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Gaza is in crisis. Since Oct. 7, 2023, more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli military operations—that’s about one in every 100 people in Gaza, according to CNN. Near-constant bombings, communication blackouts, and Israel’s ongoing blockade of the besieged enclave has led to widespread shortages of food, fuel, and medicine, further endangering the more than 2 million residents in the Gaza Strip, nearly half of whom are children. More than 100 days since Israel declared war on Gaza, the devastation is so complete that Al Jazeera reports that Gaza is actually a different color from space.
But this violence isn’t just militaristic. There is also violence in the ways occupation is justified and sanitized through language, especially on the global stage. Especially in white, European, or Western media, there are certain cultural narratives—the kind that shape political action and inaction, media coverage, cultural attitudes, and even interpersonal conversations—that work to defend state violence and foster hostility toward victims of that violence. Pinkwashing is one such strategy, now on prime display amid the ongoing genocide in Gaza.
First applied to Israel–Palestine in 2010 by Palestinian American journalist Ali Abunimah, pinkwashing in this context describes how calculated gestures of LGBTQ acceptance are used to legitimize settler colonialism, distract from human rights violations, and promote an unfounded image of democracy or liberalism. There are numerous examples, long predating the current assault on Gaza: In 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress that “gays are hanged” in the Middle East; this past November, the Embassy of Israel used similar language, claiming that Hamas tortures and murders LGBTQ people. Even Israel’s official Twitter account often features images of same-sex proposals between Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers—despite the fact that same-sex marriage remains illegal in Israel. Taken as a whole, these messages work to simultaneously condemn Palestinians—and Middle Easterners more broadly—as regressive homophobes, while bolstering Israel’s self-proclaimed status as a “civilized” liberator of queer people.
“Queer activism in Gaza began long before the Israeli military’s genocide, and no one’s liberation, queer or otherwise, could ever come from a military campaign of wholesale destruction of life and society such as we’ve witnessed the Israeli government wreak on Gaza,” says Liv Kunins-Berkowitz, media coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). “Through such blatant propaganda, the Israeli government is hoping to muddy the waters of the genocide it is committing and hopes that the queer community will stop its calls for cease-fire and Palestinian liberation.”
The point of pinkwashing, then, is twofold: to not only justify mass violence, but also isolate queer Palestinians from wider, global movements for LGBTQ and human rights. But many activists are actually using pinkwashing to galvanize and educate their communities—and frame the genocide as an explicitly queer issue.
“Palestine is and has always been a queer and trans issue, same as every other genocide and occupation out there,” says Yaffa A.S., a queer, trans, Indigenous displaced Palestinian and executive director of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
“It’s important for the most marginalized identities to always be centered, especially when those same identities are weaponized against us.”
Part of this work—recentering queer Palestinian lives—means understanding how pinkwashing happens.
Pinkwashing has long been part of Israel’s international strategy, according to Sarah Schulman, who popularized the term in a 2011 op-ed for The New York Times and authored the book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. In the early 2000s, the Israeli government launched its “Brand Israel” campaign—intended to literally brand Israel as modern and progressive to global audiences. By 2010, that strategy included marketing Tel Aviv as an epicenter of gay life and tourism. “They were, very brilliantly, making the claim that gay rights was a symbol of modernity,” Schulman says. “So that if you had any kind of gay rights, you were considered advanced.”
The other side of Israel’s pinkwashing often portrays Palestinians as homophobic and transphobic, says Yaffa. “All this reinforces white supremacist imperialist notions that have been used for hundreds of years to justify genocide and occupation to ‘save’ Black and Brown people from ourselves.”
Dean Spade, a law professor, organizer, JVP member, and director of the 2015 film Pinkwashing Exposed, agrees with Yaffa’s assessment. “To be clear, pinkwashing propaganda isn’t just aimed at queer and trans people,” Spade explains. “It is aimed at anyone who might associate queer freedom with liberation and therefore possibly be convinced that if Israel is pro-gay rights, it must be a just and fair regime.”
