The season of rainbows is here again. A time when everyone’s happy and everyone’s gay. Everyone, that is, save one group whose presence few seem to understand. I’m talking, of course, about Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).
QuAIA is mostly silent during the year, keeping to themselves and their circle of radical activists. But, once a summer, due to their presence in Toronto’s Pride Parade, they attract a lot of attention with their message of…well…umm…what exactly is their message, and what do queers really have to do with apartheid anyway?
The message of QuAIA, though difficult to discern from its unclear name and heavy use of radical-activist-speak, is, when boiled down, actually quite simple. So simple, in fact, that I’m surprised by their inability to explain it to the public.
For those who don’t know, QuAIA takes issue with the Israeli government’s use of ‘pinkwashing’ to brand their nation as a gay-friendly destination for queer travelers. (Pinkwashing is essentially the act of exploiting one’s tolerance of queers to sell a product—in this case, Israeli tourism.)
In 2005, Israel embarked on a rebranding campaign meant to market the country as a hip place to spend one’s money and, ideally, draw attention away from the oh-so-inconvenient problem of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
One aspect of the campaign was to tell the world how accepting Israelis are of LGBT people. And it’s true. Even though there remains a strong conservative and religious opposition in the country, the policies of the government are quite queer-friendly. Same-sex marriages are recognized (but not performed), Pride festivals fill the streets, gays are allowed in the military and are able to adopt children, and anti-discrimination laws are even on the books. Compared to the vast majority of countries on this earth, Israel is far ahead in the LGBT rights race.
So what’s the problem then? Simply put, QuAIA takes issue with hard-fought human rights victories of one group being used to hide, and, in effect, legitimize, human rights violations against another.
Advocates of such gay-branding say that advertising a country’s “friendliness” towards a group of people is perfectly legitimate—and they’re right. But they’re also missing the point.
When Israel shows off how gay-friendly it is, and pundits inevitably highlight how gay-unfriendly the rest of the Middle East is, it’s easy to view Israel as a beacon of freedom in a sea of despair. And this is where QuAIA comes in. To them, Israel is no such beacon and should not be seen as one, given their treatment of the people whose land they occupy and blockade.
Before I receive the obligatory hate-mail that comes with writing *anything* on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I should say that I’m not writing this to provide commentary on what’s actually happening there. I’m writing because QuAIA is failing to bring their message to anyone but the converted.
A queer group that labels itself with a contentious term—apartheid—that then can’t explain to the general public why queer people have anything to do with it, is destined to fail. And this is unfortunate, because they do have important ideas—criticizing ‘pinkwashing’ being the most important.
For anyone who thinks that QuAIA is doing a fine job, just look at practically every editorial on them in mainstream media organizations across Canada. Few, if any, engage with QuAIA’s actual issues, instead focusing on how awful the rest of the Middle East is toward gays, making queers against Israel seem silly and out of touch. I’m not saying it’s right, but what else can we expect from lazy commentators who aren’t forced to engage with specifics.
Sure, QuAIA might explain themselves perfectly fine on their website, but when the vast majority of uninformed people don’t read their website, it doesn’t mean much. QuAIA need to realize that if they *actually* want to effect change, they need to have the public on their side. And that’s not going to happen when the mainstream media is given free reign to shape the debate in favour of Israel. The purpose of QuAIA, as I see it, is to force the public to engage with this issue—something they’ve failed to do thus far. And how should they go about this? By dropping the radical-activist-speak and by making an actual effort to explain themselves. If you have a message, it’s your job to get it across, not to sit there and bemoan the obstacles in your way—in this case, the “zionist media”.
As legal rights and support for queers enters the mainstream at a faster and faster pace, pinkwashing is only going to spread. We need to call it out when it happens and tell the businesses and governments engaged in it that we don’t accept their exploitation of our only-recent acceptance in society. And that we especially won’t accept it when used to cleanse the image of controversial products.
We must remember that gay rights haven’t always existed, and that we don’t have them now because they were simply bestowed to us in an act of kindness. No, our brethren fought tooth and nail to wrestle those rights and privileges from the hands of those now trying to profit off of them.
And this, in an awfully roundabout way, is what QuAIA is failing to get across to thousands of queers each summer. Just so you know. Because, it’s not like they were going to tell you.
Photos courtesy of Paul Lowry and Loozrboy via Flickr