‘LGBTQ rights have become a litmus test in Palestinian society’

Edo Konrad

+972 Magazine  /  March 17, 2021

The growing visibility of queer Palestinians poses a challenge to Arab political parties that are exploiting homophobia ahead of the Israeli election, says attorney and activist Fady Khoury.

The Palestinian LGBTQ community isn’t used to being at the heart of their society’s most heated political debates. Yet in the months leading up to Israel’s fourth election in two years, queer Palestinians are now being pushed to center stage.

In an interview earlier this month that went viral on Arabic and Hebrew social media, Ahmad Tibi, one of the most prominent Palestinian members of Knesset, stated that he was against the promotion of what he called “the LGBTQ phenomenon.” His party Ta’al, he said, rejects any legislation that promotes LGBTQ rights, opposes pride marches, and believes LGBTQ individuals should not be allowed into classrooms to meet with schoolchildren as part of the curriculum.

The interview was one of the latest incidents illustrating the growing visibility of queer Palestinians in recent years — and the massive hurdles they still face in asserting their rights and their existence, including those imposed by their political leaders.

Yet the story of how LGBTQ rights permeated the Palestinian political debate in Israel is more complex than the kind of homophobia displayed by Tibi, says Fady Khoury, a queer Palestinian human rights attorney and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School.

When the Joint List was formed in 2015, the four parties in the alliance — representing communist, Islamist, nationalist, and liberal ideologies — took a “laissez-faire attitude” by refraining from openly criticizing each other on internal societal issues that could tear it apart, Khoury explains.

All that changed last year. In July 2020, Al Arz, an Arab-owned tahini company based in Nazareth, sparked a public controversy — including among the Joint List MKs — after it donated proceeds to an Israeli LGBTQ organization. That same month, a preliminary reading of a bill banning conversion therapy — a harmful, pseudo-scientific method that treats homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured — passed in the Knesset with the help of three Joint List MKs (Ayman Odeh, Aida Touma-Suleiman, and Ofer Cassif). The rest of the List either abstained or voted against the bill.

Although the bill was not the first to promote LGBTQ rights, the Islamist Ra’am faction, led by Mansour Abbas, for the first time openly criticized MKs who supported such legislation. Ra’am eventually broke off from the Joint List, due ostensibly in part to their disagreements over LGBTQ rights, and due to Ra’am’s overtures to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“LGBTQ rights have become a kind of litmus test in Palestinian society,” says Khoury, crediting queer Palestinian groups and activists for elevating their struggle into the public discourse. “Now that Palestinian parties are competing with each other, the rhetoric has become focused on Palestinian tradition, belief systems, and who really embodies these values as a way to maintain support among more conservative Palestinian circles.”

I spoke with Khoury over Zoom last week about the “strategic homophobia” among Palestinian political elites, how queer Palestinians are pursuing their dual struggle against both homophobia and Israeli colonialism, and why the Israeli LGBTQ community has to give up its Jewish supremacy to hold any real alliance with queer Palestinians.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LGBTQ rights have become front and center in the debate over the Joint List’s election campaign. How did the List go from an unspoken agreement not to touch hot-button issues to infighting over LGBTQ rights? 

Everything changed with the introduction of the new conversion therapy law last year. For the first time, Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party publicly criticized the voting patterns of various Knesset members from the Joint List and those who voted in favor of banning conversion therapy, as well as those who abstained from voting.

This seems to have less to do with LGBTQ rights and more to do with internal rifts inside the Joint List, particularly as it relates to Abbas’ new strategy of opening channels for conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to promote certain policies. The criticism against Ra’am over this strategy has caused the Islamic party to bring up LGBTQ rights and the performance of Joint List MKs on these issues.

So slamming LGBTQ rights is simply a matter of political convenience for the Islamists?

Yes. The internal rifts have highlighted the differences between the various Palestinian factions, instead of playing them down in the name of intra-Palestinian unity.

At the same time, one cannot disconnect this political shift from the newly acquired visibility of LGBTQ issues. This visibility goes way beyond the Knesset. In 2019, for the first time, we saw a Palestinian LGBTQ demonstration in Haifa, which was repeated in 2020, and was attended by MK Aida Touma-Suleiman and other well-known public figures from the Palestinian community. Following these protests, it was no longer possible to claim that we do not exist.

Now, as we approach the elections, LGBTQ rights have become a kind of litmus test in Palestinian society. Now that Palestinian parties are competing with each other, the rhetoric has become focused on Palestinian tradition, belief systems, and who really embodies these values as a way to maintain support among more conservative Palestinian circles.

