'The Center Cannot Hold': The Flourishing of Queer Anti-Occupation Activism

What is particularly remarkable about the spread of the Israel-Palestine debate in LGBTQ communities globally is that so few understand what is queer about the Middle East conflict in general and the Israeli occupation of Palestine in particular.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Michael Lucas, gay Israeli tourism promoter and adult entertainment industry entrepreneur, for threatening to organize a donor boycott of the New York LGBT Center for allocating space to Siege Busters for their fundraiser during Israeli Apartheid Week this past March. Lucas' indiscriminate use of the charge of anti-Semitism, leveled against a mixed-group of Jewish, not-Jewish, secular, queer and not-queer activists raising money to fund a flotilla to Gaza, resulted in the cancellation of the Siege Busters event. The accusation of anti-Semitism, now apparently equivalent to anti-Zionism, has been rendered a rather fast and loose charge, deployed primarily, it now seems, to squash democratic debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict. This rather sorry development undermines the force of decrying anti-Semitism not routed through direct protest against the Israeli state, of which there still exists plenty.

The good news is that New York's queer communities have finally joined those in Toronto, San Francisco, Madrid, Tel Aviv and Berlin, queer communities mired in intense debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict. What is particularly remarkable about the spread of this debate in LGBTQ communities globally is that so few understand what is queer about the Middle East conflict in general and the Israeli occupation of Palestine in particular. Lucas's tirade came on the heels of the U.S. Palestinian Queer Activist tour, organized by writer and professor Sarah Schulman. The last stop of this six-city delegation was hosted in overflow capacity space at the Audre Lorde Project and co-sponsored by other LGBT POC groups, including fellow residents of 147 24th Street: Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), and FIERCE!. The Feb. 16 event featured alQwas for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society and ASWAT Palestinian Gay Women, and reflected ALP's nearly 10-year relationship with these activists, as well as ALP's support of Palestinian self-determination. What the touring activists made clear was the near-impossibility of mounting a queer movement without addressing the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This is to assert something rather obvious that commentators such as Lillian Faderman, Phyllis Chesler and Lucas seem unable to comprehend: the occupation is a queer issue. The occupation prevents queer organizing for Palestinian queers negotiating checkpoints, constrained mobility and unequal citizenship status. It makes networks and liaisons between Israeli queers and Palestinian queers rife with power imbalances and missionary savior mentalities. Further, the occupation itself is anti-queer, even as it uses a select group of privileged queers to "pinkwash" Israel as a democratic, progressive state. Never mind that Tel Aviv alone gets propped up as a gay mecca while the rest of Israel tags along; that even within these narrow terms of queer culture, Beirut easily rivals Tel Aviv; and that, for example, queer "bear" tourism to the Levant defies easy divisions between Israel and the rest.

While Lucas feels free to charge others with anti-Semitism, his own Islamophobia seemed not to perturb his supporters. His tedious and misinformed anti-Muslim statements are on record ("They have not contributed to civilization in any way... What do they produce? Carpets."). But the Center defaulted to an implicit assumption underlying Lucas' protest, that groups concerned with non-center or "regional" geopolitics have no legitimate place debating these issues under the rubric of queer community. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear how LGBT politics is already implicated in the struggle over the means and meaning of the occupation. Feminist queer theorist Judith Butler and filmmaker John Greyson spoke to a standing-room-only audience at Judson Memorial Church about the intersections of queer organizing and anti-occupation activism. These intellectual efforts are subtended by events such as the formation of Queers for an Open LGBT Center, as well as the NY Queers Against Israeli Apartheid; the latter also marched for the first time in the NYC gay pride parade in June. Most importantly, the standard pinkwashing claim that Israel is the sole recognizer of LGBT rights can no longer stand, even as rhetoric after Omar Barghouti, in an interview on GriTV with Laura Flanders and Sarah Schulman, publicly affirmed the presence of Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions within the boycott movement, stating that the quest for Palestinian self-determination must also entail a revisions of Palestinian civil society altogether. Against these demonstrations of the legitimacy and value of queer Palestinian and anti-occupation politics, Lucas betrayed his own understanding of entrenched power. During the Center's town-hall style meeting, where LGBT figureheads such as Sarah Schulman, Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Duggan and Pauline Park explained why the Center needed to allow free speech on this issue, Lucas exclaimed, "Where would you be without [my] money?" Not the least of the effects of this unsubtle threat to pull funding from the Center is to control what can and cannot be said, even in the context of an "open" meeting.

Calls for free speech and equal access for all groups sound democratic on the face of it, but they leave unquestioned the default political positions of those running the Center; worse, it does not address the exclusionary logic of inclusion itself. If inclusion is granted without changing the terms upon which an exclusion was originally articulated, the granting of space is tokenistic at best. Even though Queers for an Open Center and NY Queers Against Israeli Apartheid continue to meet in the form of sit-in protests in the lobby at the Center, such activities will not promote the presence of many Palestinian, Arab-American and Muslim queers. For these groups and individuals, the Center has now become not only a site of exclusion but also a grievous insult, especially on the cusp of the Palestinian bid for U.N. state recognition, to the decades-long struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Free speech, then, as a way of saying "include everyone," might cover over the possibility that not everyone is equal within the space of that free speech, not everyone can speak, and perhaps not everyone wants to be included. The goal of unquestioned inclusion further recentralizes the Center as the dominant site where LGBT politics and culture are to be negotiated, while the work of organizations that are indeed more radical, more grassroots and less partial to conservative donor funding goes unacknowledged.

As the joint statement released by ALP, SRLP, QEJ, and FIERCE! -- the progressive LGBTQ organizations housed in the same building , at 147 24th Street -- details, their longer history of involvement suggests all sorts of struggles with the Center regarding acceptance of trans folks, homeless queers and other marginal community members. As they write:

By canceling the IAW event, you risk alienating many members who frequent your Center by sending a strong message to our communities and allies that the issues with which we struggle such as racial justice, anti-imperialism, immigration, economic justice, disability justice and militarization are not genuinely welcome to be discussed at the NYC LGBT Community Center.

We could, then, read this decision to cancel Siege Buster's meeting space, and the subsequent inability of the Center leadership to take responsibility for their default partisan support of their pro-Zionist factions, as an extension of the conservative impulses, tendencies and decisions that have led to the proliferation of queer organizing outside and beyond the Center.

Leftist Jewish queers should of course protest the denial of space to groups wishing to challenge Israeli state practices. Yet for many Palestinian queers, gaining access to a LGBT Center that has positioned itself as indifferent to their concerns is a minor point in the agenda for political transformation. There is an incredible wealth of progressive queer organizing in this city that never did and never will originate or coalesce in the Center. Although I understand the deep historical and emotional attachments that many have to the radical vision the Center once represented, my simple point is that the Center cannot -- even more than it will not -- hold. These days, my political heart and soul are with the folks at 147 24th Street.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot