Pinkwashing at The Advocate

October 14, 2014

Keegan O’Brien recounts how the leading LGBTQ magazine tried to water down an article about Israel--and then rejected it--in an account written for Electronic Intifada.

THIS SUMMER, The Advocate refused to talk about Palestine.

Here's what happened: In mid-July, an editor from the venerable LGBTQ magazine responded to my story pitch and asked me to write an op-ed on pinkwashing and the 51-day attack on Gaza, which Israel dubbed Operation Protective Edge.

After submitting an article, I received a revised draft that included heavy political editing. I was told the article would be published if I agreed to these changes. The edits included the removal of the words "apartheid," "occupation" and "colonialism," and the addition of a sentence condemning Hamas.

I told the editors I did not agree with their changes, but given the importance of the piece being published, I would accept them on two conditions:

First, the sentence they inserted about Hamas had to be removed because in my mind, it seemed to equate Israel's massive bombardment of a besieged, occupied territory that eventually killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, with Palestinian resistance.

Second, that a quote from Holocaust survivor and Palestine rights activist Suzanne Weiss be added to the piece.

Protesters take a stand against pinkwashing Israeli apartheid
Protesters take a stand against pinkwashing Israeli apartheid

I thought it was particularly important to get a piece into The Advocate because on July 9, just two days after the Israeli attack on Gaza began, it published an article titled "Why LGBT People Around the World Need Israel," lauding the state as a supposed haven of gay rights.

"Unless we want the Middle East to turn into an absolute free-for-all controlled by extremists who want to kill us and turn women into their slaves, then we need to do everything we can to protect Israel and stand in solidarity in any way we can," the piece stated, as U.S.-supplied Israeli bombs fell on Gaza, wiping out entire families. "Not only is it in our interests, but Israel deserves it after all it has done for us," the article added.

I was informed that my amended draft would be sent to the editors and that I would have a response promptly. More than a month later, I was finally told my piece would not be published.

MY QUESTIONS to The Advocate's editors are simple: Why are you afraid to talk about Gaza? Why did you find it necessary to completely remove the terms "occupation," "colonialism" and "apartheid" from an article about Palestine? Why did you consider it appropriate to carry the extremely controversial and offensive piece, which was filled with the worst anti-Arab and Islamophobic racism, coinciding with Israel's brutal war on Gaza, but did not consider it appropriate to talk about pinkwashing?

Author Sarah Schulman, a humanities professor at the College of Staten Island, has defined "pinkwashing" as "the co-opting of white gay people by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces in Western Europe and Israel."

In his book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah places Israeli pinkwashing in the broader context of the systematic and well-funded efforts by Zionist organizations and Israel to divide, discredit and defeat the growing movement for Palestinian rights.

Typified by the piece published in The Advocate, pinkwashing involves marketing Israel in terms thought to be appealing to Western liberals and progressives, particularly the use of LGBTQ issues and women's rights, in order to distract or deflect from Israel's horrifying abuses of Palestinians. At the same time, it often involves denigrating Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims more generally, often, as Abunimah documents, using fabricated claims.

So what does my experience say about The Advocate's editors' own opinions regarding the occupation? Considering how deeply controversial and personal the Palestinian-Israeli question is to so many in the LGBTQ community, why would The Advocate not consider it appropriate to at least cover more than one side?

The Advocate's refusal to publish my piece, or indeed any other pieces critical of pinkwashing since the attack on Gaza began, should raise deep concerns for anyone who supports the Palestinian movement for self-determination.

This decision is only one manifestation of the ways in which mainstream LGBTQ organizations have come to reflect a general mainstream culture beholden to corporate interests and the chilling effect Zionist discourses and the organizations promoting them have had on those who would criticize Israel.

The net result is that The Advocate is afraid to talk about Palestine, but is more than willing to provide a platform for bigoted diatribes peddled in the service of pinkwashing Israeli apartheid.

This is all a far cry from the era of Stonewall and the radicalism of gay liberation, which created the cultural space for The Advocate in the first place, and which The Advocate itself helped to expand.

They should be utterly ashamed and queers everywhere should not hesitate to let them know this.

Below is the final version of the article that The Advocate refused to publish (statistics were current at the time the article was first written):

FOUR-YEAR-old Asem Khalil Abed Ammar, his nine-year-old sister Iman, and his 13-year-old brother Ibrahim are just three of Operation Protective Edge's casualties.