This is what Ahmad Tibi is effectively doing right now.

Tibi is just the most visible example. In December, the Secretary-General of Hadash [the left-wing Arab-Jewish party] Mansour Dahamshe gave an interview in which he stated that his party’s position on the conversion bill does not constitute an endorsement of LGBTQ rights, and that Hadash doesn’t support LGBTQ rights.

So even if you have someone like Aida Touma-Suleiman who is very coherent and consistent in their support, you still have voices within the more progressive and liberal parts of the Joint List that stutter when it comes to LGBTQ rights. At the end of the day, apart from Touma-Suleiman, you really don’t have anyone in the Joint List who openly supports queer rights.

There are different kinds of homophobia that exist among the Palestinian political parties in Israel. First there is ideological homophobia, which is rooted in a deep-seated belief that homosexuality is a sin. Then you have liberal or strategic homophobia; in private settings, strategic homophobes are actually willing to admit that LGBTQ rights are human rights, but in their public statements they are much more conservative. This kind of strategizing is prevalent in times of elections.

Then there are people like former Balad Chairman Mtanes Shehadeh, who was attacked by progressive Palestinians over his party’s absence from the vote over the conversion therapy bill, since their entire platform is based on human rights. This forced Shehadeh to say that his party doesn’t politicize LGBTQ issues, and the place for Palestinian society to settle intra-Palestinian social issues is not the Knesset, but the High Follow-Up Committee [an umbrella organization that represents the country’s Palestinian citizens].

Yet there are Palestinian leaders both inside and outside the Knesset who are speaking out in favor of LGBTQ rights.

Right. For example, after a young teenage Palestinian was stabbed by his brother in a homophobic hate crime in 2019, only Aida Touma-Suleiman and Haneen Zoabi, two Palestinian politicians, clearly condemned this. For the past two years, Touma-Suleiman has been the only person who has been consistent, yet despite her commitment to human rights, we still haven’t seen any statement [from her] responding to Tibi’s remarks. It seems she is trying to refrain from saying anything because of the implications it could have on the elections.

Where is Palestinian society right now on LGTBQ rights?

What I have learned over the past three or four years is that the amount of diversity within Palestinian society is almost unparalleled when it comes to these questions. In many societies, you see a fault line between those who are for and against LGBTQ rights — and this goes for the Jewish community in Israel as well.

In Palestinian society you have three camps. First are the homophobes, who are divided between those who support participating in the state’s political institutions and those who are against. Second is the progressive side, which is smaller; [here] you have the most dedicated voices in favor of LGBTQ rights, who are also staunch anti-Zionists and are against Palestinian participation in elections. Third are those like me, who are ambivalent about political participation but are willing to engage with the political elite.

When you try to create a camp in support of LGBTQ rights in Palestinian society, that camp will have deep disagreements about how to approach the question of normalization or participation in the Israeli political process. Many supporters of LGBTQ rights are not willing to legitimize or recognize the political parties’ participation in the Knesset, and thus are not willing to engage with them.

These internal divisions prevent us from mounting a unified campaign that responds to Tibi and other politicians when they say these kinds of things. It ends up being an individual or smaller-group effort to try to mobilize around these issues.

Does this leave a large group of Palestinians in the middle between the outright homophobes and the anti-normalizers?

It does, and [Palestinian LGBTQ] organizations like alQaws and Aswat are trying to engage with different groups in Palestinian society. The issue becomes more complicated when leaders like Tibi make these kinds of statements. You can criticize the remarks, but at the end of the day there is no Palestinian LGBTQ lobbying among the Arab parties. This creates two disconnected spheres in which LGBTQ rights are talked about; what happens on the social level is not immediately translated into political action that targets and pushes the political elites.

As a queer Palestinian watching this all play out, how does it make you feel?

We tend to look at these issues from a political lens, but at the end of the day there is a personal dimension to all this. You see people within your community whom, in other circumstances, you would be standing with to promote your rights in the face of Israeli apartheid, colonialism, and occupation. But once you are identified as a queer person, you become an enemy. An internal enemy within a group that has almost carte blanche to attack, dehumanize, objectify, and talk in terms of sin and disease — and it’s extremely hurtful. It’s extremely painful not only to sustain abuse from the colonizing group, but to be treated in a similar way by your own community.

This leaves you with very little base of support. While I have learned how to deal with it, the tragedy is that there are young queer, trans, gay, lesbian Palestinians who are hearing these messages from people like Tibi or Abbas — voices that are the only source of information for a lot of them [about LGBTQ rights].

