We were on our way to Haifa, on the other side of the Annexation Wall on which Israel had erected vertical gardens that screamed “Don’t mind us!” and on that ride, with the help of freedom fighter and political analyst Nicki Minaj, I learned a formative lesson.
It was with great enthusiasm and humility that I shared with co-workers my accomplishment in scoring a response on one of Nicki’s posts. The feminist icon (see: “Stupid Hoe”) took to Instagram to ask the Barbs for advice on whether she should cancel a show in Saudi Arabia. As a politically-conscious and militant Barb, I rushed to the comments and urged her to cancel, citing human rights abuses against women and LGBT people. It was perhaps the most I’ve used “LGBT” without being forced. Within minutes, the Trinidadian-born activist and communist guru (see: “Chun-Li”) replied with something probably revolutionary and a few kissy-face emojis, more or less declaring a cancellation.
Hell broke loose in my DMs and my starved ego loved one-lining the flocks of angry Saudis wishing me death, disease and a rhinoplasty. Like any reasonable person, I shared the death threats and promises of a rainbowy Saudi Arabia on my stories, prompting fans to offer me flowers while still alive. I was also fishing for compliments on my nose.
To my surprise, my audience in the Haifa-bound 2003 Fiat offered no applause or laughter, so I demanded an explanation, saying, “This is comedy gold, this is leftist gold!”
“It’s pinkwashing,” said my director.
It wasn’t music to my ears. I did not care to listen as much as to refute. How dare she question the motives of the Queen of Rap, who was totally qualified to engage in political discourse about Saudi Arabia’s crimes against feminism and the gays?
“What if Saudi Arabia was feminist or gay-friendly? Does that absolve its genocide of Yemenis? Its other problems?” she argued, coaxing me to apply this question to Palestine. I didn’t want to agree. I wanted to hold on to the delusion that I was the hand that pushed Minaj, may Allah protect her, in the right direction. I straightened my back and rebutted with phrases like “power dynamics,” “complex,” “cultural impact,” “decontextualize,” and “pink-wigged revolutionary.”
Still, I learned something in that car ride: You cannot judge a country’s progressiveness by how it treats its gays. Who would’ve known? Israel throws the Middle East’s largest pride parade while shooting Palestinians dead in the street without regard to their sexuality or gender. What complexity do uniformed transmen and female snipers offer to the equation? Does it matter what kind of genitalia a soldier’s hand strokes before launching a missile?
Oppression in drag
Pinkwashing is Israel’s attempt at weaponizing its alleged gay friendliness to smokescreen the atrocities it commits against Palestinians. Meaning suburban-raised, Brooklyn-esque white men sporting rainbow speedos on colonized beaches cancel out the blowing up of children playing soccer on a Gaza beach. Meaning they/them military personnel justifies the documented sexual assault they inflict upon Palestinian arrestees.
Israel’s so-called progressiveness does not include Palestinian queers, and never has. No Palestinian vogues themselves out of debris and dehumanization. The myths of refuge in an open-armed Tel Aviv are continually debunked by Israel’s policies and practices. They are unflinchingly proud of Tel Aviv being “the world’s best gay city,” yet no same-sex marriage or education is offered in its vending machine of tolerance. al-Qaws for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Palestinian Society activist Gaith Nassar describes pinkwashing by saying, “There isn’t a pink door in Israel’s illegal, racist wall that allows Palestinian gays to escape the occupation.”
Using the status of queer people to determine its validity decontextualizes and depoliticizes Israel from reality. War-mongering nations whose soldiers wear red lipstick and carry bedazzled purses are the main benefactors of pinkwashing, pawning the LGBT community in a game of political propaganda.
