Where LGBT rights and nationalism meet

“I was struck by the similarity between the role gay rights play in Israeli national politics and the role it plays in some European countries, specifically Netherlands, where the conference was held. In both contexts the self-perception of the state as being committed to sexual equality is used to justify exclusionary politics that are especially targeted at Arabs and Muslims.” Notes following the Amsterdam Sexual Nationalism conference

By Aeyal Gross

Where LGBT rights and nationalism meet
Photo by Andydr/Flickr

When I saw the call for papers for the Amsterdam Sexual Nationalism conference, which suggested a focus on Europe, I decided to try my luck and send in a paper proposal. I did what many academics do: adjust my paper to the context of the call for papers, by offering to look at Israel’s use of gay rights as in the context of its attempt to portray itself as “western” and “European” and as espousing values associated with these terms. My abstract suggested that I will explore the politics of sexual freedom apparent in Israel’s attempt to brand itself as “gay friendly”, and as a “western”, and “European” country, as opposed to supposedly “backwards”, “homophobic” Islamic countries which surround it in the Middle East. “One should not deny the progress in sexual freedoms in Israel,” ”, I wrote, “but address the way they serve to cover and legitimize the denial of other freedoms, especially from Palestinians”. My abstract, and subsequent paper sought to explore how the universal condemnation of the homophobic murderous attack on gay youth in Tel-Aviv in August 2009, allowed certain Israeli right wing politicians to come out of the closet as gay-friendly, in a way that allowed the cementing of an unwritten deal between Israeli established homonormative politics and the new Israeli homonationalism.

For me the experience of participation in the conference proved that looking at Israeli homonationalism in the European context is indeed extremely relevant: I was struck by the similarity between the role gay rights play in Israeli national politics and the role it plays in some European countries, specifically Netherlands, where the conference was held. In both contexts the self-perception of the state as being committed to sexual equality is used to justify exclusionary politics that are especially targeted at Arabs and Muslims. In both contexts Islam is perceived as a threat to this commitment and the waged fear of Islamic homophobia serves to fuel up Islamophobia. It is a threat that is conceived of as both external and internal. In the Israeli context Israel’s gay rights achievements are co-opted by the state to vilify the Palestinians, Iran, and the Arab and Muslim worlds in general. In Europe they are used to mark a threat that is imminent both from immigrants into Europe and from terror from the outside.

There are many issues that came up in the conference that I do not pertain to address in this, including controversies about the conference itself, and especially two related issues: The question of representation of people of color in the conference, and the racist remarks that were made by one of the participants in the concluding panel. These issues were addressed in a post-conference statement by the organizers themselves, and in a subsequent document that offered a rejoinder to that statement.  What I do want to focus on is an issue that came up a few times in the discussion, starting with Eric Fassin’s remarks in the opening plenary and running through Dider Eribon’s comments in the closing plenary: How can we address gay rights, and more generally LGBT rights, without being part of this co-optation or instrumentalization by the state that the conference addressed.

In his remarks in the closing plenary Didier Eribon addressed the instrumentalization of sexuality by nationalism, and the critique of this instrumentalization that he shared, but then asked (rhetorically) if he now cannot struggle at the same time against both homophobia and transphobia on one hand and against the immigration policies of his government on the other hand. Pointing to the continuing need to struggle for both, Eribon emphasized the need to struggle at the same time against different forms of domination. Eribon was then asked from the floor what’s stopping him from doing so, and I think it is worth exploring what was at stake in this exchange.

In another panel Judith Butler emphasized that the concern is with the instrumentalization of sexual rights, not with the protection of sexual rights. While this is certainly true, and the concern with instrumentalization is one I share, I do want to in the rest of this post to engage with some of Eribon’s concerns, reflecting on my own experiences before, during and after the conference.

