Palestinian Liberation Is Queer Liberation

feature image photo by Pacific Press / Contributor via Getty Images

If you are a queer and/or trans person who is pro-Palestine, it’s likely you’ve been on the receiving end of some form of the insidious statement that you would be killed, brutalized, beheaded for your queerness in Palestine. Perhaps a complete stranger on the internet hurled this at you; perhaps it came from a loved one. It’s an absurd (not to mention Islamophobic, racist, and counterproductive) thing to say to anyone. It’s also, ironically, homophobic in and of itself. At least, it is if we think of homophobia to comprise not just hatred or discrimination toward queer people but also a privileging of certain queer lives over others.

I live in Florida, where we hear similar sentiments when it comes to the hurricanes that batter this place. During the most recent hurricane season, as a storm approached Florida’s Gulf coast, I saw someone reply to a tweet about the news saying it’s what DeSantis deserved for Don’t Say Gay. As if a hurricane would somehow harm a governor with easy means to evacuate and shelter more than it would the hundreds of houseless queer youth living in Central Florida. Every election cycle, that GIF of Bugs Bunny sawing Florida off the map resurfaces. Travel advisories warn out-of-state LGBTQ folks from avoiding traveling here and never once acknowledge the LGBTQ people who live here. These examples are not even remotely on the same level of attempting to justify genocide, but they come from a similar ignorance. Similarly, when Texas was hit by devastating winter storms that took out the state’s power grid, there was also this undercurrent of snark about how Texas — and Texans — deserved it, how this was punishment for the state being oppressive toward LGBTQ folks. A red state deserves to bleed, so it seemed these people believed. At least 246 people died that winter as a result of the storms.

Again, these are very small things compared to what is happening right now in Palestine, a place not hypothetically being cleaved off the map like that stupid GIF but quite literally by Israel’s ongoing occupation. But these things are all connected to the same harmful erasure of queer lives in certain contexts. Queer people exist in Texas, in Florida, in Palestine. Queer people are everywhere, and to wield homophobia as a tool to justify the oppression or destruction of others is in fact to just replicate hate, harm, and oppression, not fix it.

Queering the Map, a community-based and collaborative project that seeks to digitally archive LGBTQ+ experiences, desires, narratives, and personal truths via an interactive map where queer and trans folks can input their personal stories attached to geographical locations, has made an explicit effort to highlight the existence of queer Palestinians. It’s a queer map not just in the surface-level sense of mapping queer missives onto places but in reimagining place in a radical way. I’ve loved Queering the Map for a while, but I especially love it for this. It proves the project’s mission really is to queer the map. Maps are produced by and reinforce colonialism and empire, and here is a version of a map that challenges borders. It recognizes Palestine despite the fact the U.S. does not. In London, a group called The Dyke Project hacked a bunch of display ads on the U.K. transit system, replacing ads with images screenshot from Queering the Map highlighting queer Palestinian experiences.

Just like there are queers everywhere, homophobia, transphobia, and the persecution of LGBTQ+ folks exists all over the world and certainly in our own backyards here in the U.S. To single out Gaza reinforces Islamophobic assumptions. It also represents a complete disconnection from the realities of what’s happening in the United States right now. Murders of trans people doubled in the U.S. from 2017 to 2021. It is not technically illegal to be queer or trans in the U.S., but states throughout the entire country are trying to legislate us to the margins. This is especially true for trans folks, whose access to medical care and basic human rights are significantly restricted. You’re going to sit here and try to spin some hypothetical “gotchya” moment about what my life as a queer person would be in Palestine when I live in a state where a doctor can decide not to treat me if they don’t feel like it on religious grounds? Get outta here.

