Signposts from alQaws: A Decade of Building a Queer Palestinian Discourse

By Haneen Maikey

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Signposts from alQAWS: A Decade of Building a Queer Palestinian Discourse [1]

The Palestinian organization alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society is a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer (LGBTQ) activists who work collaboratively to break down gendered and heteronormative barriers. Based in Jerusalem, alQaws seeks to create an open space for all our members so that they may be engaged and energized in the struggle of transforming Palestinian society in regards to broad sexual and gender justice. This report focuses on key signposts of the changes that alQaws has experienced over the last decade in developing a large grassroots foundation. AlQaws is connected to our Palestinian reality and context, and it is a group that has played an influential political role in the queer scene on a local and even international level. Recently, unlike in the early years, we have been able to measure and observe this political role through various discernible changes. But before demonstrating these major signposts, I would like to share with you three criteria that alQaws has used in the last ten years as a compass for our work, for our success, and most importantly for dealing with the many challenges we face.

The first criterion is that we measure success in our ability, as a LGBTQ movement, to change the political and social discourse around sexuality. The aim is not only to change this discourse, but also continuously develop it in order to ensure that we remain connected to our reality and our general context. This includes challenging both the external discourse (how representations of sexuality and sexual diversity play out in mainstream society) and our own internal discourse (how we as LGBTQ groups discuss our roles, our homophobia and prejudices). The presence of such a gap between discourses points to the need to reconsider our goals and practices.

The second criterion is practice. At alQaws, we do not believe there is any need or usefulness for a radical discourse if we do not practice what it represents. The values and strategies of alQaws, whose successes we continue to explore (and change when necessary), are inspired by a continuous self-reflexive analysis of our field of experience. The existence of the gap between discourse and practice has always motivated us to revisit our work. One of the lessons we found useful was the importance of creating a constructive and ongoing debate as a necessary strategy for organizing within the group, which is just as significant as practical strategies.

The third criterion has to do with our position that our capability for social change starts with our capability for internal change. In that sense, being open to inevitable changes that we will be facing, whether we like it or not, is important for us as an LGBTQ movement connected to both members of LGBTQ communities and society in general. The illusion that we can get through a month or a year or a decade of activism without having to take risks and make changes is a dangerous obstacle in our path. Being flexible in this area guarantees that we remain influential and ensures a precise assessment of the opportunities and challenges, and of the strengths and weaknesses, in our group.

The main signposts that I mention below all centre primarily on the journey of change alQaws experienced on individual, collective, social and political levels. These are usually marginalized at the expense of showcasing more practical achievements, which I will not be going through here. When we think of the progress of alQaws’ discourse over the last decade, we can see it as a story with two main parts.

The first has to do with how alQaws is dedicated to ongoing transformation, which is what defines our group. The source of our self-definition is the field of our work; determining our strategies stems from translating and analyzing this experience. In 2001, alQaws was a group embedded within an apolitical Israeli organization. Splitting off in 2007, we became the first official organization for Palestinian LGBTQs. Two years after becoming a formal NGO, we redefined ourselves as a grassroots activist group, whose main mission is to work on changing lived reality, altering and breaking the existing gender and sexual hierarchy in society. AlQaws saw the immense importance of defining our role as a group with large ambitions and political goals, but consciously chose that “representing LGBTQs” would not be one of them.

In addition, alQaws saw a need to establish our work as an organization, but we always believed that our main contribution lies in building and contributing to the larger Palestinian movement connected to promoting a new sexual discourse. During this time, alQaws led a big campaign challenging the stereotypical images of the “gay” Palestinian — an image representing decades of sexual taboo, repeatedly exploited for political ends that serve the imperialist interests of the Israeli state. The primary change in the image was from that of a victim — of society, family and institutions — to an individual and activist with agency with respect to themselves, their peers and their society.

This is an important issue for alQaws: we have no demands from society, and we do not place ourselves outside of or opposed to society — we don’t want to reproduce destructive divisions and binaries. Thus, over the years, we have taken many terms out of our discourse, such as “acceptance” (we are not working so “you” can accept us), and “equality” (we don’t want “your” privileges), replacing them with other words that better communicate our vision as people working to create society.

The second part of the story highlights how our discourse and our work has allowed us to see our reality from a new perspective and has given us the opportunity to define our goals and our struggle with new terms. Many LGBTQ groups (Arab ones included) fall in the trap of promoting LGBTQ oppression and struggle as special and unique. However, our struggle lies in opposing patriarchal institutions and systems that regulate our sexuality, as well as challenging gender and sexual standards and norms that have always been depicted as fact (such as heterosexuality). This framework has affected how we view alQaws’ relationship with our own society, and how we determine our strategies for social change and transformation. These strategies can be summarized in three major points.

First, as mentioned above, alQaws rejects the inorganic division between “inside” and “outside.” If we want to strengthen our position and legitimacy in this community, it’s important that we begin to dismantle the polarization between the outside and the inside, and stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the rest of society. We’re not interested in building bridges between the LGBTQ community and society: we want to swim in the same river in order to change its course altogether. If we can’t promote our struggle as an expansive social struggle, we will fail at having a sustainable impact.