What fails in Nicki’s attempt at conscientious decision making is not her intention, but the framework from which her activism moves: applying a hierarchy to what is excusable versus cancelable implies selective victimhood, solidarity, and accountability. Not to mention an obnoxiously Western approach. In short, using the LGBT community to determine a nation’s progressiveness allows things like gender-based violence, gentrification and genocide to slip through the cracks. Suddenly the United States and its favorite child are seen as havens for the marginalized, despite the rubble they live under. Despite the fact that, in 2019 alone, at least twenty-six transgender people were murdered in the United States, twenty-five of whom were black trans women.
About a year ago I overheard some of my American friends, one of whom is a proud Twitter rebel and the other a white person of color (WPOC), discuss an English-language American documentary about so-called Kenyan homophobia. The underlying racism and elitism in their commentary led me to double that day’s Zoloft dosage. My stomach churned because, at the time, I was allergic to dumb bitches who could not think critically about wide-eyed indoctrination, let alone consider the colonial complexity of non-Western homophobia.
Sure, homophobia is bad, regardless of its nationality. Love is love, the grass is greener, et cetera. However, there is something to be said about the difference between bigotry and ignorance with respect to homophobia. We pretend to forget that homophobia is a global issue and not one that is particularly crippling to countries sanctioned by America. We pretend not to see the political merit of painting peoples and nations as backward.
What if there were a pink door?
Pinkwashing is not merely branded propaganda. Its narrative heightens the active erasure of queer Palestinian existence, advocacy and mobilization. It claims such mobilization does not exist. Palestinian queers become sticks in the wind, waiting on their savior, when in reality they are on the frontlines fighting the colonial violence of pinkwashing.
My goal isn’t for pinkwashing to stop. I don’t care if Israel pulls the plug on its alleged tolerance and faces the world as the fascist American outpost it is. I do not care if Israel implements loopholes to exempt Palestinian queers from oppression. I want the military occupation of the West Bank, the siege of the Gaza Strip, and the ongoing seventy-one-year-old colonization of Palestine, to end. So even if there were a pink door to which Palestine’s finest flocked, the occupation would still be there. Even if Israel mollycoddled the LGBT community, Palestinians would still be living in an open-air prison, behind an apartheid wall on which white people with dreadlocks (WPWD) graffiti musty messages of hope.
Yelling “Stop pretending you like the gays because you don’t!” at Israel without anti-colonial rhetoric establishes nothing. Not to mention, “the treatment of the gays’’ being a deciding factor in a situation where ethnic cleansing, military occupation, mass incarceration, white phosphorus, home demolition, land theft, police brutality and child arrests are unabashedly active is racist, dismissive, and scummy. It should be humiliating to the gays. Because it stems from a kind of homophobia implicit in the removal of masculinity from homosexuality. Meaning gays are inherently incapable of harm because they aren’t seen as “real men,” meaning queer Palestinians are less likely to hijack planes. This is especially insulting since Palestinian queers love being intimidating, and their Twitter feeds would be nothing without TSA punchlines and stories of racial profiling.
Even if you’re sh*tting, get off the pot
Pinkwashing is not the only reason queer Palestinian mobility is unheard of. This muffling happens because of the other people in the room, whose chants (and tweets and galas) for Palestinian liberation are much better received coming from Jewish or white people. They’re better-received because they aren’t Palestinians.
In 2018, I was asked last-minute to speak on a panel at the Atlanta Radical Bookfair. The panel was titled Standing in Solidarity with Palestine and I was the only Palestinian on it. To my surprise, the panel doubled as a book launch for a white American author whose name escapes me. She’d gone on a Birthright trip in hopes of writing a book “exposing it.” At the panel she read and sold that book to an Atlanta audience, all while I sat next to her. Being petty, I decided to debunk her woketivism, elevator-pitching to the audience why her story is a classic example of voice appropriation, emphasizing that ignoring the hundreds of books by Palestinian authors on the same subject is racist. I told her she didn’t need to go on an all-expenses-paid-for trip to discover what we’ve written about for seven decades. Encouraging her readers “to go see for themselves” funnels even more money into the occupation and sustains the Birthright industry. She didn’t like that I said going on well-meaning, Birthright trips is still trash because all Birthright trips to Israel are born equal. I didn’t care to debate her. I made it clear that I will not be idle in the presence of erasure, that I’ll not silently watch while she and others pimp Palestine to launch a shitty writing career. I wanted to say I didn’t care for her postmodern haircut but that would’ve been a fallacy.