The panel where Butler made this comment was one in which Sarah Bracke screened her fascinating video-essay (as she preferred to call it, emphasizing she is not a film maker) Pink Camouflage. The video-essay moves between Lebanon and Belgium and includes thoughtful observations about the very issues discussed in the conference. In the discussion following the video-essay, as a follow up to a discussion within it of the work of human rights groups on Iran and on sexuality based persecution within it, I asked about the possibility of talking about issues such as persecution in Iran against the background of homonationalism and its critique, and about the importance of not silencing such a discussion. While the queer activists interviewed in Pink Camouflage were certainly committed to LGBT rights while at the same time criticizing homonationalist politics, I thought that the critical engagement with human rights work merited further discussion. I noted for example that groups such as Human Rights Watch in their work on Iran and other countries were, I thought, very careful in their reports and did important work, and that we should be careful that the critique of homonationalist cooptation should not cause us not to address sexuality based violations of human rights. While it is important to note that none of the speakers suggested we do that, my concern was with a certain chilling effect on the discourse. In response to that, addressing the issue of instrumentalization Butler pointed to the fact that we should question why are human rights groups addressing sexuality based killings in Iran and not for example similar killings in Wyoming, and how this line of action marks human rights as a problem that occurs elsewhere.  Sarah Bracke brought up, as an example, the fact that it has been suggested by some Belgian LGBT groups that in the gay pride parade in Brussels, the march will be led by people who got refugee status in Belgium, carrying signs saying: “I was persecuted in my country, thanks Belgium for giving me asylum”.  Bracke noted that people who were to carry these signs were interested in marching under these signs, but that the proposal also received serious opposition from other groups and activists.

While sharing the concerns Butler and Bracke expressed, I think we should take note of the fact that human rights groups (including US based ones) have in recent years engaged much more with violations at home than they used to at the past. While indeed I recall my dismay, when I first came to study in the US, at how “human rights” is often in American discourse considered other countries’ problem, always an external issue, this has changed significantly.  Consider in the context of sexuality for example Human Rights Watch’s report on violence and discrimination against LGBT students in US schools or the report it issued together with Immigration Equality on discrimination in immigration rights of LGBT families. As to the murder in Wyoming, actually the murder of Matthew Sheppard received widespread attention in the US and worldwide, and served as a focal point to discussion of the persistence of homophobia in the US. This beyond the fact that it was not a state sanctioned killing such as the one condemned in other countries, and actually the US President at the time of the murder spoke strongly against it.  This does not make it less of a heinous crime that indeed attests to the existence of homophobia, but is relevant when one discusses the different reactions to these crimes. I am making this point not because I think human rights groups should be immune from failures and critique, and indeed Butler and I shared in considering that while human rights groups have been doing a better job in this regard than before, we should continue to  be vigilant to the way human rights discourse may be applied differently in different contexts, but rather because I think it is extremely important to be careful when engaging with the critique of sexual nationalisms not to taint all human rights activism as biased. Addressing Bracke’s comment, while she explained that it is today very difficult to get asylum in Belgium based on any status other than LGBT, and pointed to the significance of this fact to the instrumentalization of  LGBT rights in Belgium, I think that given that generally getting asylum, and specifically on the basis of sexual orientaiotn and gender identity, is a highly difficult thing in many countries, we should not dismiss the importance of encouraging countries to give people asylum based on this status, and that mentioning this issue in Pride may not necessarily be bad.. So to answer the question Eribon was asked, “what stops you”, I want to argue that if mentioning the importance of granting asylum  to people who were persecuted based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and encouraging the award of such asylum in appropriate cases,  even through a parade of the sort Bracke described, is considered as something to be condemned, then we are already in a dangerous place where the critiqued of the instrumentalization of gay rights may silence the discussion of LGBT rights. I want to be able to congratulate states who give asylum based on these categories, without being accused of cooperating with homonationalism, while at the same time criticizing any racism that may be part of the discourse around asylum. Recall that actually many queer activists have over the years expressed concern with the refusal of “Western” states to grant asylum based on these categories, and also protested the lack of visibility of refugees in LGBT communities. There is a thin line between the critique and opposition to homonationalism and the rejection of the possibility to positively note, within LGBT pride events or any other event, the granting of asylum based on sexual orientation and gender identity,  (or for that matter any advance in LGBT rights) that should not be crossed.  So yes, one can argue about the tone in which things are said, and about their implication, but the example discussed here reinforced my concerns.