Everyone deserves safety, autonomy, and basic human rights. In the time since I started writing this, I’ve seen op-eds and social media posts pop up suggesting that “queers for Palestine” is akin to saying “chickens for KFC” or “minks for fur.” Aside from the dehumanization and condescension of those ridiculous comparisons, they also just aren’t accurate. They set up a hierarchy that true queer liberation seeks to dismantle. Global oppression of queer folks does not supersede any other form of violent, racist oppression. Fighting for Palestinian rights does not fundamentally take away from our own rights. Imperialism constantly constructs and maintains anti-queerness, and anti-imperialist work benefits all queer people.

I’ve seen people online peddle the misguided idea that Palestinian freedom and queer freedom are at odds with each other because queer Palestinians seek asylum from persecution in Israel. Indeed, Israel has an official policy to grant temporary stay permits to LGTBQ+ folks from the West Bank and in some cases has issued work permits. Israel also has cultivated a reputation for being an ultra queer friendly destination, though as queer feminist Jewish activist Ashley Bohrer has written, the deliberate pinkwashing of Israel seriously obscures a lot of the lived realities of queer Palestinians living in Israel: “This so-called gay-friendly state of Israel preys on the vulnerability of queer Palestinians, a vulnerability that many of us who live in ‘progressive’ ‘human rights-friendly’ countries still face.”

A longread feature in the independent nonprofit magazine run by Israeli and Palestinian journalists +972 Magazine similarly highlights stories from asylum-seeking queer Palestinians that contradict the dominant narrative of Israel as a LGBTQ+ safe haven, suggesting it’s only a safe haven for some. These queer Palestinians often face financial abuse, restrictions on access to healthcare, and other forms of discrimination and abuse. And while many of the sources interviewed indeed experienced violence in their homeland, it’s clear from reading these testimonies that things are not as simple as it being safe for all LGBTQ+ folks in Israel and unsafe in Palestine. In 2014, an op-ed published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz urged the IDF to stop its practice of blackmailing gay Palestinians. So even within Israel, there is pushback against the notion that Israel can function as a refuge for queer Palestinians.

Social justice movements do not exist in a vacuum, often intersecting in meaningful ways. There is a long history of queer artists, activists, and thinkers speaking and writing extensively on the importance of standing in solidarity with Palestine. In fact, almost all of my own personal consciousness raising about Palestine came from listening to and reading queer activists — first in a collective for women of color I was involved in at University of Michigan, and then far beyond my personal circles when I started reading more queer theorists and activists during my early years of coming out.

“I do not believe that our sexuality, gender expression and bodies can be liberated without making a ferocious mobilization against imperialist war and racism an integral part of our struggle,” Leslie Feinberg said at the Al-Fatiha international retreat in Washington in 2002. I highly recommend reading the linked full transcript of the speech. Feinberg explicitly touches on the problems with pitting queer folks against Palestine:

“…the spin-doctors of war are making every appeal to the progressive movements to back the imperial juggernaut as though this is a defensive and progressive war. They said part of the reason they are bombing Afghanistan is to ‘liberate’ women there. Then why did they earlier arm and back the counter-revolutionary forces that overturned women’s rights there?

They say we should fight against nations whose religion does not welcome l/g/b/t people. Yet they have no problem propping up anti-gay regimes that do their bidding. And when they talk about anti-gay religion, they don’t mean the church that is mired in child abuse revelations and blaming gay people for it. Or the Christian right wing that labels us “child molesters” to block our rights. Our fight is here!”

Bisexual poet and essayist June Jordan also has expressed solidarity with Palestine through her work and words. Her poem “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon” is dedicated “to the 600,000 Palestinian men, women, and children who lived in Lebanon from 1948-1983.”

You can watch a video of Angela Davis reading June Jordan’s “Moving towards Home” — another one of her works explicitly about solidarity with Palestine.

In 1989, Audre Lorde spoke on Palestine in her commencement speech at Oberlin College: “Encouraging your congresspeople to press for a peaceful solution in the Middle East, and for recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people, is not altruism, it is survival.” This was over three decades ago. (You can read more about the long and ongoing legacy Black feminist thought and perspectives on Palestine at BlackWomenRadicals.com.)

