Queering the Occupation: Settler Colonial Sexualities in the Era of Homonationalism

Author Bio: 

Ralph Haddad is a queer Lebanese student entering a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies and Gender Studies at McGill University in Montreal. His interests include decolonial queer identity formation and queering notions of citizenship and belonging, with special focus on Lebanon and Palestine. Ralph focuses on the ability of literature to be a vessel into marginalized points of view, and is interested in how to use those points of views to imagine a more inclusive society to counter our own.


This paper focuses on the relationship between settler-colonialism, nation building, and the policing of bodies via the white settler-colonial gaze. Overviewing the impact of settler-colonialism on sexuality, I move into a comparative analysis of settler colonialism as it impacted sexualities during Apartheid-era South Africa and those of Palestine under the ongoing Israeli occupation. I discuss the othering of “indigeneity” as opposed to the “modern” configuration of the settlers’ sexualities that happened in what is now North America, and how it reconfigured gayness as whiteness, violently racializing, policing and re-socializing Indigenous. Using the comparative framework, I then transition to Palestine, where the Israeli occupation imposes violence upon, but also utilizes, queer Palestinian bodies to further its ongoing settler-colonial nation-building project through the coercive and imaginative labor of homonationlism and pinkwashing.

Queer Bodies
Cite This: 
Ralph Haddad. "Queering the Occupation: Settler Colonial Sexualities in the Era of Homonationalism". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 3 No. 1 (2017): pp. 105-118. (Last accessed on 19 July 2024). Available at: https://kohljournal.press/queering-the-occupation. doi: https://doi.org/10.36583/kohl/3-1-14.

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Hala Hasan


The apartheid wall was not created to keep Palestinian homophobes out of Gay Israel, and there is no magic door for gay Palestinians to pass through – Sami Shamali, member of alQaws.

“Why did you immigrate to Canada, then?” a stranger asked me at a cafe one night. We had started discussing the Israeli occupation of Palestine, when the conversation took a left turn and he asked me why I would support a state that actively persecutes and “stones” its gay population. I was furious that a stranger would make assumptions about my own life and my queerness in order to justify the goals of their strawman argument. “Why did you immigrate to Canada, then? Isn’t it because you were being persecuted in Lebanon for being queer?” Instances such as these are nothing new. Non-white queer identities are often questioned and speculated about, and their very existence seems to be a predicament for Western1 gay actors. Within a homonormative settler-colonial Euro-American dominated paradigm of queer rights, queerness comes to stand in as a signifier for progress (whether on the right or left of the political spectrum):2 the more queer rights exist within a specific locale, the more modern and progressive a regime promotes itself to be. This does not escape Israel, which increasingly markets itself as gay friendly to a predominantly Western audience. This paper analyzes queer politics and activism in Israel/Palestine in light of several intersecting factors: the formation of universal Western gay discourses, U.S. imperialism, homonationalism, pinkwashing, and militarism. Explored in light of the South African apartheid case and other settler-colonial societies, this narrative looks at the ways in which gay sexualities conforming to a universalized perception of non-heterosexuality are produced as cooptation tools that serve to legitimize occupation. Ultimately, Israel’s policing of Palestinian bodies into specific sexuality configurations facilitates the repression of Palestinian dissent, as well as any manifestation of queerness that refuses to be complicit with the settler-colonial state’s violations and practices.


Colonialism and its Sexual Effects

Colonialism has long taken sexuality as one of its many civilizing projects. Early European settlers in the Americas “sexualized” the local Indigenous population, especially men, in order to justify their persecution. Indigenous sexualities were seen as primitive and perverse, and persecuting them was therefore justified in the large scheme of the civilizing mission. Patrick Wolfe explains that settler colonial societies are built on the simultaneous elimination and assimilation of the indigenous populations (as ctd. in Morgensen, “Biopolitics,” 52). In Scott Morgensen’s view, the colonial control of indigenous populations’ sexualities is exemplary of biopower (52).