They were blown apart during an attack by the Israel Defense Forces in the July 20 Shujaiya massacre, which left dozens murdered and the entire community flattened.

Since July 7, at least 1,800 Gazans have been slaughtered--each of them with a name, an age, and a life story.

The scale of destruction extends far beyond that, though. More than 5,000 Gazans have been severely wounded, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And most of Gaza's children suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Schools, hospitals, housing projects, refugee camps and even UN-designated shelters have not been spared the destruction. Entire neighborhoods have been razed to the ground as Israel has brought Gaza's infrastructure to the brink of total collapse; no place is safe.

Israel and its supporters in the U.S. government and the corporate media would have us believe that this highly uneven conflict is justified because the only democratic society in the Middle East has the right to defend itself. The existence of some legal reforms for LGBT people in Israel is regularly touted while promoting this idea.

But while Israel has relationship recognition policies, and it allows gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve openly in the military, those things matter very little when we're talking about issues of war and occupation.

At the end of the day, promoting Israel as a gay paradise is ultimately just a publicity blitz. It's an effort by Israel to demonize and scapegoat Palestinians as backward and homophobic and to portray Israel as progressive and tolerant in order to justify the country's horrific tactics.

The most recent example of Israel relying on this racist trope to save its own image was the initial attempt to blame the murder of Muhammad Abu Khudair, the 16-year-old Palestinian boy who was tortured and then burned alive in July, on his own family, with claims that the family had committed an "honor killing" because he was gay. However, three young Israeli men from Orthodox Jewish families have been charged with the crime.

Israeli and Palestinian societies both contain homophobia and transphobia. Even Israel has an influential religious right that advocates for anti-LGBT policies and has a record of violently attacking pride festivals. "Gay-friendly" Israel also has no issue when it comes to allying itself with and supporting brutally repressive, illegitimate anti-LGBT governments in the Middle East, such as Egypt's former dictator Hosni Mubarak or the monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

Most importantly, this PR campaign omits one simple, glaring truth: Israel is an apartheid state. But don't take my word for it, here's what Holocaust survivor and Jewish Palestine activist Suzanne Weiss had to say:

The Palestinians are victims of ethnic cleansing and apartheid...The Israeli government's actions toward the Palestinians awaken horrific memories of my family's experiences under Hitlerism: the inhuman walls, the checkpoints, the daily humiliations, killings, diseases, the systematic deprivation.

So why is Israel even concerned with promoting itself as a supporter of LGBT rights? Because the country's got a major PR problem.

To deflect attention away from its horrific and shameful violation of human rights and international law, which growing numbers of people are starting to recognize, Israel has had to find other ways to promote itself as the "only democracy" in the Middle East. And at a time when LGBT people are gaining greater acceptance and visibility in many parts of the world, what better way to do it!

While Israel has been able to hide its crimes from the rest of the world for quite some time, its own atrocious, self-discrediting actions and the rise of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights have struck some serious blows to Israel's public image in the international ring. Israel's iron grip on how it is perceived in the mainstream discourse has finally begun to crack.

Nothing illustrates the highly selective and hypocritical nature of Israel's supposedly "progressive" character more clearly than the experiences of LGBT Palestinians. As the Palestinian LGBT organization Al Qaws has pointed out, there is no special pink route for LGBT Palestinians to get them around the daily humiliation of checkpoints throughout the West Bank. And being LGBT most certainly does not grant protection to Palestinians when the Israel Defense Forces decide to rain down missiles on their homes, schools and hospitals in Gaza as it has been doing.

Queer Palestinian solidarity activists call this practice--blatant exploitation of LGBT rights for the purpose of whitewashing the consequences of Israel's military actions and apartheid policies--pinkwashing.

The existence of some legal reforms for LGBT people in Israel does not rationalize its horrific and obscene treatment of all Palestinians--queer and straight. It especially does not justify its recent brutal bombardment of Gaza, which has turned the world's largest open-air prison into a living hell on earth. The first LGBT delegation to Palestine, which visited in 2012, was right: Palestinian queers can never be free as long as they remain trapped like this. Freedom from occupation is the starting point for any struggle for Palestinian gender and sexual liberation.

If there's one thing I've learned being a queer person in this society, it's a basic sense of solidarity; we always have a responsibility to stand with those living under the boot of oppression, no matter who's standing on the necks. The best of our history is about collective struggles against injustice and solidarity among all the oppressed. It's a movement and history that has no place being used in the service of pinkwashing Israel's policies.

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