In 2015, I attended my first Dyke March at Toronto Pride wearing a keffiyeh and holding a hastily-drawn pink sign reading, “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, No to Pinkwashing, Free Palestine.” To poke any holes in Pride’s façade of inclusivity was (and still is) considered selfish, not the right time and place, a killing of joy. But to disrupt by talking about Palestine, specifically, is to unleash a predictable rhetoric: Israel is a gay haven in an otherwise homophobic Middle East. Hamas slaughters gays. You surely don’t want to be raped and murdered in Gaza, when you can cruise and party in Tel Aviv?
Specifically in Canada, the current wave of Palestinian solidarity activism comes on the heels of the One Million March for Children in September. Initiated by white Christian nationalists, these nationwide protests targeting queer-inclusive education in schools were also widely attended by visibly Muslim communities. After October 7, as hundreds of thousands began to take the streets regularly in support of a ceasefire in Gaza, some queers faced an uncomfortable reality: are we really attending marches organized and led by the same people we counter-protested a mere two weeks ago?
Solidarity must not be transactional
Pinkwashing is the colonial instrumentalization of queer rights to deflect from Israel’s violation of Palestinians’ human rights and, now, the genocide against Palestinian people. Since my inaugural Dyke March, I have witnessed an increasing awareness within queer circles about Israeli pinkwashing, even including coverage in mainstream queer media. Today, in the wake of the Zionist entity’s ongoing genocidal campaign on Gaza, there is a resurgence of explicitly queer solidarity with Palestinians.
However, recently, I have been part of some conversations and read social media posts where some (primarily white) queers have expressed their hesitation or unwillingness to participate in Palestinian solidarity actions that are either led or attended by individuals who partook in the One Million March. After all, it is one thing to be in solidarity with a hypothetical person out there, and another thing when that person (or their loved ones or supporters) comes to life, in front of us, and is far from perfect.
These interactions have made me realize that many queers people’s understanding of pinkwashing has been merely theoretical and has not shifted their individualized and western approach to queerness, community and solidarity. Like every other aspect of life under capitalism, solidarity is understood as reciprocal and transactional. In this view, Palestinians do not have an inherent right to live free from genocide; they have to earn it by respecting white queers’ unconditional right to visibility and comfort.
As a queer Muslim, I have been conditioned to go through a laundry list of talking points to cobble together some humanity for Muslims in these situations: the imposition of western norms of gender and sexuality in the colonies, the left’s abandonment of immigrant and faith communities, the failure of schools to communicate information to parents in diverse languages.
But enough of that.
To give space to bad faith arguments (Do you condemn Hamas? Do you condemn antisemitism? Homophobia? One Million March?) is to detract attention from the reality that the Zionist army has slaughtered 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza. I reject entirely the premise that Palestinians (or any oppressed group, for that matter) need to espouse any particular viewpoint to be spared from ethnic cleansing.
Safety is contextual
For those of us who came of age in an era of online activism, the default response to someone’s political shortcomings is to block and cut off. We have not been taught the hard work of leafleting, making phone calls, and having one-on-one conversations. We dispose of people “for our mental health” and are supposed to prioritize ourselves, engage in self-care, and “avoid burnout.” We are also accustomed to never challenging subjective notions of safety: if someone says they are “unsafe,” then they are.
But safety is relative and contextual. It is disingenuous and racist to suggest that queer and trans people are more “unsafe” when participating in a Palestinian solidarity rally than participating in literally any other aspect of daily life. This is not to suggest that we should put up with genuine abuse or violence, but overstating harm and danger in this context is rooted in racist tropes about Muslim societies, particularly about Muslim men. The state and its coercive apparatus are infinitely more dangerous to queers than a random Muslim individual who may, yes, have misguided views on queerness.
Discomfort is not the same as being unsafe and it’s not an acceptable reason to withdraw from politics.
In fact, we must engage even when our engagement is “unsafe.” Whether blockading railways or simply speaking out despite the consequences, people are taking risks to their safety precisely because Gazans are infinitely less “safe” than we are.
The obsession with an individualized and de-mobilizing notion of mental health suggests that those who do stay up to date on the genocide, participate in regular rallies, continue to talk to their communities about Israeli apartheid, or put themselves at risk of arrest during a direction action do not risk mental health consequences. They do, but there is also safety and comradery in coming together instead of letting the oppressor succeed in isolating us through its relentless fear mongering, divide-and-conquer and smear campaigns. In any event, it is okay to jeopardize our individual mental health and safety when the goal is collective freedom from systems of oppression as reinforced by the state, police, borders and the arms trade—when we are free, we are necessarily also safer and healthier.
Building mass movements requires finding common ground
The gap in outreach and organizing by some elements on the left is precisely how the right has appealed to the fears and insecurities of immigrant communities. This is not to say that we are to engage with every bot on social media, but that a mass movement requires actively drawing on our commonalities—for example, a call for a ceasefire—to bridge across our differences.
It is only once we are in community with each other, once we are able to meet each other halfway and in good faith, that we can have meaningful conversations to build a broader base. Otherwise, we fall victim to the far right’s strategy of pitting two oppressed groups against each other even though our common enemy is racial capitalism and imperialism.
While the Zionist apartheid wall will fall in our lifetime, the broader struggles against capitalism and imperialism will outlive us. To struggle is to fight for a world that we may not see in our lifetime. To struggle for it is to give ourselves, knowing all we might get in return is the camaraderie of our peers and the realization of our own integrity—a transactional approach will not get us there.
Palestinians need not be perfect victims to be worthy of our solidarity. Solidarity with queers in Palestine means solidarity with their loved ones, in both Palestine and Canada, even if we are not politically aligned on all issues. To demand ideological purity as a precondition of solidarity is a mere continuation of pinkwashing, gauging the worthiness of Palestinian life against western barometers of civility. Palestinians do not owe us political purity to be entitled to a life free from Zionist occupation, settler colonization and genocide.
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