Biopolitics (the term biopower is derived from) is a term coined by Michel Foucault to distinguish the power the state has over individuals that regulates their right to live and die (Morgensen, Spaces, 33). Morgensen take Foucault’s definition further by emphasizing the colonial settler state’s biopower in determining who gets included, and who is worthy of being included within the categories of “living” and “dying” (33). Morgensen argues that settler colonial biopolitics manifested itself in the colonies via an imposition of settler sexualities on the indigenous population, as well as a general imposition of heteropatriarchal norms via different ideological state apparatuses, mainly the law (34). This project sought to eliminate indigenous sexuality, and forcibly incorporate them into the hegemony of settler sexuality (34). For Morgensen, the biopower that the state emphasizes produces an extra-legal framework whereby the state has the right to take life away based on certain criteria of who belongs to the state, which produces “‘a lawless sovereignty as part of [the state’s] own operation of power” (“Biopolitics,” 54). An important aspect of the state’s execution of biopower can be framed in terms of humanization/dehumanization of indigeneity. Morgensen asserts that questioning the degree of humanity of Indigenous peoples under settler colonialism was correlated to the degree of their subjection to Western law (as it was applied in settler colonies), and by extension Western values (via amalgamation) (61). In this way, the category of “settler” is structured in opposition to the categories of “native” and “Indigenous,” with little leeway between the two. The framework of biopolitics is therefore a process of othering that justifies the formation of a state out of settler colonies, as is the case with Israel, and it cannot be dissociated from a sexuality discourse.

Barbara Voss posits that sexuality was central to settler colonial projects (11). Projects of colonial and Empire-building have to necessarily rely on what Stoler calls “tense and tender ties” that bind together different ideological state apparatuses (11). These “tense and tender ties” include sexuality as a regulatory tool, for instance. Accompanying this project of humanization/dehumanization that follows the state’s enforcement of biopower in order to regulate Indigeneity, sexuality here can be seen as a project of comparison between bodies (12). This comparison relies on “comparisons among bodies and between modernity and tradition, between civilization and the primitive, between norms and perversions, and between acts and identities” (12). Indeed, the regulation and punishment of Indigenous sexualities produced a settler sexuality that was “modern” as opposed to primitive sexualities and societies of Indigenous peoples (Morgensen, “Biopolitics,” 42). Morgensen writes that “modern sexuality was not a product of settler colonialism […] Rather, modern sexuality became a method to produce settler colonialism, and settler subjects, and by facilitating ongoing conquest and naturalizing its effects” (42). In this sense, the settler-colonial state is formulated via a specific discourse of sexuality, as well as demonizing Indigenous sexuality thereby demonizing Indigeneity and Indigenous peoples. I take Voss and Morgensen’s arguments further by looking at sexuality as a site of state biopower that not only suppresses non-normative and Indigenous sexualities, but also coopts sexuality movements to maintain its process of othering and legitimizes its raison d’être.


Cultural Configurations of Queerness

The process of biopolitics in settler-colonial state formations results in a discourse on sexuality that is hegemonically white and heteronormative. It is important to think of this process neither in terms of a state’s acceptance of non-normative sexualities or queerness, nor in terms of homophobia/persecution, but as sexuality in motion, first coded in settler-colonial societies, and subsequently deployed by the state. In the contexts of South African and Israeli/Palestinian localities, these settler-colonial3societies – two cases of European settlers – are both built on a society of exclusion on the basis of this settlement while claiming to indigeneity.

Writing about queerness in relation to Israel/Palestine can benefit from theorizing specific situations within a South African context. South Africa is contemporarily taken as a reference point by many Palestine activists, specifically the movement calling to impose boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on the state of Israel, for the possibility of what Palestine can become. We know that South Africa today is not a perfect state, as the legacy of apartheid still persists. However, the effect of the larger frameworks of apartheid and occupation is comparable in both these cases. Acknowledging the complexities of both situations, and not wanting to take a reductionist stance on a South African example in order to try to fit it into an Israeli/Palestinian locale, we can nonetheless discern striking similarities in relation to queerness and queer spaces in both locales.

