Seven years ago, almost to the day, Palestinian grassroots activist Haneen Maikey spoke in London about the organisation of which she was the director, Al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Al-Qaws, which in Arabic means ‘rainbow,’ was established independently in 2007 and works to provide services and support for LGBTQ+ Palestinians. As stated on their website, they are ‘a civil society organization founded in grassroots activism at the forefront of vibrant Palestinian cultural and social change’ and they aim to “build LGBTQ communities and promote new ideas about the role of gender and sexual diversity in political activism, civil society institutions, media, and everyday life.’ Not only focused on homophobia, they instead aim to tackle multiple forms of oppression and expand the definition of ‘queer’ to find a context that makes sense for Palestinian culture.
They also collaborate and co-ordinate with international queer organisations; for example, in the case of the 2019 Eurovision, they encouraged an international boycott of the performance, held in Jerusalem. Haneen Maikey, Al-Qaws’ then-director, said that “Israel [used] Eurovision as pop culture diplomacy” and sought to “exploit” the competition’s LGBTQ fans. A similar trend can be seen in relation to Pride held in Israel, whereby a tactic known as ‘pinkwashing’ is often used. Pinkwashing, according to Al-Qaws, is the cynical use of LGBTQ rights by states and corporations to downplay their negative activities.
More recently, in August, 2019, in response to the stabbing of a queer Palestinian youth, civil society oganisations, political and activist organisations joined together to raise a voice against “society’s collusion with violence” committed against LGBT+ people. Some violent incidents occured against Al Qaws’ communities and queer Palestinians. This served to break the cultural silence surrounding LGBT+ issues: it also led to a ban on Al-Qaws activities in the occupied West Bank.
More than 200 people from all over Palestine held a demonstration in Haifa. They held signs challenging the practice of pinkwashing, and calling for an end to all forms of violence against LGBT+ people. In addition to the signs, they held Palestinian flags alongside rainbow flags and Trans, Bisexual, and Lesbian flags. The Al Qaws website called this demonstration a “historic milestone in our society.” By juxtaposing the Palestinian flag alongside the LGBT+ flags, the demonstrators visually insisted that they are both queer and Palestinian.
Last year, in July 2020, another gathering was held in Haifa, “to raise our voices against the patriarchal, colonial, and capitalist oppressions on LGBT and queer Palestinians, and to demand an end to violence against our bodies and lives.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has proved challenging for most activist groups and organisations, and Al-Qaws is no different, meaning that a lot of their work has had to move online. They provide support and counselling to LGBTQ+ Palestinians, run a TransFocus support centre, and a national hotline. In the last year, their events have included a feminist introduction course, and a webinar titled “Beyond Propaganda: Reorienting Anti-Pinkwashing Organising.” The pandemic has changed how Al-Qaws organise, but has not affected their determination and commitment to organising against intersecting forms of oppression faced by Palestinians.
Al-Qaws has so much potential as an organisation, and we as activists or engaged citizens can learn a lot of valuable lessons from how the group organises and practices solidarity. The group invites all Palestinians, whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or not, to take part in their events, stating that ‘Representing Palestinian gays is not our mission.’ They have set their sights higher than tackling the effects of homophobia, and are committed to the projects of decolonisation, and of dismantling patriarchal oppression.
Deirbhile Ní Bhranáin is pursuing an MA in Media and Development at SOAS.