initiated by the WSF headquarters in Porto Alegre in collaboration with a conglomeration of Palestinian civil society organizations forming the Preparatory Committee.4 The forum brought together thousands of activists and organizations from thirty-six countries consisting of Palestinian civil society groups, indigenous self-determination activists, human rights groups, trade unionists, refugee and migrant rights activists, prison abolitionists, and feminist, queer, and youth groups from around the world to create conversations across movements and adopt new global strategies for future work against (Zionist) settler colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. The forum also coincided with the controversial entrance of Palestine as an Observer State at the United Nations, which implicitly consolidated a two-state solution, which continues to be contested by Palestinian civil society groups.5

The WSF: Free Palestine was structured around an open call published by the Preparatory Committee. Groups and individuals were invited to propose self-funded events and conferences for which the forum would provide the larger infrastructure. The highlight of the forum was the march in solidarity with Palestine. Over twenty thousand people marched through the center of Porto Alegre, despite attempts of local Zionist groups to cause friction between the marchers and Porto Alegre’s residents by spreading rumors that the march was organized by Hamas and would result in riots and vandalism.

Besides working locally on gender and sexual diversity within Palestinian society, Palestinian queer activism targets Israel’s state-sponsored pinkwashing campaign, which promotes Israel as beacon of freedom within the Middle East because it has gay rights. This liberal nation branding campaign obscures Israel’s violations against Palestinians and silences Palestinian queer voices that “argue that liberation is always already bound up with the liberation from any form of oppression.”6 Queer Visions came together at the WSF to consolidate the analysis of pinkwashing and generate conversations with the larger movement for BDS. Unfortunately, Palestinian queer activism is often misunderstood as an effort to make the Palestinian liberation more queer-friendly. Palestinian queer activists challenge such assumptions.7 Following these critiques, I suggest that the work of Palestinian queer activists performs a central conceptual intervention alongside and within the Palestinian liberation movement that cannot be understood as simply making it queer friendly.

The Preparatory Committee strived to provide “a basic analysis of the situation in Palestine” that “clearly identifies key demands and indicates solidarity strategies for a just peace based on human rights and international law.”8 My reflections on the WSF situate the contributions of the Palestinian-led Queer Visions firmly within this framework and show how this work expands the terrain of struggle and alters the “basic analysis of the situation in Palestine” beyond the confines of human rights and international law paradigms. What I from here on call Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism departs from Palestinian feminist groups of the First and Second Intifada that had hoped social liberation would follow national liberation.9 Today, queer and also feminist Palestinian groups work along multiple axes of struggle that defy the “national liberation first, social liberation later” paradigm. In one of the rare reflection pieces on the WSF, Palestinian refugee, feminist activist, scholar, and spoken word artist Rafeef Ziadeh writes, “Although, some of the strongest contributions to workshops came from Palestinian women and Palestinian feminist organisations, on the big plenaries and in the main rally women’s voices were marginalized. However, this did not deter from the overall enthusiasm and commitment of all present to intensify their efforts in the struggle for Palestinian rights.”10

In other words, despite the struggles for visibility at the WSF, the commitment to Palestinian liberation of both feminist and queer Palestinian groups cannot be overshadowed by simplistic accounts of such erasures. I look back at the delicate work of Queer Visions at the WSF and the central conceptual interventions it made into the BDS movement and the framework of Palestinian liberation to foreground the potential of a Palestinian anticolonial-queer politics of boycott and liberation. I hope to draw attention to how Queer Visions shifted the terrain of struggle in terms of what liberation entails and also exposed the multilayered workings of geographies of domination. In what follows, I first discuss the preparations and ideas behind Queer Visions. Second, I reflect on the march on the second day of the forum. And last, I foreground the interventions of Queer Visions at the final General Assembly.

Queer Visions

alQaws, PWI, and PQBDS had approached the Preparatory Committee with an official proposal for an integral space at the forum in order to contribute to shaping what the WSF committee described as “the basic aims of the Palestinian struggle, the legal framework for [its] demands, solidarity campaigns around the world, ways to build Palestine solidarity within social movements and, finally, locate the Palestinian struggle within global and local movements for liberation.”11 The groups also approached queer allies who had been active in the struggle to collaborate in the preparation of Queer Visions. We called ourselves “Taskforce for Queer Visions at the World Social Forum.”