On the circulation in the U.S. of gay South African pornographic videos produced during apartheid in the 1990s, Ian Barnard makes an interesting case for the correlation of whiteness and gayness. Barnard argues that South Africa “encapsulates the collision and collapse of First and Third Worlds” in linking the First World, or modernity, to the white population, and the Third World to the Black population (21). While this comparison is problematic because it reinforces the dichotomy of modernity vs. primitivism, Barnard is pointing to the living conditions produced under apartheid for separate racial groups. The pornographic video in question, called The Men of South Africa, showcases only white men engaging in various sexual acts, with footage of South African landscapes occasionally popping up throughout in order to give the video authenticity (21). The shots, Barnard argues, are “recognizably Western” to the U.S. viewer, who can then “relate” to the locale being shown them (22). Black people are noticeably absent from the video except when they happen to pass in the background of a shot. These background shots are juxtaposed with shots of wild animals, such as zebras and elephants, and shots of South African plains that aimed to give the video an air of the “exotic” and “primitive” (22). Black men, therefore, to the U.S. viewer, do not figure in the sexuality that the video presents. Rather, “black people serve to enrich the locale with extra Otherness and at the same time by counterpoint to emphasize the normalcy of the […] white characters” (23).

Barnard attributes this erasure to the larger reality of South African apartheid. Under this reality, Black men were literally calculated out of the South African imaginary, as well as South African citizenship and nationality (24). This project revolved around the idea that South Africa was a European and democratic nation (for white South Africans) amid a Black (and therefore primitive, and hostile) Africa (24). This reality creates a “civilizational” imaginary as well that also helps U.S. viewers identify with the video in question. In having the videos only be distributed within the U.S. (25), the videos present a whitewashed reality of gayness in South Africa, as well as an overwhelmingly white South Africa, to outside viewers (27). In relation, as much as South African-ness is whitewashed in the videos, gayness is also racialized as white within this context (27). The apartheid regime strictly outlawed sex between men, maintaining colonial antisodomoy laws, as white male homosexuality was seen as threatening to Afrikaner masculinity, and by extension the nation-state (Currier, 29). However, these laws disproportionately targeted Black men who were more likely than white men to be the targets of anti-sodomy laws (29). The criminalization of Black, and by extension Indigenous sexualities portrays the suppression of non-settler sexualities and bodies via the biopower of settler-colonial states of apartheid.

Access to “gay spaces” was also regulated under apartheid, simply because gay spaces were predominantly situated in areas zoned “white” public spaces, restricting Black queer men’s access to these spaces (Leap, 221). As anti-sodomy laws were heavily enforced by the apartheid regime, engaging in same-sex relations proved more difficult for Black men. In many of the testimonies that William Leap gathered from South Africans about the gay “scene” under apartheid, the narrative of Black presence was completely erased (225). Many of the testimonies are concerned with white men’s interaction with each other, or with coloured men (224). Leap writes that “much less white animosity was directed toward Coloured patrons who came closer to the white gay ideal” (224). We can discern from this analysis that respectability politics played a big role in Coloured admittance to white gay spaces. These respectability politics ensured that Coloured men abided by white ideals. Leap adds one choice testimony around this specificity, wherein the respondent asserts that “it was an honor for a Coloured man to suck a white cock” (225). Rather than disrupting racial hierarchies, gay spaces within South Africa reproduced and revalidated them via the positioning of public gay spaces as well as sex roles (225). Ultimately, respectability politics become racialized and reduced to the question of who is engaging in what sexual practice, a facet that is even more enhanced under apartheid. Donham adds an interesting nuance to this analysis of South African male-male sexuality by taking the specific case of Soweto, wherein the common apartheid-era understanding of “gay” men was that they were a mixed or “third sex” and were treated as such: “In black town- ship slang, the actual designation for the effeminate partner in a male same-sex coupling was stabane – literally, a hermaphrodite” (7). Class differences within South Africa, which are also racialized, create different types of gay communities within the country (15). Donham adds that the transnational circulation of “gay” images gives Black South Africans a reference to turn to, albeit white dominated: “For black men, then, identifying as gay must carry with it a certain complexity absent for most white South Africans” (16).

