Despite a deeply conservative society, traditional cultural norms, and the added complexity of military occupation, some Palestinians are working hard to achieve recognition, protection and normalisation for sexual and gender diversity.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights remain an unfortunately controversial and even strenuously avoided human rights issue in the Middle East and North Africa today. Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ Palestinians report that they face uniquely nuanced, complex, and often harrowing struggles on multitudinous fronts.
The Palestinian reality for those identifying as LGBTQ is one of very real stigmatisation amongst their families and communities, often resulting in social rejection and even physical violence. Social attitudes and religious taboos about sexuality and gender evidently need to be challenged, with increased social engagement, empowering LGBTQ Palestinians to actively utilize education, and the development of leadership skills to take a leading role in their own liberation, both as queer people inside a deeply stigmatised and culturally conservative society and as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
We here in the UK and Europe must begin recognising that western representations of Arabs, LGBTQ Palestinians in particular, have a tendency of ignoring the wonderful diversity of those people groups as a whole. It is important that we also acknowledge that Palestinians and Arabs in general hail from many locations, each with very different social, legal, and economic circumstances.
Ultimately, it is not advisable for westerners to make sweeping or negative generalizations about "Palestinians" as this woefully simplifies the diversity of communities and ignores the geopolitical reality faced on the ground.
This is where people in the international community need to take a step back, think carefully about how we approach different LGBTQ issues in other parts of the world, and then reflect upon the fact that different cultures and societies have the right to develop and 'liberalise' in their own unique ways.
An essential is for such progress and development to be led by those whom are indigenous to the area and inside these cultures. I would therefore introduce readers to an organisation founded by a group of LGBTQ Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied territories: - alQaws (القوس meaning "rainbow"), became the first and only legally recognised Palestinian run LGBTQ organisation in November 2007.
The organisation politely asks that westerners carefully review how we regard the Middle East - the Israel-Palestine paradigm particularly - especially whilst discussing LGBTQ rights and liberation.
On their website they state that "dominant western constructs of queer identity do not have the same relevance for many Palestinians, who are left without a culturally meaningful set of narratives around which to organise a movement and understand their identities and desires. The result is that most LGBTQ Palestinians face two equally unsatisfactory options. One is to conform to local cultural norms and live outwardly "heterosexual" lives. The other is to risk persecution by adopting an identity that many Palestinians associate with the west."
This resulted in a unique approach, whereby Palestinians within alQaws state their determination to "not simply mimic an existing model of queer identity or community, but to provide a social space for LGBTQ Palestinians to independently engage in a dialogue about their own visions and ideals for a community."
Israeli military occupation
LGBTQ Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories regularly face discrimination, denials of civil and human rights, and other forms of violence and inequality as a result of their Palestinian identity.
As with all minorities, Palestinians who identify as LGBTQ are disproportionately affected, not only by Israel's occupation - and the myth that Israel is a sanctuary for gay Palestinians - but also the complex politicisation of the pink and queer label within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
According to Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia Law School, who boycotted the Equality Forum's 2012 LGBT Summit in Israel, there are many instances where the Shin Bet (Israeli security Agency) has had a policy of blackmailing gay Palestinians and "threatening to oust them unless they become informants against their own people". As a result, LGBTQ Palestinians are seen as having "a reputation as collaborators with Israel - as a result some of the homophobia gays and lesbians in Palestine experience is the direct product of the occupation itself" she said.
Perhaps readers can understand my frustration, those uncritically supportive of Israel and the occupation are linking into Israel's support for gay rights. This isolates LGBTQ from other human rights issues and sets a worrying precedent. In my opinion it is deplorable to misuse the pink image to seek support, not only for a particular country, but also a specific set of right-wing policies vis-à-vis a vulnerable and oppressed people.
Most demonization of Palestinians regarding LGBTQ matters oozes from propagandists proclaiming "It's okay to be Gay in Israel" [as opposed to the Palestinian territories], of course glossing over, many facts, including that the Palestinian Authority has not legislated either for or against homosexuality nor have homosexuals been put to death as a result of the present legal system.
When I see such lines of thought I ask myself, has cross-liberation and intersectionalism suddenly perished?
The international community simply cannot overlook the geopolitics of the region nor the immensely different cultural nuances in play.
The solidarity role westerners should play
Frequently viewed as barbaric, backwards and fiercely conservative, the Middle East must be looked at from a perspective of intersectional solidarity, linking LGBTQ rights into the struggle for other basic human rights and the end to a military occupation that oversees countless human rights abuses. The Middle East is also not as medieval as some would have us believe, as is proven with the recent, very welcome, statement from the Lebanese Psychiatric Society against gay conversion therapy.
Surely we of western origin can play a positive, yet non-imperialist role in supporting autonomous groups - made up of indigenous peoples - as they seek a non-hierarchical society that recognises - and values - the diversity of sexual and gender identities in Palestine.
In conclusion, I would postulate that supporting & empowering LGBTQ organisations, particularly alQaws, throughout Middle Eastern countries, rather than denigrating their entire society with crass orientalist comparisons to our own society and culture should be an obvious step for any LGBTQ human rights activist.