In practice, pinkwashing can saturate news coverage and social media. Recently, pictures of gay IDF soldier Yoav Atzmoni were circulated widely. On Nov. 13, 2023, Israel’s official Twitter account shared two images of Atzmoni: In one photo, Atzmoni stands in front of a tank, smiling as he holds up an Israeli flag with rainbow borders; in another, he stands amid bulldozed land in Gaza, with destroyed buildings visible in the background, holding a pride flag with the words “in the name of love” written on it. In the caption, Israel’s Twitter account claimed the IDF soldier wanted to “send a message of hope to the people of Gaza living under Hamas brutality” and “to raise the first pride flag in Gaza as a call for peace and freedom.”
Insider Business, a U.S. media outlet, ran an interview with Atzmoni, who framed the occupation as a fight for LGBTQ rights. “I won’t let [Hamas] bring me back into the closet,” he told Insider in late October 2023. Paradoxically, there is increasing hostility toward the LGBTQ community from Israeli officials, with The Times of Israel reporting in 2023 that lawmakers self-identify as “proud homophobes” and call for an end to Pride parades and the denial of medical care for LGBTQ Israelis. Meanwhile, Atzmoni said the Israeli military is “the protector of Israel’s democracy and LGBTQ+ rights—and the flag represents that.”
Jewish Voice for Peace activist Kunins-Berkowitz sees something different in Atzmoni’s photo. “When a soldier dares to hold the pride flag in front of a graveyard that he helped to create, it robs the flag of its liberatory meaning and transforms it into yet another symbol of death and destruction,” they say. “To be abundantly clear: There is no pride in genocide. Queer folks around the world refuse to let the Israeli military use our symbols and stories as fuel for their genocidal campaign.”
Spade, too, stresses the importance of naming and resisting pinkwashing, especially within LGBTQ communities. “Given that queer and trans people are being used as pawns in the pinkwashing propaganda, it’s important that we know what’s going on, so we don’t accidentally get pulled into colluding with it.”
For Yaffa, the best strategy to disrupt pinkwashing is to center queer and, in particular, trans Palestinian lives and stories instead. “As trans Palestinians, every aspect of our being is being weaponized against our own community. Through centering our voices we not only disrupt the pinkwashing narrative but we move beyond it,” she says.
Moving beyond pinkwashing was a major motivation in Yaffa’s poetry collection Blood Orange, which explores displacement and identity, as well as her decision to edit the forthcoming queer and trans Palestinian utopia anthology, forthcoming in spring 2024. “The stories we tell are building blocks to the world we build,” says Yaffa.
Education, too, can equip people—especially the LGBTQ community—with the skills to identify and speak against pinkwashing. In partnership with the Queer Shia Collective, the Queer Palestinian Empowerment Network, the Palestinian Feminist Collective, and others, Yaffa recently spoke at a purplewashing teach-in. Though a slightly different hue, purplewashing is very similar to pinkwashing in that it uses “women’s rights” to justify genocide and war.
There are countless other examples of both queer Palestinian organizing and queer solidarity movements that take aim at pinkwashing and attempt to rehumanize Palestinians. More than 300 LGBTQ artists signed an open letter condemning Israel’s occupation, challenging pinkwashing directly and calling for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, a collective of queer Palestinians published a list of liberatory demands for the international community. Likewise, there is a history of solidarity in the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement and other queer activist groups like ACT UP, which called for cease-fire on World AIDS Day, and annual NYC Dyke March protests, which have long had an anti-Zionist contingent. And there are, of course, the long-standing Palestinian queer grassroots groups like alQaws and Aswat.
Together, these organizations amplify the vision outlined by queer Palestinians: “We, queer Palestinians, are an integral part of our society, and we are informing you: from the heavily militarized alleys of Jerusalem to Huwara’s scorched lands, to Jaffa’s surveilled streets and cutting across Gaza’s besieging walls, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Sara Youngblood Gregory is a lesbian journalist and author of The Polyamory Workbook. Sara is a former staff writer for POPSUGAR and was the 2023 News and Narrative Fellow for TransLash Media. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vice, Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Bustle, DAME, Cosmo, Jezebel, and many others. Most recently, they were the recipient of the 2023 Curve and NLGJA Award for Emerging Journalists. Get in touch at saragregory.org.