These analyses reveal a configuration of a normative, white, and gay imaginary that others had to fit into in the South African case. The reality of apartheid complicated this imaginary even further by completely denying Black men access to any sort of gay space, whether Coloured or white. Not only does apartheid complicate “queer” space, it also gives us an alternative view of how sexuality was perceived in some South African communities. A pre-apartheid formation of sexuality quickly changed with the “modernization” of South Africa post-apartheid:

with the birth of a “free” South Africa, the notion of sexuality was created for some black men, or more precisely, an identity based on sexuality was created. The classificatory grid in the making was different from the old one. Now, both partners in a same-sex relationship were potentially classified as the same (male) gender and as “gay.” (16)

Although the legal aspects behind the criminalization of sexualities are not displayed in such an overt way in the case of Israel/Palestine, the concept of space regulation proves most helpful as it can be traced back to settler-colonial and apartheid practices in the analysis of Israel/Palestine. White, cisgay sexuality is the hegemonic sexuality within Israel, which guides access (and denial) of belonging to queer groups and spaces to queer men living in Israel/Palestine. This reality is intertwined with the Zionist reality, and consequently with the erasure of the occupation of Palestinian territories (wherein the gay reality was intertwined with the reality of apartheid in South Africa). This reality reproduces the rhetoric of primitive vs. modern and backward vs. progressive. In South Africa, “gayness” was de facto anti-Black because of its physical exclusion of Black men from gay public spaces of congregation, as well as the heavier policing of Black male same-sex sexualities as opposed to their white counterparts. Within Israel, the gay rhetoric is increasingly Islamophobic/Arabophobic.

In order to understand conceptions and deployments of queerness as they operate within Israel/Palestine, we need to understand the queer reality within Israel proper through homonationalism and pinkwashing, and situate these within a larger framework of militarism.


Herzlian Zionism and the “Muskeljuden4

In writing about queerness within the Israeli context, Alisa Solomon writes that to express territorial nationalism, Herzlian Zionism’s movement had to let go of and remake the image of the “patsy, degenerate–that is, queer–Juden of Europe into the powerful, dominant–that is, sexually normative–Muskeljuden of their own romantic homeland,” Israel (151). The very existence of Israeli queerness, according to Solomon, offers a rejection of Zionism’s project of heterosexualizing the homeland along gendered lines (152). Howeover, Solomon asserts that in today’s Israeli culture war between mainstream Zionism and the religious right, queerness has acquired rhetorical value for mainstream Zionism by standing in opposition to religious fundamentalism – the same religious fundamentalism that rails against gay and lesbian rights in Israel (152-53). Gay and lesbian rights started to take hold in Israel right as the old ethos of collective responsibility began to be eroded to make way for the increasing reality of consumerist individualism that Israel was buying into (155). This shift to consumerist individualism reaffirms the gendered public/private dichotomy that arises with the heteronormativity of nation: women in the home and men in the public sphere (161).

Gay and lesbian rights, according to Solomon, could not have been rallied if not for the privacy principle that arose with the consumerist individualism (155). This also rendered gay and lesbian rights individualistic rights in nature, adopting a Western legal framework for the actualization of these rights. Indeed, “the simple fact of a gay movement represents an exemplary instance of liberal Zionism’s definition of normalization: being just like European nations. As gays are increasingly visible and accepted in Western societies, Israel assures that is it keeping up with “normality” by having its own out gays” (156). Howeover, this gay “normality” is very much tied to maleness and masculinity (as that is in turn tied to Zionist Jewishness nationalism) and so produces a very narrow definition of gay rights that is exclusive to anyone who falls outside this masculine, Jewish, and Ashkenazi framework that fits so neatly with mainstream Zionism. Furthermore, in making military conscription mandatory for all citizens, this normalization ensures that gay men need to enter the patriotic field to defend the homeland against the Other (157). As Solomon notes, Israeli lesbians who refuse to comply with their national duty as wives and mothers are making a larger-than-life statement against this narrow gay rights conception: “They are rejecting their given role in the nationalism that is only otherwise unbroken piece of the fragile national consensus” (161). However, this rhetoric remains highly gendered due the masculinity and militarism of Herzlian Zionism, as gay mainstreaming functions as another tool to coopt non-normative sexualities from within into normative state apparatuses.

