Why #Pinkwashing Insults Gays and Hurts Palestinians

Participants in Tel Aviv’s 2014 LGBT pride celebrations.

Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

It’s June, and Tel Aviv is once again seeing rainbows. But last week’s gay pride celebrations in the Middle East’s most progressive city left some activists seeing red, or, more specifically, pink. Israel’s increased visibility as a travel destination for LGBTQ visitors during pride month inevitably brings out the “pinkwashing” activists on Twitter. In this context, pinkwashing is defined as a disingenuous effort by the Israeli government to use the country’s generally positive record on LGBTQ rights to distract attention from human rights abuses in Palestine. But in their efforts to call attention to Palestinians’ plight, overzealous activists have demonized legitimate gay rights advances as part of a broader anti-Israel stance. This is terrible for gay rights in general, and it’s particularly awful for the LGBTQ community in Palestine.

Pinkwashing activists believe that LGBTQ sympathy for Israel—and comparative antipathy for other countries in the region—will indirectly hurt the Palestinian cause. Arguments to support this generally hinge on cultural relativism, claiming that Israel is fomenting a gays-versus-Muslims mentality as part of a broader agenda. But Israel isn’t telling the gay community to hate anyone. And the gay community isn’t turning its back on gay rights internationally.

Pinkwashing activists sometimes point to a 1951 law decriminalizing sodomy in Jordan—grandfathered into the West Bank—as an example of progress. But how is a 1951 law a sign of progress? Jordanian authorities regularly harass and sometimes arrest members of the LGBTQ community. Same-sex activity is still prohibited in Gaza, so don’t expect to see any Hamas-sponsored pride parades anytime soon. Many Palestinian gays who feel unwelcome in their home territory seek refuge in Israel. But discriminatory Israeli policies make it difficult for gay Palestinian asylum-seekers to stay there. It will take the efforts of the broader gay community to affect change on both sides of the conflict. In other words, foreign gays should be welcomed to Israel, and activists should set their sights on educating them about LGBTQ needs in Palestine.

It’s safe to say that the LGBTQ community isn’t exactly clamoring to support hardline Islamic societies where the penalties for homosexuality range from prison time to death. But how is it fair to blame Israel if its pro-gay policies make its neighbors look bad? The gay community has no obligation to value cultural norms that support their imprisonment or demise. But pinkwashing assumes that the gay community is too stupid to realize that, yes, Muslims can be gay, too.

Having more gays—many of whom are socially liberal progressives with strong sympathies for human rights causes—visit Israel would seem to be a tremendous opportunity for Palestinian activists to raise awareness for their cause. Yes, most gay visitors are there to enjoy the beautiful beaches, renowned nightlife, and delicious food (also known as a vacation), but this doesn’t mean they necessarily harbor a strong allegiance to the Israeli government. Instead of demonizing gay travelers for something Tel Aviv is doing right, activists should focus on drumming up support for Palestine’s LGBTQ community while they’re in town. Pride is about inclusiveness, and Palestinians should be included.

Tel Aviv’s pride celebration isn’t just a party for visitors, anyway. Tel Aviv, like the rest of Israel, still has obstacles to overcome and accomplishments to be made on the gay rights front. Marriage equality has not yet been achieved. Housing discrimination against gay couples is still commonplace. Increased visibility for the city’s large LGBTQ population—bolstered by visitors from abroad—is undoubtedly helpful to advancing gay rights in the region. Organizers predicted that nearly 20,000 of the event’s more than 100,000 participants would be foreign visitors this year.

But pinkwashing activists are relying on bizarre logic to prove their points. The concept of “homonationalism” suggests that gays in more progressive societies are more likely to be swayed by pinkwashing, baited into xenophobic hatred due a combination of past injustices and racial/religious privilege. Having experienced discrimination in the past but now seeing their rights recognized, these gays—typically white and from Christian backgrounds—will be fast to marginalize groups that they perceive to be homophobic. But for pinkwashing activists, homonationalism doesn’t stop there.

Jasbir Puar, an academic who helped popularize the term, suggested in an article last year that the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and subsequent human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib—was bolstered by homonationalism as part of “sexually progressive multiculturalism justifying foreign intervention.” While it may be easy to project repression on an individual level, the idea that the LGBTQ community was more OK with torturing detainees because they were seen as an enemy of the gays is a bit far-fetched. In fact, the idea that any Bush administration policies were widely accepted by the gay community seems pretty ridiculous.

Other activists have even begun to cite a more direct correlation between gay visitors and human rights abuses, holding up placards suggesting that Israeli government is “using” gay people to oppress Palestinians. But is Israel welcoming LGBTQ travelers with a gift basket full of munitions to hurl over West Bank barriers? No. Linking the gay rights movement to Israel’s geopolitical conflict merely refreshes age-old Zionist conspiracy theories by using one of today’s most prominent social issues.  

Pinkwashing advocates are trapped in their own gender studies/international relations fantasyland. Legitimately concerned with human rights abuses in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, they have created an entire academic language in order to hype up a concept that draws an unrealistic correlation between their cause and the gay rights movement. Because of this, any LGBTQ person traveling to take part in a gay rights demonstration is a homonationalist, unwittingly part of the pinkwashing agenda. It’s no longer appropriate to label any city as “gay-friendly” or “homophobic,” because, according to pinkwashing activists, pro-gay legislation and LGBTQ visibility aren’t the appropriate barometers with which to measure social change. Gays, perhaps it’s time to book your tickets to Saudi Arabia. (Don’t worry about finding a hotel; if you’re openly gay, the Saudi government will be happy to provide accommodations.)

Of course, LGBTQ rights aren’t the only marker of social change or human rights. But suggesting that they’re separate from any other universal human right is dangerous. An accusation of pinkwashing presumes that gay human rights causes are less salient than Palestinian human rights causes, when in fact they’re all equal. (And sometimes the same.) Keeping gay visitors out of Israel also keeps Palestine—and much of the rest of the Middle East—out of their minds. By championing all gay rights causes, activists can better champion Palestinian causes. By claiming #pinkwashing, we only further segregate the human rights community, and that just isn’t something to be proud of.