Lesbian and Jewish author Sarah Schulman began the work of re-educating herself about Israel/Palestine and interrogating her political consciousness of the Middle East in her book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. Recently, she penned a piece for New York Magazine furthering this work. “The most difficult challenge in our lives is to face our contributions to the systems that reproduce inequality and consequential cycles of violence,” she writes.

Schulman is also an HIV/AIDS activist who worked with ACT UP in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS movement in the late 80s and early 90s. She remains committed to documenting ACT UP’s important history, recently publishing the urgent book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.  It’s easy to see a direct correlation between the recent action by Jewish Voice for Peace in New York to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and past actions by ACT UP. In fact, Jewish Voice for Peace — which is a Jewish collective of anti-Zionist activists organizing in solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle — made it clear the group was inspired by the work of ACT UP.

In January 1991, ACT UP organized the Day of Desperation, a massive protest at NYC’s Grand Central station. On October 27, 2023, thousands of Jewish activists and allies followed suit with a massive action at Grand Central station calling for a ceasefire. Many are saying it’s the largest act of civil disobedience New York has seen in two decades. In an Instagram post with side-by-side photos from both historical events, Jewish Voice for Peace writes:

“The iconic 1991 ACT UP Day of Desperation at Grand Central inspired queer anti-Zionist Jews to scale that same marble ticket office in the world’s biggest train station 32 years later to again disrupt business as usual and plaster an urgent message over the train schedule: NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE. PALESTINIANS SHOULD BE FREE.”

ACT UP leader Gregg Bordowitz, who was one of the “ONE AIDS DEATH EVERY 8 MINUTES” banner holders at the Day of Desperation in 1991, said of the recent Jewish Voice for Peace action: “HEALTHCARE NOT WARFARE is still a relevant demand as Congress prepares to give enormous military funding to Israel while key Republican congressional members block the dispersal of funds to PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), a 20 year old program which has saved more than 25 million lives around the world.” Here again, we see a direct link being made between the fight for queer life and for Palestinian life.

Including leaders of ACT UP, plenty of LGBTQ+ people showed up for JVP’s action at Grand Central. Trans activist and actor Indya Moore as well as trans writer, activist, and sex worker rights advocate Cecilia Gentili were among the hundreds of people arrested at the action. All these movements for liberation are connected.

Queer Muslim and queer Jewish activists have been calling for other queer folks to realize the importance of coalition building for Palestinian freedom, and it’s time to listen if you haven’t been already. The most urgent thing we can do right now is call for a ceasefire, though that is just where the work starts. All of the great queer thinkers I quoted in this piece have said much more about Palestine, and I encourage you to seek out their words but also, of course, the words of queer Palestinians who are here and whose queerness must not be erased, questioned, or used against them.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 842 articles for us.

25 Comments

    • Do we think a free Palestine would treat us any better than any other Arab nation? They all hate us. I’m fine with fighting for peace and a two-state solution but I hate watching queer people place themselves on the front line here in the US in this fight. They wouldn’t lift a finger for our community.

      • Generally, people are more open to social progress when things are in less turmoil and they don’t feel threatened, so probably a free Palestine actually would be less homophobic. Specifically, I’m not an expert on the Middle East but from what I understand a lot of the current hypertraditionalist fundie shit has roots in how the West did a lot of fucking around with them politically and is mostly based in emphasizing their differences from the people exploiting them. This is not okay no matter what, or justified. But if people stopped oppressing them then yes, things would probably calm down.

        Also, I’m not sure if you read the article? The point was that it doesn’t make any sense to treat a country or region known for doing some fucked up political thing as a monolith that supports that fucked up political thing. “Florida” is homophobic, but “Florida” is also made up of a lot of individual people. Even if the majority of those people are awful in a specific way, not everyone will be, and the minority won’t necessarily be tiny, either. A lot of the current problems in Florida are coming from one specific governor being the worst, but about 40% of Florida voters in that election went for the other guy. If something bad happens to Florida that does not directly target Republicans, it is also happening to the 40% of Florida who didn’t want this governor. That includes queer people in Florida, who are the biggest victims of Florida’s government in the first place. The same holds true with Palestine. I’m not the biggest fan of this article or the site’s coverage of this topic, but all of this is just common sense?