Israel’s perception of itself as a European nation (154) combined with gay mainstreaming reconfigures gayness as whiteness, as with the South African case. The racialized dimensions of sexualities, therefore, contribute to the exclusion of Palestinians from the Israeli body politic and posits them as antagonistic to Israel’s self- image as a Western nation. 


Homonationalism and Pinkwashing as Cooptation Mechanisms

Israel tactfully deploys the image of the virile gay Israeli male on an international stage in order to project an image of itself as democratic and progressive, in opposition to its Arab/Muslim supposedly fundamentalist neighbours. This is what activists call “pinkwashing,”5 a practice enabled by homonationalism.6According to Maya Mikdashi, “homonationalism produces normative homosexuality in the same fashion that normative ‘heterosexuality’ continues to be shaped and regulated internationally through the interventions of human rights corporations, international funding and research agencies, and the foreign and domestic policies of states” (2011). In fact, the framemork that homonationalism employs is a very narrow view of homosexuality as it applies to citizenry and the state. A nation is considered progressive insofar as its gay population has access to same-sex marriage, can serve in the military, and can adopt children – mainly the experience of white cisgay men in the United States (Puar, 2013, 337). This framework is not seen as narrow by the Western nation-state, however, as it seeks to impose this limited homosexual worldview onto the Global South: “Secretary Clinton suggested that queers everywhere, whether white or black, male or female or transgendered, soldier or civilian, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, can be comprehended and interpellated through the same rights framework” (337). Homonationalism, therefore, is not an end for Western liberal identity politics; it is an aspect of the reworking of states to fit a neoliberal agenda that can then control them, and another cooptation tool to police its citizens through sexuality politics.

Massad’s Gay International7 is one way this cooptation works, as it relies on the same state apparatuses that enforce American Imperialism abroad, which is a cause to question this cause in itself: “the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Congress, U.S.-based human rights organizations, the American media” (Massad 375). To wit, this form of homonationalism, which is advocated for by the Gay International, is then enforced by state apparatuses as another manifestation of imperialism and hegemony. One of the main targets of this Gay International is the “Muslim World,” perceived by Massad as a recurring victim at the hands of imperialism (362). This task is accomplished through making this imperial cause seem legitimate – in this way, literature is produced within the mainstream establishment about gays in the “Muslim World:”

supporters of the Gay International’s missionary tasks have produced two kinds of literature on the Muslim world: an academic literature of historical, literary, and anthropological accounts, written mostly by white male European or American gay scholars, which purport to describe and explain “homosexuality” in the past and present of the Arab and Muslim worlds; and journalistic accounts of the lives of so-called gays and (much less so) lesbians in the contemporary Arab and Muslim worlds. (362)