The Taskforce aspired to bring activists together who had been working against pinkwashing and for BDS to further develop “an analysis of the use of sexual politics in Israeli settler colonial discourse,” to “explore the linkages between the struggle for queer liberation and the struggle for Palestinian liberation,” and to “focus on how [queer BDS] activism can productively address queer communities without falling into the trap of singling out queer communities.”12 Queer Visions contribution aimed to “oppose the use of queer politics and LGBT rights that harm an intersectional understanding of political struggle and oppression. Establish the Palestinian Liberation Struggle as a queer struggle. [And] build a queer discourse and activist practice that does not separate itself from struggles against colonialism, racism and neoliberalism.”13

At first, the Preparatory Committee resisted the idea of giving a space to a queer conference at the forum. Despite the support from several individuals, the overall feeling of the committee was that giving queers a visible space at the forum might alienate other participants. However, individual members of the Preparatory Committee in collaboration with the Palestinian members of Queer Visions moved mountains and finally obtained not only approval, but also endorsement from the committee. As Palestinian queer groups had participated in putting the BDS campaign on the agenda, they deserved a place at the forum. However, at the forum itself, the materiality of this endorsement appeared to be limited. Besides having been double-booked into workshop rooms, the strategic developments and suggestions of Queer Visions gained only limited space at the forum. This erasure does not stand on its own. Feminist, youth, and other nonconventional groups also struggled to obtain visibility within the larger structure of the WSF. At the same time, Queer Visions received overwhelming enthusiastic support from numerous activist groups and individuals from within the BDS and Palestine liberation movement.

Queer Visions received twenty-thousand dollars in funds from Global Fund for Women, which enabled us to bring sixteen mostly poor queer and trans activists of color to Brazil. Activist groups from the Middle East, Africa, North America/Turtle Island, Asia, and Europe endorsed the project.14 Queer Visions comprised sixteen participants from Palestine, North America/Turtle Island, Lebanon, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Seven others could not make it either due to other obligations (North American delegates), or due to visa restrictions (delegates from the Middle East). The majority of the participants were queer and trans Palestinians living in Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora, and queer and trans activists of color. I was one of the four white activists present. This composition significantly determined the contours and content of our conversations as whiteness and imperialist and Zionist frames of reference were actively decentered from the spaces of our meetings.

A few days before the start of the forum, it was still unclear whether all of our attendees would be able to attend. Many activists could not make it to Brazil due to visa restrictions especially enforced by the Brazilian government at the urging of local Zionist groups. Palestinians attending the forum had to wait until the last minute to receive news from Brazilian embassies or from Israeli authorities on whether they were allowed to travel. Participants from Gaza remained especially underrepresented, as they could not obtain visas or leave the Israeli-controlled Gaza Strip, and several of Queer Visions’ participants from the Middle East did not obtain a visa. The general organizing structure of the WSF was also compromised by these Zionist groups. At the last minute, they managed to pressure the Brazilian government to cut nearly 70% of the budget promised to the Preparatory Committee, forcing the committee to organize this major event with very limited funding.

During the two-day workshop organized by Queer Visions, activists exchanged tactics and strategies that they had engaged within their local contexts in order to implement BDS. We also exchanged information on the different forms of backlash we had experienced that included rape and death threats, trans- and queerphobic statements, withdrawal of funds from our activist organizations, and being called anti-Semites. On the other hand, several activists experienced difficulties in connecting queer politics to their local BDS groups. Often, it was difficult to convince BDS groups to include an analysis on the role of racial-sexual politics for Zionist occupation and the importance of making anti-pinkwashing activism central to the BDS movement. After this exchange, our strategic sessions led to the development of a working document and the suggestion of building a central platform where transnational activists can exchange tactics and promote queer BDS activism. From these sessions, Queer Visions generated a declaration to be presented at the WSF General Assembly. This declaration was directed at presenting queer BDS work as central to the larger movement for Palestinian liberation.

