May 24, 2024

True Liberation: Navigating Queer Identity and Middle Eastern Heritage

Labeling Israel and the West as a supposed haven for LGBTQ+ rights rests on an Islamophobic assumption that most of the MENA region is inherently homophobic. While the United States and its citizens may take pride in the rights Americans possess, it doesn’t dismiss the ones Americans lack.

(C)2011 Peter Marshall

Since Oct. 7, a common phrase discouraging queer individuals advocating for a ceasefire and Palestinian liberation is, “They would kill you [in Palestine].” “Pinkwashing,” a term typically emerging in the context of Israel-Palestine, refers to a propaganda strategy that diverts attention from Israel’s underlying oppressive, colonial politics by highlighting LGBTQ+ rights. Along with the Israeli government, the United States and its nationalists are guilty of using this tactic. The utility of pinkwashing in colonial politics lies in a country attempting to seek solidarity from queer communities in the name of bringing LGBTQ+ rights to a nation through imperialism.

There is a widely circulated photo of a gay Israeli man holding a rainbow pride flag with “In the Name of Love” written across it. The photo was taken atop ruins in Gaza, conveying that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the only army that demands gay rights. However, these flashy pictures distract from the killing of more than 20,000 Palestinians by Israeli military campaigns, including LGBTQ+ Palestinians. The propaganda strategy uses the language of queer and trans rights in one country, or the absence of those rights in another country, to defend their operations in that country. Pinkwashing makes queer Middle Eastern folks choose between being queer and being Middle Eastern. The propaganda insists that Israel or the United States is a haven for queer people, suggesting that LGBTQ+ Palestinians should flee there. To stand with the LGBTQ+ community is equated to standing with Israel. However, it is more than unlikely that LGBTQ+ Palestinians would experience queer refuge in colonial Israel, considering the inequalities faced by Palestinians –– gay, straight, or otherwise. 

Opposing the pinkwashing tactic is the “Queers for Palestine”– a slogan used to identify the interrelatedness of queer and Palestinian liberation struggle. This movement criticizes the presumption that being queer and protesting for Palestinian liberation is inherently illogical, as it suggests using one’s queer identity as the basis to support a Middle Eastern country that penalizes queerness. The notion that queerness is an illogical framework for a popular resistance movement in the Middle East region resonates with assumptions about queerness in Iran. However, for queers of color – including Palestinian queers, emphasizing queerness is crucial because the Palestinian and queer struggle intersect. As a queer Iranian-American woman, I can attest there is no queer liberation without equal rights as both a woman and an Iranian. One common misconception is not only that Iran is inherently homophobic but also that there are no LGBTQ+ Iranians. Yet, we exist, and so do queer Palestinians. 

A protester holds up a placard that reads Queers for Palestine during a pro-Palestinian march called by The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) in Tunis, Tunisia, on October 12, 2023. Image Credit: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto

Queer Palestinians have demonstrated the coexistence of their intersecting identities as queer and Palestinians through the platform known as Queering the Map. The interactive website has the mission of gathering submissions from queer people to create a global digital archive of queer memory. Users can pin their queer and trans experiences, stories, and memories on a worldwide scale. This platform has become essential for queer Palestinians whose existence could have disappeared beneath the rubble. 

Many queer Middle Eastern people have grappled with a sense of not fitting into their Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) identity. Some hesitate to come out, fearing it might diminish how Middle Eastern they are and sever ties with their cultural heritage. Pinkwashing implies that pride in one’s Middle Eastern heritage and solidarity with its resistance movements seems antithetical to queer liberation. Reflecting on this, I feel a sense of shame and embarrassment for having once downplayed my Iranian heritage due to the influence of mainstream American assumptions that made me, as a lesbian, feel estranged from Iran. The immediate assumptions that people think I do not like being Iranian because I am gay or that I am not out in the Iranian community because I am ashamed to have made me feel un-Iranian—such assumptions situate queerness in the West or as Western.

Contrary to the message that pinkwashing implies, LGBTQ+ folks do not need to go to the Middle East to experience queerphobia. Thirty-one killings of transgender people were reported in the United States (US) between October 2022 and 2023. American transgender youth have fled their home states because of state government laws. A state of emergency was declared for LGBTQ+ individuals in June 2023 by the Human Rights Campaign, one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations, due to a “record-breaking wave of legislation targeting the LGBTQ community” and a growing hostile environment. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security warned of increasing threats to the community in 2023. Paradoxically, while the US perpetuates harm to LGBTQ+ individuals within its borders, it purportedly supports global LGBTQ+ solidarity and employs imperialistic approaches in the process. In 2020, Trump and the GOP referred to Iran’s persecution of LGBTQ+ citizens as a cause for military action. Military intervention will not bring the LGBTQ+ community rights. The IDF, while raising the pride flag “in the name of love,” are killing queer Palestinians for being Palestinian.

Labeling Israel and the West as a supposed haven for LGBTQ+ rights rests on an Islamophobic assumption that most of the MENA region is inherently homophobic. While the United States and its citizens may take pride in the rights Americans possess, it doesn’t dismiss the ones Americans lack. Despite the open expression of LGBTQ+ Americans, an increasing sense of insecurity prevails. The onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation reached a staggering 505 bills. Some of these bills, from states such as Florida, not only outlawed gender-affirming healthcare but also criminalized it. Perhaps discussions about gay rights in Middle Eastern countries would carry more credibility if the US also addressed the challenges within its borders. An Islamophobic lens of queerness furthers the conception that LGBTQ+ individuals who are also Middle Eastern need to be saved.

While persistent protests in the West rightly challenge the homophobic governments in the Middle East, it’s essential to dismiss the assumption that all Middle Easterners are homophobic. Many Middle Eastern individuals proudly identify as queer. If two countries are homophobic, it is illogical to condemn one while absolving the other. Rather than assuming a savior role to remove an LGBTQ+ individual from their current situation, genuine progress involves reimagining a future where both their Middle Eastern heritage and queer identity co-exist harmoniously.

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