While recognizing the limitations of Massad’s argument that polarizes the West and the East and reproduces the “Muslim world” as a perpetual victim of imperialism, it is undeniable that homonationalism upholds Gay International’s claims about the Muslim World in order to be legitimated by the establishment. When it comes to this kind of scholarship, the Muslim/Arab homosexual becomes an object to be studied, rather than a subject with a personal nuanced history and story (367). Just like Western feminist interventions in “saving” Third World women from their Third World plight,8 homonationalism is part and parcel of the contemporary military-industrial complex. In that vein, homonationalism is similar to what Leila Ahmed terms “colonial feminism” or a feminism that tries to justify invasion and occupation in terms of liberation of women (151). At the same time as touting a narrow gay rights discourse that ignores any Middle Eastern cultural and historical nuance, homonationalism polices queer bodies of colour at “home” as well (home here being the U.S.) and forces them to conform with a rigid, white dominated, homonormative gay rights paradigm (Mikdashi, 2011). On the usage of queer Arab bodies as justification on behalf of the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, Maya Mikdashi writes “Would the American army, for example, start ‘enforcing’ the rights of gay Iraqis or gay Afghanis? Would the United States impose sanctions on governments that were non-homo friendly?” (2011). The deceitful “inclusion” and capitalizing on gay rights by imperial states therefore constitutes a justification to the necessity of occupation, a rhetoric that does not take into consideration the various manifestations of sexualities, despite claims to the contrary.

It is the perceived instability of homosexual identities in the Muslim/Arab World that scholars and critics do not seem to understand. Essentially, the lack of adoption of any “gay” identity category by some Muslims/Arabs is seen as an anomaly in a world where sexual identity categories have been normalized, and indeed enforced, by society. Echoing Foucault, Sedgwick writes that “the word ‘homosexual’ entered Euro-American discourse at the end of the nineteenth century” (2). Moreover, adopting a gay identity, in the Euro-American sense, always carries with it a connotation of “confession,” in the Foucauldian sense: “there is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say, we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things […] There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (Foucault, 27). When this “speech act” is not performed, the “gay” subject is perceived to be “closeted” (Sedgwick, 3). This is Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis,” the idea that a lack of discussion of sexuality, in this case homosexuality, is somehow characteristic of a larger repressive state apparatus (Puar, 2005, 23). In that sense, acts legible by the state and conforming to the universalized imagining of the Gay International play a role in further silencing non-normative manifestations of sexuality.

The case of Israel/Palestine demonstrates homonationalism in practice, mainly the rhetoric surrounding pinkwashing and its crossovers with the Gay International’s universalizing discourse. “My parents are more angry about me moving away than being a lesbian. Many people are very connected to their families and are not willing [to] break with them by coming out in the Western sense […] Coming out is not a precondition for a vivid movement, we proved we can build a community without everybody needing to be ‘out’ on all different levels,” asserts Haneen Maikey, co-founder of alQaws – a group of LGBTQ Palestinian activists and allies – in an interview with International Viewpoint (De Jong, 2011). In a context of settler-colonial states, inclusion on the basis of sexuality becomes another tool for settlers to further other indigenous populations while ensuring that the backbone of the state apparatus remains unchallenged.


Israel/Palestine and Queer Affects

In Palestine, pinkwashing is part of the ongoing Nakba. Both Zionism and pinkwashing depend on a notion of the prior destruction and continued negation of Palestine and Palestinian belonging. (Schotten and Maikey, 2012)

Israeli gay life signifies the universal adoption of Western gay rights in Israel. This especially holds as Israel is perceived as being a “Western” country (Schulman, 2011). The rhetoric of pinkwashing has also led to the construction of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as the major threat to queerness right now (Gentile and Kinsman, 135). In this way, Islamic “sexual backwardness” in the Arab World, and specifically in the West Bank and Gaza, is seen as a threat to Israel and Israeli gayness – two entities that are coded as white and Western (135). Israel’s pinkwashing campaign started in 2005, with the help of U.S. marketing executives, wherein the Israeli state started a campaign called “Brand Israel” as a response to the growing global Palestine solidarity movement. This campaign focused on Tel Aviv as a “gay-friendly” place for tourism (143). “Brand Israel” aimed at rebranding Israel into a relevant and modern state in an attempt to redirect attention from its occupation of Palestinian territories. Part of this campaign was deploying “out” Israeli gayness as a sign that Israel belongs to the West, in opposition to the “backwardness” of its neighbouring Arab states.