The workshops were followed by public panel discussions. The first discussion, “Sexual Discourses in the Zionist Project: Queer Politics and Liberation,” shifted the frame from emphasizing Israeli pinkwashing to presenting a broader analysis of the ways in which Zionism uses racial-sexual politics as a central tool to further settler colonial occupation.15 Activists presented their experiences and were joined by guest speaker Gina Dent, who spoke on her participation in a delegation of women of color and indigenous women to Palestine in June 2011 and argued that it was crucial for queers and feminists of color to build south-to-south alliances, as they faced interrelated challenges in different contexts. The second panel, “What Is Queer BDS? Pinkwashing, Intersections, Struggles, Politics” presented queer activists’ struggles against Israel’s pinkwashing campaign and an overview of how groups around the globe had picked up on PQBDS’s call for boycott. Panelists were joined by Angela Y. Davis, who presented her own thoughts on the potential of Palestinian queer activism for BDS and the ways in which it not only struggled against Zionist occupation but also held potential for shifting the terrain of struggle for Palestinian liberation and social justice. She stated,

The work of PQBDS broadens the terrain of struggle against the occupation and against the Zionist policies of Israel. . . . It is not a question of simply saying “support queer individuals in Palestine.” In fact, it is clear about not wanting support from those who refuse to see that cynicism and that contemptuousness behind Israel’s pro-gay image, but rather it directs its message at anyone who is a potential supporter of BDS. And it provides, it seems to me, a different kind of literacy. It allows us to read the racism and the violence that is covered up by the putatively pro-gay stance of Israel in a different way . . . Queer BDS, it seems to me can help radical forces around the world to develop new ways of engaging in ideological struggle.16

Davis noted that “anyone who is a potential supporter of BDS” is invited to adopt the strategies and insights of Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism; its parameters are not restricted to queers. The public panels were not aimed at simply presenting a critique of pinkwashing but held space for reflecting on how Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism offers a different conceptual framework for understanding the ongoing catastrophe for Palestine. During these conversations, the discourse on pinkwashing shifted to generating an understanding of Zionist racial-sexual politics that not only impacts queers or calls on queers to join forces with the Israeli state, but is a systemic and structuring force for Zionist settler colonialism that requires all who work to further Palestinian liberation to take it seriously.

In her talk, Dent argued that struggles around sexual politics in the context of Palestine are not reducible to a minoritized subset of concerns “because they are about queers.”17 Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism promotes an analysis of the broader political context that includes an understanding of racial-sexual politics of the Zionist state. It would be too simplistic to say that Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism simultaneously makes Palestine a queer issue and adds queer politics to Palestinian liberation: it is a politics that is simultaneously queer and anticolonial and sees these two aspects as inseparable. Although its campaigns strategically operate within the human rights and international law paradigm of BDS, that work also demands an expanded understanding of Zionist oppression and Palestinian liberation.

A central aim of Queer Visions was to position Palestinian anticolonial-queer frameworks as integral to Palestinian liberation and strategic conversations at the WSF. One concrete example is the shift from the term pinkwashing to promoting a broader analysis of the racial-sexual politics of Israel, which Queer Visions called Zionist sexual politics. This conceptual shift allows an expansion of the terrain of struggle that not only reacts to a branding campaign through the legal parameters of BDS, but includes transforming the terms of “basic analysis” of Israel’s settler colonial project altogether by showing how Zionist sexual politics impacts its cultural, economic, political, and social formation. Alongside resisting the normalization of power dynamics between Israel and Palestinians through BDS, Palestinian anticolonial-queer politics refuses the normalization of internal divisions.

Broadening the “terrain of struggle” does not refer to adding another marginal perspective to the mix; rather it requires a “different kind of literacy” to develop “new ways of engaging in ideological struggle.”18 This broadening took on a very visceral meaning through the attempts of Queer Visions to take and make spaces for anticolonial-queer politics at the forum.

March

During the march through the center of Porto Alegre, Queer Visions’s presence did not remain unnoticed. Our black and pink banners read “No to Israeli Pinkwashing: Queer Visions at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine” and “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.”

The march was a difficult terrain to navigate. Although it held great potential for coalitions and solidarities, it was a multilayered experience filled with joy, anger, and comradery. Although Queer Visions received a lot of positive attention from bystanders and participants, the truck that pulled the stage with the microphone remained occupied by familiar hegemonic speakers from within Palestinian and Brazilian organizations. As we assembled along the river, we gathered around the truck to listen to the speakers. Male participants from established Palestinian organizations occupied the truck, actively blocking others—women, youth and queers—from the stage. When Ziadeh attempted to mount the truck and address the crowd, she was almost pushed off the truck.

