Palestinian first, queer second

By Jacob Anderson

When it comes to gay rights, some see Israel as a beacon of tolerance in the Middle East. Gays have served openly in the military since 1993, and the country is the only one in all of Asia that legally recognizes same-sex marriages from elsewhere, although homosexual marriages are not legally performed on Israeli soil. It is also unique in the region in that it specifically protects gays under anti-discrimination laws.

The Palestinian territories, like Israel’s other neighbors, are more conservative. Homosexual actions are prohibited by Palestinian Authority law, and some LGBT Palestinians have been known to flee to Israeli cities like Tel Aviv, which has a large queer population.

This difference poses little conflict, if any, for queer Palestinians like Haneen Maikey, who is far more committed to her national struggle than to any common bonds based on sexual orientation.

“I don’t have any common thing with any Zionist, right-wing, Israeli queer,” said Maikey.

Maikey is the co-founder and director of Al-Qaws (“the rainbow” in Arabic) for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, a non-profit organization in Jerusalem started by Palestinian citizens of Israel and of the territories. She says the Palestine issue should be a queer issue, since both groups have been oppressed.

She has also seen first-hand that is not always the case. Maikey has butted heads with Israeli organizations like Stand With Us, a pro-Zionist organization active on college campuses that touts Israel’s gay rights as a reason for young people to support Israel.  She says that Stand With Us is primarily an Israeli propaganda organization with no real connection to the LGBT community or authority to speak on queer issues. Al-Qaws, along with several other Palestinian queer groups, released an official statements accusing Stand With Us of “pinkwashing” Israel, using its record on gay rights to cover-up its repressive policies toward Palestinians.

Ophir Peleg, an employee of Stand With Us, dismisses the statement, saying it “came from a very, very small radical group from within Israeli society.”

“Most of the Israeli Arabs I have encountered which are gays weren’t related to any kind of gay organization,” he added.

Peleg, a 28 year old gay man, said Al-Qaws’ geographical location—swanky West Jerusalem—is telling. He said groups like Al-Qaws are bent on opposing the very country that provides them with protection and tolerance they would not find in Palestinian society. The accusation that Stand With Us had used the gay issue for other political aims could just as easily apply to Al-Qaws, he said.

“I don’t see it as an issue that has anything to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict,”Peleg said, adding that the central issue here is gay rights. “Israel should be proud to be the only island of tolerance within the Middle East.”

But in this region, it seems everything has something to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict. For Haneen Maikey, a 33-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel with a Master’s degree in community organization management, even other facets of her identity—as a woman, and a feminist—take a back seat to her people’s struggle. What might be areas of common ground for others have little value for her when they conflict with her identity as a Palestinian.

“I have nothing to share ideologically with a woman that presents herself as a feminist, but on the other hand lives in a settlement and occupies Palestinian territory,” Maikey said, speaking hypothetically.

“Being a person who suffered from being a woman, and choosing to oppress other people, it’s just—no!” she added.

Al-Qaws is now an independent organization focused exclusively on supporting Palestinian queers, but it grew out of the Jerusalem Open House, which began as a Jewish organization for Israeli gays but now says it transcends political, ethnic, and religious boundaries. The Jerusalem Open House still shares office space with Al-Qaws.

Maikey often finds herself dispelling myths about Palestinian cultural attitudes toward gays. No, not every Palestinian hates gays, she says. And, yes, homophobia is a problem, just like it is in Western countries, she adds.

Across the wall separating Israel from Palestine, in Bethlehem, I asked the members of an Arab youth group about homosexuality. Their initial response was uncomfortable giggles. Most students said they did not know any gay people at all. A few said they knew of someone, or suspected someone secretly was gay. The group was  comprised of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, who expressed the commonly held view that homosexuality is a sin, or a disease.

Fuad Giacaman, the adult leader of the group, and a Roman Catholic, said the topic of homosexuality is something that mosques, churches and families in Palestine need to address more proactively, if for no other reason than to raise awareness of differences.

“Respecting the difference, even with this phenomenon, is something that we have to look forward to,” Giacaman said.

For Haneen Maikey, the subject of homosexuality is taboo even in her own family. She has never told them she is queer, but she believes they know–a simple Google search of her name clearly reveals as much: “Haneen Maikey: Proud. Palestinian. Queer,” as one result declares.

“My dad never asked me so he doesn’t know,” she said. “But I’m sure if he wants to know he knows.”

The very notion of “coming out” as an expression of personal liberation exists more within a Western context than a Palestinian one, she said, although it is being more commonly adopted in some communities in the region.

Still,  when she thinks about the possibility of more Palestinians publicly declaring their sexual orientation, she is also thinking strategically.

“What kind of visibility can serve and be productive and constructive for our struggle?” she said.

It is unclear which struggle—queer or Palestinian—Maikey was referring to, but for her, both are ongoing. In February, Al-Qaws and other groups were outraged when the New York City LGBT Center canceled a planned event in support of Israel Apartheid Week. The event was dropped when a gay Amerian-Israeli pornographer, Michael Lucas, called the event anti-Semitic, and pressured the center to cancel it.

Maikey spoke out on the Lucas controversy as well, but in the end the event was called off. Lucas said he supports the rights of any group to speak freely, but opposed the idea of a group like the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week, which has no overt gay affiliation, using the gay center.

“This has nothing to do with the mission of the center,” which exists to support the gay community, not other political causes, he said.

“It’s a question of venue,” Lucas added. The accusation is reminiscent of Maikey’s argument that Stand With Us also conflates queer issues and political ones.

It may be tempting for outsiders to accept commonly used phrases like “the gay community” as descriptive, to assume that queers are all part of the same parade, so to speak.

But Lucas said that could not be further from the truth, especially when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue.

“I don’t see the connection,” he said. “I don’t need to have common ground with [Palestinians].”

Haneen Maikey, of the Palestinian group Al-Qaws, expressed an equal an opposite sentiment about her Palestinian cause and those who oppose it, queers included.

“I never saw or understood gay identity as one big happy identity,” she said. “It’s not a good enough infrastructure to engage with each other.”

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