Refusing to be victims

February 15, 2011

Ann Coleman reports on a little-discussed part of the struggle for LGBTQ liberation.

MORE THAN 2,500 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) activists and allies of all ages and backgrounds descended on Minneapolis February 2-6 for the 23rd annual Creating Change conference hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The LGBTQ grassroots momentum that exploded two years ago and the revolution in Egypt that had reached week two by the time of the conference fueled the underlying social justice focus of many conference sessions and attendees.

One session in particular, "Palestinian Queers/U.S. Queers: What is our relationship?" was one of the highlights of the conference. More than 100 activists packed a conference room for a town hall-style meeting with two Palestinian lesbians, Abeer and Haneen, who spoke about their efforts to organize grassroots organizations inside Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine connecting LGBTQ rights to the rights of all Palestinians.

In Israel, Palestinian lesbians are often welcome as queers but not as Palestinians. "Existing as a group inside Israel is a challenge," Abeer said.

Palestine solidarity activists call out Israel's pinkwashing at a rally in New York
Palestine solidarity activists call out Israel's pinkwashing at a rally in New York (

A feminist LGBT organization called Aswat (meaning "voices") was launched in 2002 in Haifa inside Israel, by two Palestinian women chatting online who thought they were the only two Palestinian lesbians living in Israel. They found six other women who wanted to organize a feminist peace movement and created an online discussion group.

Today, Aswat functions as an independent project within the Kayan Feminist Organization. Aswat serves as a Palestinian lesbian organization that fosters a climate in which Palestinian lesbians discuss gender and sexuality, define feminism and address the conflict between national and gendered identities through initiatives for Palestinian LBTQ women. "A feminist agenda and the understanding of women's oppression define our activism as queer Palestinian women," Abeer said.

Organizing in Jerusalem and Ramallah, LGBT Palestinian activists first came together through the 2001 founding of a service-based project of Jerusalem Open House that provided counseling on sexuality. Some people involved in the project found it difficult to have a political identity inside an apolitical organization. In 2007, alQaws was founded as an independent, grassroots group of activists dedicated to the intersection between struggles, with a commitment to grassroots organizing.

What you can do

Abeer and Haneen are speaking in several other places around the U.S., including the Bay Area on February 15 and 16. Visit for information.

The development of the organization came from addressing the needs of queer Palestinians and grew from the community where gender and sexuality is more fluid and political. For Hanneen, "I didn't see borders as defining my dreams. All strong communities are tied together: Palestinians are everywhere" and what started as a personal journey naturally took a more political turn.

Unlike the LGBTQ movement in the United States, there is no overarching goal of "coming out." The activists explained that the concept of coming out makes little sense in the context. These activists don't march in pride parades. They don't go on TV.

Abeer and Haneen talk about homophobia, but they don't believe or promote the idea that Palestinian society, as a whole, is homophobic. They say they have the ability to reach more people and change their ideas about homosexuality by working alongside them in common struggle, not against them as enemies. "You need to remember sexuality in general is considered taboo in Palestine."

One of the biggest challenges facing these activists is confronting the negative stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians in particular and LGBTQ people in general. Abeer and Haneen stressed that they are in this work as queer voices, but the fear some activists and groups have of being able to talk publicly means that their work needs to be made suitable to the local context in order to make an impact. They say it is often about broadening the discussion like talking about sexual rights for all people, not just LGBTQ people.

Other challenges that the activists face as Palestinian lesbians is their visibility, in terms of safety and community; the question of mobility, since not all women are able to make meetings after dusk; and gaining acceptance of their work in the broader Palestinian and social justice movement.

PALESTINIAN FEMINIST groups and Israeli LGBTQ groups have not necessarily welcomed Aswat and alQaws with open arms. Activists from alQaws initially worked with Israeli organizations, but as the activists explored what they wanted from their allies and partners, they realized that they could not separate their struggle for LGBTQ rights from the rights of all Palestinians. Today, Abeer, Haneen and their fellow activists have no formal relationship with Israeli groups, mostly due to the fact that many Israeli LGBT groups receive state money.

The more radical feminist groups are willing to work with Aswat, but often hide behind the idea that "people are not ready for lesbian Palestinians."

Haneen and Abeer responded enthusiastically about the uprising in Egypt, and what the struggle means for Palestinians in general and Arab LGBT protesters in Tahrir Square. "This is a people's revolution that includes women and queers--that fact will become clearer," Abeer said. She went on to explain that there is a larger revolution unfolding across the Middle East, and that it is not just about removing dictators from power. It is about social and economic justice and it is about equality.

According to Haneen, LGBT people "are playing a major role in the protests. All my friends there are showing the world that Arab LGBT people are not victims, we are revolutionaries."

Both women stressed that Palestinians and solidarity activists living in the U.S. have a huge role to play in connecting human rights and LGBT rights to Palestinian rights.

Whether it is through educational forums that tear down the negative stereotypes painting Palestinians as terrorists or Israel as the savior of Palestinian LGBTQ people, or the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement against the state of Israel, our work should be strategic and creative, and expose how Israel is attempting to re-brand itself as an LGBTQ-friendly tourist destination.

The rebranding of Israel is not a new project. "Pinkwashing" is a new term for an old project: the cynical use of gay rights to hide Israel's crimes against the Palestinians. Both Haneen and Abeer pointed out that tourism in Israel is an institution that receives state money. LGBTQ people have been used this way for the last 10 years.

As activists, the two recommended that we need our own voice tied to the BDS work of international groups. As they said in conclusion:

Israel makes no distinction between gay and straight Palestinians. They are all subjected to the same checkpoints and the Israeli soldiers are both gay and straight...

Palestinians have been ignored or distorted for too long. We have many experiences to share and connections to make with other activists. As activists you know what to do. This is about indigenous people living as women and queers. Work with us to make the oppression visible. LGBTQ rights are human rights. Palestinian rights are human rights.

Further Reading

From the archives