The march was a contested site in which the struggle for space took up a large part of the efforts of both feminist and queer coalitions. Even though we all gathered in celebration of Palestinian liberation and in defiance of the settler state, hegemonic patriarchal narratives for liberation dominated the march. This led feminist, queer, and also youth coalitions to seek solace and solidarity with each other within that space. The terrain of struggle is not only the settler-colonial state, but also the hegemonic patriarchal narratives for Palestinian liberation that further entrench existing racial-sexual arrangements of the Zionist state. At the same time, as Ziadeh also notes in her reflections, the space remained full of potential and commitment to Palestinian liberation. Queer Visions’s contributions must therefore be situated within a larger context of radical and grassroots Palestinian groups that seek to challenge conventional, hegemonic narratives of liberation and the power dynamics within the movement.

Several Palestinian feminist scholars have addressed the problem of a limited patriarchal perspective for Palestinian liberation and are critical of (feminist) national liberation projects that do not alter the masculine and patriarchal terms of liberation. Nahla Abdo argues that although this feminist scholarship is “mostly critical of the male politics of the Palestinian national leadership, of the national government and its economic and social institutions . . . it must be said that the theorizing of women’s status ought to be more inclusive if not comprehensive.”19 Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian discusses how “the Palestinian woman in the Jewish state is a woman who confronts and defies biopolitical, geopolitical, and necropolitical Zionist settler colonialism, as well as socio-patriarchal oppression.”20 Amal Amireh charts how the “gendered national narrative is concerned with constructing, using, and disciplining the bodies of both women and men, but feminist scholars, in their efforts to reinscribe women into nationalism, tend for the most part to ignore men and masculinity.”21 Joseph Massad also notes how the gendered narrative of liberation feeds into heteronormative and patriarchal arrangements. He argues, “The important task for anticolonial nationalists is not only to define gender roles in relation to each other (female-male), but also to define both in relation to the nationalist project, and in doing so dissociating national identity from any colonial contamination.”22 These scholars show how the divisions created through Zionist racial-sexual politics reappear in anticolonial frameworks that seek to redress these. This does not mean that queer and feminist Palestinian activism does not also prioritize the Palestinian liberation struggle or that dominant strands of liberation can simply be dismissed. Liberation works on multiple levels and prioritizing the anticolonial struggle does not guarantee liberation for all members of society, especially when it does not take into account the differential ways in which Zionist settler colonialism seeks control over bodies and lands. Queer interventions therefore did not “add” sexual and gender equality to the agenda, but radically shifted the terrain of struggle itself to a different kind of narrative of liberation that does not simply reiterate hegemonic accounts.

As our banner and name showed, queer visions took shape at the forum. These visions reshaped the potential and meaning of that space by locating Queer Visions within and integral to, rather than at the fringes of, the forum’s conversations both spatially and discursively.

General Assembly

On the last day of the forum, all the groups gathered at the final General Assembly (GA) to present their resolutions. Our last panel was still in session when we received word that the GA had been pushed forward. According to some Queer Visions participants, this was an effort to exclude us from the GA. We were one of the last panels still in session that day. Some of us were forced to leave the panel with our resolutions in hand and rush to the GA—at a separate location, in a city of 1.5 million people—in order to submit them on time. We all hurried to the GA immediately after the panel to discover that our resolution had been clumped together with other “social group resolutions” to the advantage of the resolutions of the more established Palestinian organizations. In this case, “social groups” meant feminists, queers, and youth, which had the effect of downgrading the specific political contributions of these coalitions. Amid the chaos of multiple simultaneous translations, a failed audio system, and the hustle and bustle of people coming in late due to the change in time, it was difficult for us to assess what had happened. Yet we all had a queer sense of being written out of that political space after all the work we had put into the project.

After summoning our energies and quickly deliberating the uses of direct action methods, we decided to take over the stage and present our resolutions. A Latinx23 feminist organizer immediately joined us to help translate the resolution into Portañol (a spontaneous mixture of Portuguese and Spanish). Although we were a group of people who had just met and started working together two days prior, there was a concerted, perhaps even historical feeling of being written out-of-place in that moment. As Palestinian, as people of color, as queers, as trans people, as women, we felt the differential histories of erasures from liberation struggles weighing on us. At the same time, legacies of anticolonial, indigenous, Palestinian, and black, feminist, trans, and queer of color struggles that had inspired our gathering lifted us up to step onto that stage. One of Queer Vision’s activists defiantly faced a rowdy audience as we covered the stage with our banners, and read our resolution:

Pinkwashing is a tactic that uses gay rights to divert attention away from the continued violation of Palestinian human rights and the conditions of Israel’s apartheid system, occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. The manifestations of pinkwashing include, but are not limited to: gay tourism to Israel, cultural and social promotion of Israel as the only country in the region with gay rights, and all public forums that promote LGBT issues over the universal human rights of all Palestinians.