At the end of the day, you don’t have an equally powerful message coming from other centers of power. It creates an impossible situation that tells young people that they are broken or are sinners. When someone hears Tibi say that we don’t support the LGBTQ community, they don’t have any way to find peace with themselves. We know the hardships this creates.

You spoke earlier about the growing visibility of the Palestinian queer community over the last year. How much of the backlash is a response to that growth? 

None of this would have been an issue had people still been able to say things like, “we don’t have homosexuality in Palestinian society.” Once the existence of Palestinian LGBTQ individuals — and particularly gay men — could not be nominally denied, the next stage becomes a question of how to deal with this existence. These politicians are saying, “we will not acknowledge your humanity or equality” — but in saying that, they are actually admitting for the first time that we do exist, that we are a challenge. They are lashing out against that challenge.

Some progressive and radical factions on the left want to fight homophobia in Palestinian society, while at the same time fighting Israeli colonialism without engaging with Israeli political institutions. Can one amass power in that kind of situation?

I take issue with the existing strategy of boycotting or refusing to engage with establishment parties. Feminist groups engage with the parties, and groups struggling against violence in Palestinian society are engaging with the police and other institutions. But when it comes to LGBTQ rights — the most basic right to life and autonomy, for the most marginalized group in Palestinian society to be their true selves — the political burdens laid upon their shoulders are the highest.

Nobody is telling feminists not to lobby against Sharia courts. Nobody is preventing women’s rights groups from engaging with the Joint List in making demands. But once a queer person says, “I want to explore all avenues for change,” it becomes a question about normalization, pinkwashing, and everything that informs the internal strategic conflicts inside Palestinian society about how to deal with colonialism.

I haven’t voted in years — partly because of circumstances, but sometimes because I don’t buy into the premise. But at the end of the day, I see Palestinian parties, whether inside or outside the Knesset, as important centers of power where politics are shaped. If I have access to that power, I should engage in it, even if I disagree with some of its strategies. No channel should be under-explored, because otherwise you’re leaving entire spaces unchallenged.

What have been some of the biggest successes of the Palestinian LGBTQ movement in the last few years?

The defeats are usually more visible. You’re dealing with a society that is largely conservative. But I think we underestimate the potential not only for tolerance but for acceptance.

Coming out took me a while because I was imagining the worst. And when I did, nothing really happened with my immediate circles of friends, family, and professional spaces. It was just a learning experience for everyone. I come from a very conservative background, and my coming out challenged a lot of people in my life. It wasn’t a big political win, but these small experiences of people who expressed homophobic opinions all of a sudden having to reconfigure their worldview — that was a win.

Of course, this is neither everyone’s experience nor a big-picture win. But this is the most influential development I have seen in my own life. It shows that once LGBTQ activists and organizations started forcing a strategy of visibility, saying “enough is enough, we need to protest,” it changed the conversation.

When I speak to Western audiences about the Palestinian LGBTQ struggle, I see how they have forgotten the struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s in the U.S. and other Western countries [which focused strongly on queer visibility]. This is where I’m at vis-à-vis Palestinian LGBTQ rights now. We don’t care in this moment about gay marriage, surrogacy, or things that are at the top of the current gay political agenda in the West. What we care about is visibility and opening a space for recognition. Any attempt at achieving that is a small success.

What is the relationship today between the Palestinian LGBTQ community and the Jewish LGBTQ community in Israel?

The problem with the Jewish Israeli LGBTQ community is its unquestioning acceptance of the predominance of its ethnic group in Israeli politics. At the end of the day, any alliance between Palestinian and Jewish LGBTQ folks should be predicated on universal human rights.

Sadly, when one engages in LGBTQ rights with militaristic undertones, that’s marginalizing to me. When you promote pinkwashing, that raises obstacles for Palestinians. I am not against Palestinian-Jewish solidarity or alliances. We saw how many Jewish Israeli citizens went to the recent protest in Umm al-Fahm [against police inaction to violent crime in Palestinian society in Israel]. But as long as Zionism underlies the human rights discourse in the Jewish community, Palestinians will always be excluded unless they give up on their identity.

You’re saying that real LGBTQ solidarity means queer Israeli Jews must give up on Zionism?

Pragmatically, that’s the only way I see this becoming a cross-ethnic alliance. Zionism in public spaces, for many Palestinians, translates into hierarchy — plain and simple. If you really want an alliance, not only nominal participation by a national minority, you need to accept that minority on an equal footing. It cannot be under a Zionist framework.

Edo Konrad is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine, based in Tel Aviv