“Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money),” queer Palestinian activist Ghaith Hilal writes. “Being super ‘good’ doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.” Ghaith’s words, which come from the must-read article “Eight Things Palestinian Queers Are Tired of Hearing,” articulate my own view as I come to reflect on student organizing around Palestine and broader issues of justice and liberation.
Two weeks ago, Stanford Israel Alliance co-hosted a screening of “Out in the Dark” with the Queer Straight Alliance. Having watched the film and its portrayal of a star-crossed relationship between a gay Palestinian resident of the West Bank and a gay Jewish Israeli and having spent a month in the West Bank primarily with queer Palestinians, the film felt both compelling (I’m a sucker for most love stories) and violent. What was compelling was the simple human desire to love and be loved, and watching a couple attempt to fight the structural barriers conspiring against them — the violence, moreover, laid in the overlying and underlying messages that come across during these moments of vulnerability and emotional attachment to the film.
“Out in the Dark” portrays Roy, a well-off, Jewish Israeli lawyer as a savior to Nimr, a queer Palestinian student who apparently must flee from his repressive, homophobic society across the apartheid wall in Ramallah. While the film does show parts of the oppressive nature of the Israeli Occupation Force, it casts every Arab male character besides Nimr as homophobic and violent or effeminate and non-threatening, playing into stereotypes about Palestinian/Arab men and gay men without delving into the complexity of resisting colonization and occupation or of finding balance around being Palestinian, religious and gay. Glimmers of statements against the occupation highlight a corrupt Israeli security apparatus without challenging the underlying problem (settler colonialism and its effects on the indigenous population). Roy’s parents’ aversion to his sexual orientation and his Palestinian boyfriend do not cast Israeli society as homophobic or racist, but as relatively reasonable responses within a complex society.
So Palestinian society is one-dimensional and bad; Israeli society is complicated, nuanced, has its problems, but ultimately better. It is a hop-skip-and-a-jump from here to the association that Palestinian society is backwards, uncivilized and therefore deserving of its occupied status — or that Israeli society is relatively progressive and therefore justified in its ongoing colonization and occupation of “backwards Arabs.”
For people coming to this film with only vague context to the issue of Israel and Palestine, these may be non-issues — or not obvious issues. But the Israeli government admittedly spends millions of dollars on its Brand Israel campaign to portray the state as progressive, including “pinkwashing” or marketing Israel as a haven to gays all around the world while ignoring its 47-year occupation of Palestine and the oppression it brings to Palestinians regardless of their sexual orientation. “Out in the Dark” might be seen as a softer form of pinkwashing — not one that extols Israeli society, but one that portrays Palestinian society as qualitatively worse and ignores the amplifying effect of military occupation on oppression that exists in every society. This type of campaign is not original by any means.
During Jim Crow and the Cold War, the CIA sent black performers like Louis Armstrong and other artists to perform abroad to weaken foreign judgment of America’s racist policies. The South African government sponsored an eerily similar Brand South Africa propaganda campaign during apartheid. In the cases of the U.S., South Africa and Israel, artists critical of the country’s policies have either had their passports revoked or did not receive state funding to travel. The colonizer, the former master, the ruling party has the privilege of defining his own narrative and the resources to limit the narratives of the colonized, the former slave, the ruled over.
Until the occupation is over and Palestinians have the resources and access to shape and share their own narratives, films like “Out in the Dark” remain at best naïve and at worst a cynical exploitation of the marginalized parties they seek to bring attention to.
I hope that viewers of the film could take the sympathy that the film’s protagonist very much deserves and extend it to its proper end: If we care about the wellbeing of Nimr, a queer Palestinian, we presumably care about the wellbeing of queer Palestinians generally, no? For the majority of us that do, what does caring for this group mean? Maybe we should ask them!
“Palestinians are living under a decades-long military occupation,” writes Ghaith Hilal, a founding member of Al Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. “The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.”
“These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society,” Ghaith continues. “If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites…You cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.”
As someone who also exists at the intersection of two marginalized identities — being black and queer — I can resonate pretty well with a lot of the sentiments activists in al-Qaws raise. While many Americans have the perception of the black community as being homophobic, I do not identify my primary struggle as fighting heteropatriarchal tendencies that sometimes arise in our community. (These tendencies exist in the larger American society as well, yet we fixate on the black community because it is an easy ‘Other’ to identify.) I identify my primary struggle as fighting the structural racism that continues to oppress our community as a whole.
While the stresses of systemic injustice may amplify these tendencies within the black community, often we attribute them to the inferiority or less civilized nature of black culture, implicitly justifying the community’s continued marginalized and exploited social position. If you really want to be an ally to me, join anti-racist work — the fight to end mass incarceration and police brutality, the struggle for economic justice, insist that black people are people. Let me and other black queers handle our internal struggle in the way that we see fit. If we need help, we will ask for it. Chances are, though, that what we ask for might not fit so well with the larger society.
In the same way, we should resist attempts of the Israeli propaganda machine to provide the narrative for any Palestinians — queer or otherwise.
Contact Kristian Bailey at kbailey “at” stanford.edu.