This pinkwashing rhetoric produces an Israeli rhetoric of needing to save Palestinian gays – but this saviour narrative is selective. Maya Mikdashi writes: “As a queer, you have the right to love and have sex with whomever you choose safely and without discrimination, but [as a Palestinian] you do not have the right to be unoccupied, or to be free from oppression based on your political beliefs, actions, and affiliations” (2011). This saviour narrative places the onus on Israel, and the West, as saviours for queer Palestinians. This rhetoric is inherently dangerous because it legitimates the Israeli occupation of Palestine by presenting Israel as integral to the livelihood of a select group of Palestinians who need Israel in order to supposedly be themselves. It is worth mentioning that the West Bank, under Jordanian administrative control, repealed the British anti-sodomy law in 1956 (Schulman, 2011). We can draw a link between the aforementioned narrative and that of the American invasion of Afghanistan: America was seen as an integral part of the saviour of a particular group of Afghans, mainly women, which legitimized the American invasion.

Pinkwashing cannot be dissociated from the neoliberal capitalist context of the Western world, as it produces what Puar calls the “human rights industrial complex.” When it comes to queer rights, the human rights industrial complex still articulates a Euro-American-centric discourse and tries to impose its own understanding of “rights” on the entire world. Therefore, Puar states that Israel is at the forefront of homonationalist discourse. “[The] homonationalist history of Israel, or the rise of LGBT rights in Israel, parallels the concomitant increasing segregation of Palestinian populations, especially post-Oslo” (2013, 338). We need to delineate a double-standard: the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank also affects the livelihood of queer Palestinians – a group Israeli supposedly aims to save. Additionally, the prevalent practice of torture on Palestinian bodies, whether sexually queer or not, unearths another clear line of hypocrisy.

Torture “is integral to the missionary/savior discourse of liberation and civilizational uplift, and it constitutes apposite punishment for terrorists and the bodies that resemble them” (Puar, 2005, 15). Contrary to American public officials stating that the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is an isolated incident and “does not reflect the nature of the American people,” the torture was specifically designed to target supposed “weak points” in Arab/Muslim society (14-15). Indeed, Seymour Hersch contends that the U.S. military used anthropological texts about the Middle East in order to create effective torture tactics (as qtd. in Puar, 2005, 16). One of these texts is the long discredited Arab Mind by Raphael Patai, which states that “homosexual activity, or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private” (as qtd. in Puar, 2005, 16). In this way, homosexual practices were deployed by the U.S. military as a torture tactic against prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The pictures that were the result of the torture were supposed to coax the prisoners into becoming informants for the U.S. military, out of supposed shame and dishonor at having committed “homosexual” acts: “The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow” (16).

The Israeli Defense Forces also employ the same tactics against Palestinian homosexuals in order to try to recruit them as collaborators: “If you’re homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person – and we need to know about it – Israel will make your life miserable” (Weiss, 2014). Israel is only supportive of certain kinds of queerness, and uses other kinds of queerness against the bodies on which this queerness is inscribed, making Israel’s presence actually detrimental to Palestinian queers, as opposed to liberating as the state claims. To reiterate, in the words of Sami Shamali, “The apartheid wall was not created to keep Palestinian homophobes out of Gay Israel, and there is no magic door for gay Palestinians to pass through” (Wolf, 2011). Beyond practices of cooptation, the illusion of inclusion serves to police any expression of queerness that is not complicit with Israeli occupation and apartheid, effectively hindering Palestinian dissent.

Homonationalism, and by extension pinkwashing, do not lead to any increase in the acceptance of queers of colour into these predominantly Euro-American white, cisgay spaces. Queers of colour are targets of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, and as a result, of the systemic racism that ensues by Israel’s heteropatriarchal militarism (Gentile and Kinsman, 137). Israeli gays and lesbians who are drafted into the military to protect Israel end up targeting Palestinian queers, who are “subjected to the apartheid wall, illegal settlements, checkpoints, the blockade of Gaza, denial of the right of return for refugees, and systemic practices of discrimination even for those who hold Israeli citizenship” (143). Clearly, it is not a rainbow reality for all, despite Israel’s inclusionary self-portrayal.