Closer to (my) home, consider for example Jason Rithcie’s recent article on Palestinian gay asylum seekers in Israel:  Ritchie points to the ways in which confirming what he calls the “racist” narrative of gay-friendly Israel versus homophobic Palestine confirms Israeli perceptions of the collective others by representing the queer Palestinian as a helpless victim of Palestinian homophobia in need of the benevolence and protection of the Israeli state.  While I appreciate Ritchie’s critical reading of the ideology and discourse used by some of the Israeli activists working on these matters, it does remain a reality that some gay Palestinians facing persecution seek refuge in Israel and that Israel is relatively gay friendly when compared to neighboring countries. Now clearly talking about Palestinians as homophobic (while denying the existence of homophobia in Israel) is a horrible and racist generalization, but discussing the gap in the status of LGBT people and their rights between these communities is not always racist, and, when attempting to grant asylum in Israel to Palestinians LGBTs who actively sought such asylum (an attempt that actually usually fails), this gap sometime has to be pointed to. Israeli activists have in the past encountered gay Palestinians who seek their help in getting asylum in Israel and could not reject their request or stop short of pointing to the this gap when addressing Israeli authorities. While I agree with Ritchie that some of the discourse of some activists on this issue is tainted with a racial and colonialist undertone, I think one should be very careful from hinting that any statements on these gaps made in this context are racist.

I was encountering this silencing in a blog post that included a  reference to my talk at the conference. In my talk, which essentially followed on themes addressed in my Bully Bloggers post, and was based on a paper in progress; I talked about the use of gay rights as what I call a “fig leaf” for Israeli democracy. As I mentioned in the talk I first noticed this happening (and wrote about it in the Israeli gay press) during Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s first term in 1996-1999, when his office sent a letter to the World Congress of Lesbian and Gay Jewish organization pointing to homophobic statements by a Palestinian cabinet minister. As I noted back then, Netanyahu never bothered to reprimand his own ministers who made homophobic statements, but in that case tried, already back then, to instrumentalize gay rights to vilify the Palestinians. I have been since engaged with this issue extensively. Like many scholars I highly appreciate Jasbir Puar’s creation and exposition of the term homonationalism, and her identification of this phenomenon as a global one. However, I expressed. as explained in the blog post linked above, my reservation from the use of the term “pinkwashing”, arguing that to the extent that it is patterned on “greenwashing,” it may be somewhat misleading: Whereas greenwashers only pretend to “go green,” Israel and its advocates often co-opt advances in gay rights that actually took place, to push forward a nationalist agenda. While Israel’s record on gay and more generally LGBT rights is far from perfect, there is no denying that considerable progress has been made. I argued that as a matter of fact if we want to fully understand the role of LGBT rights in Israeli homonationalism, we must not deny the progress that actually took place, but rather engage in further comprehension and analysis of this process.

After the conference, I have read that one commentator on it  asked “why is the presenter from Israel, presenting on “sexual nationalism” in his own country, constantly refuting activist and academic attempts of revealing Israel’s pinkwashing campaign, by stating this term is false, because there are gay rights in Israel that should not only be negatively investigate”.

