11 December 2012


The problematical  'Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights' by Katherine Franke in 49(1) Columbia Human Rights Law Review (2012) 1-46 offers
a critical analysis of the complexities of having the state recognize and then take up gay rights as a cause of its own. I examine three principal contexts – the role of gay rights in the state of Israel’s re-branding campaign, the response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University in which he claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran, and the role of gay rights in Romania’s effort to join the European Community – as examples of the moral hazards that a minority faces when the state takes up their interests and uses their rights for purposes that well-exceed the obvious interests of the new rights-bearing community. I conclude that critical awareness of the state’s role as fundamental partner in the recognition and protection of a form of sexual rights should push us to regard these “victories” as necessarily ethically compromised. 
Franke concludes
I will end with Israel, just as I began this essay, to highlight a community that has resisted some of the moral atrophy that often accompanies conscription in the state’s larger projects. Some queer activists in Israel have parted company with the mainstream of the LGBT community, rejecting the terms of the deal made with the Israeli government whereby their rights are recognized in exchange for being used as a public relations tool. The 2010 Tel Aviv gay pride parade was held only a few days after the Gaza flotilla raid, and the more radical/queer wing of the community chose to hold an alternative parade in which they would disidentify queer people with the sort of nationalism that the state had been actively cultivating, thus reinforcing a kind of anti-nationalist identification. Their banners read: “There is no Pride in the Occupation.” These queer/left politics were met with an even greater homonationalization of the mainstream Gay Pride Parade, resisting what they termed the “occupation” of gay pride by queers who identified with the Palestinians not with Israel. Their signs and stickers, donned for the main parade, offered a retort to the signs of the anti-nationalists: “[N]o to the occupation of the parade,” and “I am a proud Zionist.” In the end, the resistance of some Israeli queers to their cooptation into a nationalist project provoked an invigorated re-nationalization of the Gay Pride Parade in response, resulting in the proliferation of Israeli flags held by parade-goers. Nevertheless, this intervention introduced and cemented a link between the dangers of Israeli nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and homophobia in a way that shifted the frame for gay politics in Israel.
Queer activists in Israel offer an example of a new kind of politics that at once appreciates the value of rights and launches new strategies to resist the perils of partnership with the state. Having said that, it is important to note how narrow the room for this work is and how perilous it can be. In February of 2011, I received an e-mail from the Office of Cultural Affairs of the Israeli Consulate letting me know that the Embassy was sponsoring a U.S. tour of a new documentary on the early days of the Israeli gay rights movement. “We would love to try and organize a screening and talk with Yair [Qedar, the filmmaker] at Columbia University,” the official wrote me. Worried that I was being invited to participate in a pinkwashing event, I e-mailed my colleague, Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, and asked whether he knew anything about the filmmaker or the film, Gay Days, and whether this was “the usual sort of propaganda.” He wrote me back immediately,
Yair—the director—is a friend and the film is certainly not propaganda. I’m sure some will consider any depiction of gay rights in [I]srael as such but you know that’s not a view I share—we should be able to talk of gay rights in [I]srael even if [it] is also coopted..... I think that it almost impossible to distinguish Israeli government promoting culture from the political uses of that, but as I say the film is not a propaganda effort—not coming from there at all (even if government promotes it for its own purposes). The director was involved in [grassroots] activism and founded Israeli gay monthly which under his leadership was a voice for queer thought (I used to write there regularly) and its dissemination.
In Aeyal’s response lies the challenge of activism in the era of homonationalist politics. Once the state takes up your cause—for the dual purpose of embracing greater rights and of advancing the state’s own larger political aims—politics becomes much more complicated in tragic ways. Jasbir Puar has termed the tethering of gay rights to nationalist projects a kind of “golden handcuffs.”
Working on the role of LGBT rights in relation to Israel/Palestine is particularly challenging in this regard, given that any critique of Israeli state policy (and it is important to reiterate that I am talking about state policy, not individual Israelis or Jews) is immediately tagged as anti-semitic. What is more, recently enacted Israeli law makes careful political engagement with these hard issues even more difficult. The “Boycott Bill” passed by the Knesset in July of 2011 allows Israeli citizens to bring civil suits against persons and organizations that call for economic, cultural, or academic boycotts against Israel, Israeli institutions, or regions under Israeli control. It also prevents the government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with such boycotts.
I must confess that I have experienced aggressive, sometimes violent, reactions to the recent work I have done that expresses sympathy for the rights of Palestinians and offers criticisms of Israeli state policy. As someone who has often taken unpopular positions in the LGBT and feminist communities, I thought I was prepared for the backlash that engagement with pinkwashing might generate. I wasn’t. Both our “golden handcuffs,” to borrow Puar’s term, and the chilling effect of the blowback certain political critique now receives, has made very crabbed room for politics and intellectual work that questions the role sexual civil rights now play in larger nationalist projects.
Queer activists in Israel/Palestine have something to teach us about what it means to do politics that resists state occupation. In their own ways, on either side of the so-called security “fence” (hafrada) or “wall” (jadir), some queers in the region are carving a path that neither privileges a global “gay citizen” nor succumbs to raw nationalism or racism/anti-semitism. The Palestinian queers I have met have a complex analysis of the relationship of occupation to homophobia, and refuse to privilege their experience of one over the other. They are acutely aware of and their politics respond to the ways in which negative social and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality in Palestinian culture are shaped in important ways by the occupation itself. They resist a politics that elevates a particular kind of sexual identity, such as gay or lesbian, over and apart from their identity as Palestinian. In this sense, their task has been so much more complicated than merely making demands for a gay pride parade in al-Manara Square in the center of Ramallah. Rather they situate queer politics within a complex web of Israeli occupation, nationalist resistance to the occupation, the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, the rise of Islamist politics, and a Palestinian biopolitical project that figures reproduction and the hetero-normative family as vital to national survival. All of these dynamics “have had serious consequences for Palestinian queers, not because Islam is an inherently (or particularly) ‘homophobic’ religion, but because Islamism has ascribed a (negative) ideological value to ‘homosexuality’ that did not exist before.”
So too, radical queer voices in Israel have refused the appeal of the new queer nationalism that they have been offered. They insist on drawing connections between the radicalism of the settlers’ homophobia/sexism and their imperial project in Palestine. The creation of social space for out LGBT people in Israel has occurred alongside the evacuation of Palestinians from that same territory. The one doesn’t necessarily cause the other, but the former has been used in the service of the latter. As one Israeli human rights lawyer from Tel Aviv told a group of us on the first LGBTI delegation to Israel/Palestine in January 2012, “Tel Aviv may be the most gay city in the world, but it’s also the least Arab you’ll find in the Middle East.”
This is what queering our politics demands: a refusal to take up the frames, and the identities those frames call up, which “winning” our rights produces. As it also turns out, rights are something the state is particularly well-suited to provide, and, as it turns out, those very rights end up being quite easily requisitioned by the state to advance its own larger interests. It falls on us, those in whose name those rights materialize, to resist the seduction of the state that, at long last, offers us its embrace, and in return seeks collaboration in its own imperial projects.