I refuted the argument swiftly because I’d been accustomed to this racism from an early age. For example, Israeli historians like Ilan Pappé are seen as more credible than Palestinian historians like Rashid Khalidi when it comes to addressing the Nakba or other aspects of Palestinian history. Even as a freshman in the United States, I found myself emphasizing having Israeli or American sources when I presented anything to my classmates about Palestine. I am used to being spoken for. But white people are not our mouthpieces. These double standards are not new.
Police brutality discourse, for example, is welcomed coming from white people and rejected, debunked, and punishable when coming from the people directly affected by it. Arguments centering respectability often hover over those double standards in an attempt to psychoanalyze racism. The notion that people will only listen to white middle-manning of the Palestinian cause is supposed to be more tragic than bigoted. It isn’t.
Hang it up, flat screen
What I learned from interacting with my now-friend Nicki Minaj is that her name is able to give a debate whiplash, sparking unprecedented conversation about taboos in Saudi Arabia. Despite her sometimes controversial status in pop culture, she was one of the few to take a stance publicly, refusing to be part of a pay-for-propaganda public image rehabilitation program. This highlights her comradery and kinship to me personally, which I appreciate. We thank her and hope that Allah rewards her for that. She will go down in history as an anti-capitalist martyr for canceling a show that would have brought her some money. In that car ride, Nicki Minaj was my comrade. My own failure to mention Yemen in my call for boycott against Saudi Arabia showed me how easy it can be to engage in pinkwashing. I began to question the pressure that we, Z-list celebrities, place on other celebrities, usually A- and B-list. It also made me actualize the perpetual pawning of Palestinian queers.
Last summer, the spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority (PA) police released an unofficial statement on Facebook where he “banned” all al-Qaws activity in the West Bank. This “statement” was a pathetic attempt at enhancing public opinion towards the PA amidst numerous anti-PA protests. An easily deconstructed political tactic. What the spokesperson failed to realize is that he was handing the enemy a loaded gun. Zionist and global media alike reported on the banning of Palestinian queers at the hands of machismo terrorism. This was all directed towards an audience hungry for talking points against Palestinians.
But Palestinian queers were not silent. They forced the PA to delete their statement, especially after local outrage against the initial Facebook post. The police continue to ignore the group’s demand for an apology. alQaws launched a “5 Ways to Support Palestinian Queers” campaign which was widely shared by blue-check Twitter. I was struck by the collective ejaculation of epiphanies Westerners experienced after having read alQaws’ statement. The information alQaws provided was neither new nor hidden. alQaws, for example, has been working around this issue for two decades all over historical Palestine, in both Arabic and English. The problem is that most Westerners have always been too racist to consider where Palestinians stood in all of this.
With Yemenis under bombs and feminists in prison, the Kingdom pays influencers with “activist” in their bios to publicize their visits, blondies to ride camels in the desert, and Western magazines to post about Saudi music festivals. One’s responsibility is to observe such dynamics critically. Palestinian queers know that they are tokenized, as queers have been historically. Obtaining the truth about a deceptively complex political game happens simply by listening to them.
Now and every day, be it pinkwashing or BDS or my mere sense of self-loathing, they will be discussed by me only. I could insert the Audre Lorde quote about otherwise being crunched and eaten alive, but before Audre Lorde there was “Super Bass” and “I am Nicki Minaj, I mack them dudes up.” Let me exclaim my identity assertively. It allowed me agency. And while it’s plausible that my audacity comes from being a Palestinian under military occupation, its true merit has all to do with my identity as a Barb. ⊱