  1. I have somewhat complicated feelings about this.

    It’s stupid when people approach cultural issues like a fucking sports match, where if someone thinks Palestine or Texas is backwards and homophobic then bad things happening to the people there is great. Every government or culture that discriminates against some minority group or other is representing a public that contains members of those groups, who will be harmed when the rest of them are harmed because queer people are not magically immune to explosions. And in situations where destructive traditionalism IS a problem, oppressing the people doing it is not actually going to make them less destructive or traditionalist. If you have a problem with how queer people are treated in Palestine, you should want Palestinians to be less oppressed even just for that reason, because that is going to be a much better environment for making literally any progress in that direction.

    However, YES, IT ACTUALLY FUCKING MATTERS IN MANY WAYS WHETHER BEING GAY IS ILLEGAL. It doesn’t matter in the context of whether people living in countries with homophobic governments should be bombed, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter generally! All the shit going on in Florida is really really bad, but it is not indistinguishable from a government where being gay is illegal. Nobody deserves to die or be forced out of their homes because their government is awful, but that doesn’t mean shit about whether what said government is doing is That Bad (which it is, if being gay is illegal.) This is not queer Palestinians’ biggest problem right now but we are not protecting them by pretending it’s not especially a problem. It’s not a problem Westerners can solve by coming in and being even more imperialist at the whole situation, but the least we can do is acknowledge that people are suffering and it’s not okay.

    • Hi Aster, I’m pretty curious to learn more about your perspective on this. I haven’t personally seen instances of pro-Palestinian speech denying that the oppression of queer Palestinians actually occurs in Palestine. Even this article doesn’t seem (to me) to suggest that “it’s not especially a problem.”

      If you have more detail on what you’re seeing in the world right now, especially when it comes to messaging on this topic, please share!

      • This article suggests (or, through creating a false equivalence, at the very least implies) that the oppression of queer Palestinians is no worse than the oppression of queer people here in the United States — which is patently false.

  2. This entire article is premised on what-aboutism. There is no equivalence between doctors being religiously exempt from treating LGBTQ patients in a country with a comparatively robust set of legal protections for queer people and homosexuality being *literally and explicitly against the law*. The US has a long way to go when it comes to protecting its queer citizens, but to point to conservative backlash against what has overall been a net increase in protection/legal acknowledgement as evidence for an argument that queer folks in the US don’t have it all that different from queer folks in Gaza (who are regularly forced to seek asylum in Israel) does a massive disservice to the pro-Palestine cause.

    Being pro-Palestine does not mean being pro-Hamas. Quite the opposite. Palestinian liberation will be twofold: from their fascist, terroristic, and, yes, violently homophobic government and from the apartheid policies of Israel.

  3. I will no longer contribute one penny to this publication based on this offensive piece. I had enormous respect for Riese Bernard for having made this site so interesting and robust. No longer.

  4. Thank you Kayla, this was so important and good. Ignore the weird spam comments that deliberately misread the piece – I think you explained queer support for Palestine very well

  5. Also chiming in to say thank you for writing this and for autostraddle’s unequivocal stance that Palestinian rights as human rights. I so appreciate how well put together this was and all of the links and further reading and voices you are pointing to.

  6. I really appreciate this piece and the rest of Autostraddle’s coverage of this topic.
    I didn’t get from it the message that the oppression of queer people in the US is somehow on the same level as in Palestine, just that they should be treated similarly in that thinking that where this oppression takes place should be erased from the map is a wrong and awful way of thinking that only worsens the situation of queer people in both of these places.

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