It is important to understand Palestinian and Arab queerness not as a monolith, but rather as a diverse set of queer communities scattered all over the Arab world. These communities are informed by their own locales, and by extension, their own understandings of what queerness is. Sect and class, as well as racial differences are so pronounced in the Middle East that each milieu presents its own set of limits, as well as possibilities, on its queers. More importantly, we need to recognize that not everyone in the Arab world who performs queerness or queer acts might identify as queer, and that presents its own set of difficulties: who speaks on behalf of Arab queerness, or who is put at the forefront of the Arab queer “struggle?” Moreover, the limitations of Massad’s analysis allows us to challenge the notion that there is some sort of innate Arab sexuality that is being encroached on by the West. Dina Georgis writes: “Rather than be teleological about sexuality, I suggest that we consider how a method that centers on the affect of pain teaches us to notice and attend to the affect of sexualities that live in excess of names and national identities” (118). In this way, we can start to refigure queerness away from the projection of identity-naming, and rather focus on the gap that occurs when language, and queer language, fail us. We can fill this gap with what Georgi calls “queer affect” or what lies in excess of language in order to be more inclusive of those sexualities and queer bodies who do not fit into the middle class narrative of queer coming out and empowerment.


Settler-colonial societies produce new conceptions of gendered heteronormative sexualities that are enforced on indigenous populations where these settler-colonies exist. They proliferate these ideologies through punishment and regulation of indigenous sexualities that are seen as perverse by the settlers. This sexuality is relegated to the private sphere, and non-heterosexual (and more contemporarily, non-heteronormative) sexual practices were outlawed and regulated through a system of biopower by the state. In the 20th century, this settler colonial sexuality transformed in one way to include gay and lesbian sexualities as the latter came more into the mainstream, but only selectively. Only white, cis, and heteronormative gay and lesbian bodies were accepted into the mainstream, where queer people of colour and their demands were relegated to the periphery. To a large extent, even women are excluded from this discourse. In the context of South Africa, this manifested itself in a predominantly white and cis hegemonic sexuality that excluded queer Black people from its spaces under apartheid, and in Israel/Palestine, masculine, Jewish, European, gay men are taken as the default by which Israeli and Palestinian queers need to abide. Israel uses this image of the Israeli gay man to market itself as progressive in the face of “harsh” and “backward” Arab regimes around it, a rhetoric that excludes and demonizes Arabs and erases queer Arab experiences. In this way, the exclusionary and two-dimensional politics of settler-colonial sexualities do not take into account intersections of race or class. In the words of Fahad Ali (2014): “I am an Arab, I am a Palestinian, I am gay. My gay haven is not a glittered parade in Tel Aviv. It is a liberated Palestine.”


  • 1. By Western, I mean privileged, predominantly white, cis, heteronormative, and Euro-American.
  • 2. To take the example of the U.S., both Democratic and Republican actors use this measure of modernity to justify intervention and place themselves in opposition to supposedly tyrannical predominantly Muslim communities.
  • 3. See Omar Jabary Salamanca, Mezna Qato, Kareem Rabie & Sobhi Samour. “Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Settler Colonial Studies, 2:1 (2013), 1-8; and Shira N. Robinson. Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  • 4. Muscular Judaism
  • 5. According to Sarah Schulman, pinkwashing is the process whereby Israel conceals its human rights abuses against Palestinians by branding itself as progressive and open vis-a-vis Palestinian society, which is said to be backward and oppressive to its gay population (2011).
  • 6. Homonationalism is a term coined by Jasbir Puar in order to point to the way liberal Western gay and lesbian discourses produce narratives of progress and modernity that continue to accord some gay and lesbians access to citizenship – cultural and legal – at the expense of the delimitation and expulsion of other populations (2013, 337).
  • 7. Massad defines the Gay International as a discourse rooted in one essential gay and lesbian identity that is universal, not taking into account any nuance that might exist spatially and temporally (363).
  • 8. See Lila Abu-Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Athropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No. 3. 2002.

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