We, the assembly of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2012, hereby decide to:

1. identify pinkwashing as one of the main strategies used by the Israeli state and its supporters to divert attention away from the oppression of the Palestinian people;

2. oppose the use of pinkwashing by Israel;

3. actively support the work of organizations resisting pinkwashing as an essential part of the movement;

4. fight against racism, Islamophobia, and forms of sexual and bodily oppressions including patriarchy, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in all societies.

By this, we agree to promote the struggle of Palestinian queers and people fighting against pinkwashing as part of the broader Palestine liberation and solidarity movement in the struggle against Israeli apartheid, occupation and colonization.24

The in-and-out-of-placeness of Queer Visions at the WSF shows the complex workings of Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism. It demands both a being together with and simultaneous unsettling of the hegemonic spaces of liberation politics. These disruptions of the status quo of established narratives of Palestinian liberation showed that the possibility of un otro mundo—the WSF slogan—is intimately tied to imagining bodies, spaces, and textures of liberation differently.

Conclusion

Palestinian anticolonial-queer activism is ultimately and intimately about decolonizing Palestine. The necessity of foregrounding the precarious and transformative discourse created by alQaws, PQBDS, and PWI was the main motor behind Queer Visions. All the activists involved worked to create a more coherent transnational anticolonial-queer activism that would extend beyond relying on reductive narratives of rights and sexual solidarity or simplistic accounts of Palestinian liberation. The main task was to formulate an anticolonial-queer approach to end Zionist domination and to offer another lens that understands Palestinian liberation as a multilayered and multidirectional project promoting a decolonial-queer vision that is not founded on patriarchy and a “national liberation first, social liberation later” format.

The author would like to thank all the Queer Visions workshop participants, the Queer Visions Taskforce, and Angela Y. Davis and Gina Dent for sharing their knowledge, insights, and ideas during our time at the WSF.

Notes

1.

I am specifically referring to the ways in which Israel manipulates and reshapes internationally agreed-upon armistice lines via its ongoing illegal settlement in the Occupied West Bank.

4.

These organizations are the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), Stop the Wall—Palestinian Grassroots Anti-apartheid Wall Campaign, Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), OPGAI, Alternatives, Higher Follow-up Committee (representing Palestinian forces inside Israel), Higher Committee for the Commemoration of the Nakba; Jerusalem Action Network, Kairos Palestine, General Union of Palestinian Women, and Coalition of Civil Society Organizations.

6.

Queer Visions, “Working Conference Schedule—Queer Visions at the World Social Forum: Free Palestine,” November 28, 2012. Unpublished document from the author’s personal archive.

8.

Preparatory Committee, “Welcome to the World Social Forum Free Palestine,” November 28, 2012. WSF welcome package from the author’s personal archive.

9.

For a detailed analysis of Palestinian anticolonial-queer critique see Stelder, “Other Scenes of Speaking.” 

11.

Preparatory Committee, “Welcome.”

12.

Queer Visions, “Working Conference Schedule.”

13.

Queer Visions, “Working Conference Schedule.”

14.

These were Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA)—Toronto; Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (NYC QuAIA)—New York; Park Slope Food Coop Members for BDS—New York; Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)—New York; FIERCE—New York; Audre Lorde Project—New York; Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT)—San Francisco; ACT UP—East Bay; International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN)—International; The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR)—International; KAOS GL—Turkey; Meem—Lebanon; Nasawiya—Lebanon; Muntada al Jensaneya—Palestine; GAYa NUSANTARA—Indonesia; Alternative Law Forum—India; No to Pinkwashing—UK; Group LOCs (Lesbiennes of Color —France; Queeristan—The Netherlands.

23.

The “x” in Latinx is a gender-neutral way to avoid the masculine/feminine denomination of proper nouns in Spanish.

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