Second, we focus on unique experience and the local context in order to understand the structure of sexuality and the attitudes around it in Palestinian society. We are cautious about importing strategies that are irrelevant to our reality. Adopting Western concepts and notions linked to homophobia [2] (such as coming out, visibility and pride) brings up a binary, which reinforces other affects associated with shame, repression and fear. A focus on homophobia limits goals and strategies, which then defines the ultimate purpose (i.e. coming out of the closet) and suggests that visibility and pride is what is often at stake. AlQaws’ position on this extends to a critique that highlights the perception of these concepts and Western LGBTQ hegemony as a new reflection of cultural colonialism. [3]

Third, alQaws considers that struggle cannot be separated from political action against occupation and colonization. The Palestinian LGBTQ movement is part of the political cause, even if it doesn’t actively participate in the fight against the symbols of colonialism and occupation, which do not distinguish between gay and straight. It’s also important to remember that the LGBTQ Palestinian movements have become hostage to political games. For example, the Israeli government uses its gay rights rhetoric to tarnish Palestinian LGBTQs’ image, [4] and to pinkwash [5] its crimes against the Palestinian people. Indeed, campaigns against pinkwashing have become important elements in our struggle against the occupation.

Thus far, I have outlined some major milestones of alQaws’ journey in the past decade by discussing the importance of transforming LGBTQ discourse, and developing a different strategic framework of struggle. Based on these pivotal aspects of alQaws’ organizing, we are aware of a few significant and urgent challenges we faced. We responded to them with a thorough study of different initiatives in a new strategic plan outlined briefly below.

The first challenge revolves around the individual’s position and role in this journey. After focusing on building a wide leadership, strengthening social and political activism inside alQaws, and committing to social change, we had to take several steps back and wonder how we could link these concepts, and our perception of the struggle, to the individual, psychological and social needs of the LGBTQ community. AlQaws has been making huge efforts in recent months to build new and appropriate frameworks that place the individual at the centre, with the aim of continuing to build a proactive Palestinian LGBTQ community that doesn’t marginalize the personal.

The second challenge we face is in relation to the discourse of those who supposedly accept homosexuality only if it is restricted to the private or social sphere. When our work takes place in public and political spheres (and not behind closed doors), we often encounter certain liberal discourses critical of LGBTQ groups. They consider, with direct or indirect accusation, that our attempt to group ourselves is fragmenting society and disrupting change toward unification and equality. Our struggle reads as incoherent with the liberal mandate that is tolerant of difference (to an extent). Such a sentiment is dangerous because it works to devalue the LGBTQ struggle, both historically and presently, under the pretext of acceptance. In response to this position, alQaws is committed to working directly with politically and socially active youth to co-create a new discourse that does not reduce our challenges to assimilationist strategies that induce fear or shame. [6]

The following questions sum up the third challenge: Do we want to change society, or do we want society to change us? Can we resist the temptation of imitating heteronormativity? Do we really need to confine ourselves to the family establishment and construct, and adopt sexual norms and patterns so that we are more tolerated and accepted? AlQaws has set itself the goal of destabilizing the foundations of existing powers and breaking society’s moulds. But that won’t be possible unless we can propose a comprehensive discourse that sheds light on how every individual’s sexuality, gender and desires are controlled by patriarchy’s institutions, how heteronormativity limits our choices, and imposes what is acceptable and unacceptable. The struggle for sexual difference must not be reduced to human rights and sexual freedom, but should fundamentally revolve around resisting, dismantling, and continuously criticizing patriarchal and heteronormative institutions, while also working on raising awareness about the images and behaviours through which these constructs are embodied in our daily lives.

AlQaws believes that the Western definition of an “exclusive heterosexuality” — and consequently of an opposing homosexuality as an abnormal reflection of heterosexuality — is a successful bourgeois attempt to impose a structural division between straight and gay. The effect is social control over gays through acceptance, but only under the condition of segregation in the sense that “we are here and you are there.” This is somewhat analogous to the Zionist Left position, which originally established the principle of segregation in Palestine. We at alQaws challenge this discourse and seek to be an organic part of an extensive LGBTQ movement that is against all forms of social and political hegemony. We have adopted discourse that places queers at the centre, not as emotional or proactive cases, but as individuals re-formulating social and political relations from a queer perspective, from the perspective of the “formerly oppressed.”

NOTES:

[1] Based on Maikey’s 17 May 2012 presentation at the Active Voices conference, organized by Aswat – Palestinian Gay Women. Translated to English by Claudine and Deems of Bekhsoos feminist and queer Arab magazine. Read the original online, in English at Bekhsoos and in Arabic at Qadita.

[2] See Haneen Maikey and Sami Shamali’s article, “International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of Gay Communities,” Bekhsoos: A Feminist and Queer Arab Magazine (23 May 2011; online).

[3] For further reading on this specific topic, see Lynn Darwich and Haneen Maikey’s “From the Belly of Arab Queer Activism: Challenges and Opportunities,” Bekhsoos: A Feminist and Queer Arab Magazine (12 October 2011; online).

[4] The image of Israeli society is built on the colonial logic that promotes Israel as progressive and Palestinian society as backwards. Palestinian LGBTQs in Israel are often deemed victims of their own society. This logic ignores Palestinian LGBTQs’ work by enforcing an image of victimhood that predominates representations of Palestinian LGBTQs, and also ignores, for instance, the radical work of Palestinian queer groups present in Palestinian society.

[5] For further reading on pinkwashing, see Sarah Schulman, “Israel and Pinkwashing,” New York Times (22 November 2011; online): “‘pinkwashing’: a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”

[6] AlQaws’ youth work is based on the understanding that the way of change doesn’t have to pass through mainstream institutions like family, school or NGOs. There are multiple ways to engage with young people through creative and direct means outside institutional environments.

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Haneen Maikey is a Palestinian queer community organizer based in Jerusalem, and is the co-founder and director of alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. In addition, Maikey co-founded the independent activist group Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PQBDS), which works to promote BDS within queer groups around the world, exposing Israel’s pinkwashing campaign.

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