Now consider what is going on here: This writer has suggested that I am “constantly” refuting activist and academic attempts of revealing Israel’s campaign, because of my reservation from this term. Clearly my talk did not shy way from revealing Israel’s campaign and instrumentalization of gay rights as a fig leaf for Israeli democracy, and as a tool of propaganda, it rather focused on it, and this is work that I have been doing for a while, consistent with my more general anti-occupation work. Indeed, I do in my critical work, question the term pinkwashing and consider it as not the appropriate one for discussion what is going on.  To refuse to do so would be to succumb to what Eribon called in his remarks, the transformation of critical thinking into policing of thought.

Having written and criticized Israel’s co-optation of gay rights for nationalist purposes extensively in Israel and internationally, I was surprised that my talk was described as one that was refuting the critique of Israel, because of my reservation from this term, and because my argument that gay rights in Israel should be understood in their full complexity and not as an artifact that was created for the national project.

In the discussion that followed my presentation in Amsterdam I mentioned that while I am actually one of those who is usually accused in Israel of “always speaking of the occupation”, and of bringing the occupation into any sexuality discussion, I do want to raise a question that I was asked myself: why is it that every time we speak of sexuality we also have to speak of the occupation, and not also the opposite.. Can we be able to ever speak on sexuality in Israel without talking about the occupation?  This question reverberated after the murderous attack on gay youth in Tel-Aviv in August 2009. Many, including myself, pointed to the need to discuss this murder in the context of violence.  In one piece I asked, given the widespread condemnation and shock at the murder, whether in a context  where shooting at children of the “other” is the norm, we should be surprised that LGBT children become the target of similar violence. I also wondered “whether the massacre of children in Gaza, and in Sderot, is less shocking that that of children on Nachmani Street in Tel-Aviv”. But others wondered whether sexual violence must always be discussed in the context of national violence, and pointed to the fact that homophobic murders also occur in countries which are not occupying countries engaged in war. I want to leave this question open for now, as my attempt in Sexual Nationalism was not to talk of sexuality without talking about the occupation, but rather to talk about the connections between the issues, and to discuss how LGBT rights are being co-opted by the Israeli government to represent Israel as a liberal democracy (which it is not, because of the occupation and because of the ethnic regime within Israel proper) and serve as a fig leaf for Israeli democracy. The fact that my reservation from the term “pinkwashing” was misrepresented by one commentator in the way cited above, even if this is an interpretation by one individual, points to how there is something silencing in some forms of the discussion of homonationlaism. If any such doubts as to this term, or any emphasis of the important of granting asylum for LGBT people, are silenced,  or questioned as collaborative, than the price of the critique of homonationalism, an enormously important critique which I share in, will be the impossibility to talk of some issues of LGBT rights.

In his opening remarks in the conference Eric Fassin stated we should not have to make a choice between sexual democracy and racial democracy. That we should resist the instrumentalization of sexual democracy, but that we should be able to talk about it without engaging in sexual nationalism:”I want to talk about sexual democracy, not just its instrumentalization. This is what critical thought is about. It is not merely about the denunciation of our opponents’ positions, which would only amount to criticism. Critique also entails questioning the imposition of the very terms of debate”.  I admire the work of people critiquing this instrumentalization, a critique I  share and that I have been talking and writing about for years,  but I am concerned that any talk of sexual democracy may now interpreted – at least in some context – as complicit with this instrumentalization. That even questioning some of the terms of the debate, an act of critique as pointed to by Fassin, is considered by some, as impossible. “The co-optation of our values need not make them less valuable, though they do become more problematic” Fassin noted. So this is true of LGBT rights in Israel, this is true of the granting of asylum in Belgium: the fact that we do not want to deny the existence and the importance of either, (and hence my reservation from the term pinkwashing), does not make the critique of their instrumentalization weaker, but actually, in my opinion stronger. Unfortunately I currently feel that in some of the current discourse, rejecting this denial, rejecting this kind of critical engagement, is considered as at best not being distanced enough from homonationalism, and at worst being complicit with it. This reductionist position should be rejected.


Aeyal Gross is Associate Professor of Law in Tel-Aviv University, and Visiting Reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London