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Queer Here and Palestinian There
Abeer Mansour is a feminist Palestinian queer activist who has worked for ASWAT an organization that provides a safe space for Palestinian women who identify as LGBTQQI. Haneen Maikey is a Palestinian queer activist who lives and works in Jerusalem. Since 2008 Haneen has been the director of alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, an independent political grassroots LGBTQQI group, which operates both within Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories. Sami Shamaliis, a 23 year old Palestinian queer activist who lives and works in the West Bank for alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversiity in Palestinian Society. Abeer, Haneen and Sami declined to take photos for their safety.
When I thought of trailblazing gay rights activists, the Middle East did not come to mind. That changed on February 15th after I attended a Palestinian Queer Activists Talk Politics event. This event was especially appealing to me, a queer Arab.
Cherríe Moraga, queer activist and author of several books, including Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood, moderated the event. Cherríe introduced the audience to the panelists, Abeer, Sami and Haneen by reminding us that queers of color should make no distinctions between themselves. The audience had heeded those words. In the tawny light drenched auditorium of San Francisco Mission High School people of all ages, genders, sexualities and colors made themselves comfortable in the audience. Even though the attendees did not come to hear me speak, I felt grateful for their interest and support on the topic.
Because sexuality has had almost no place in Palestinian culture, discussing variations in sexuality has been nearly impossible, which makes these three Palestinians so courageous. While many Palestinian’s struggle to meet their basic needs under Israeli occupation, these three Palestinian queers raced up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to self-actualization to make Queer Rights and Human Rights synonymous.
Abeer and Haneen, both young women, shared that many women living in Palestine feel that life offers few choices in young adulthood; their menu of life offers few main courses. One includes gaining a higher education and then returning home with the expectation of marriage. The alternative is to move from your parent’s house to your husband’s in a seamless transition. Abeer made her choice when she moved to Tel-Aviv for college. During her time there, she lived openly as a queer, but closeted as a Palestinian. Many of her Israeli friends urged her keep her ethnicity a secret.
In recent years, Israel began a campaign to brand itself as a safe haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersexed (LGBTQQI) individuals. In this myth, Israel becomes the savior for queers, which only perpetuates the uneven power dynamic between the two countries. Unfortunately, Israel hardly makes the distinction between gay and straight Palestinians. After all, the walls and checkpoints do not exist to keep out Palestinians homophobes.
Sick of partial-acceptance, Abeer chose to return home as a closeted gay woman instead of a covert Palestinian. Upon her return home, she followed the path she had resisted. She married a man and lived as a straight woman for three years. During her marriage, her split identity left her ravenous for something more. Not only did she satisfy her hunger by leaving her marriage, she put a cherry on top by sharing her experiences to promote the inclusion of Palestinian queer women in society by joining ASWAT.
Haneen’s journey of advocacy began when she applied for a job. The qualifications called for someone who identified as both queer and Palestinian. She smiled as she recalled thinking that “No other applicant would be stupid enough to identify as both.” I imagine her smiling since 2008, when she became the director of “Al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society,” an independent political grassroots Palestinian LGBTQ group, which operates within Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Sami, the only male on the panel, but not at all like the stereotypical Arab male, admitted that men in his culture enjoy a freedom that females do not. Sami is effeminate by Arab standards. As a result, his life as a gay Palestinian male is scarred by the same struggles under occupation, such as restriction of movement. He shared that he often fears his physical safety in his patriarchal society where gender roles are rigid. Not only is his movement restricted by occupying Israeli soldiers, but also by the ethereal homophobia that permeates Palestinian society.
During the question and answer portion, I burned to ask whether any of the panelists were “out” to their families. The topic of “outness” and family had been swimming through my mind for nearly six years now. I was curious how other Arabs navigated the subject.
I nervously stood up and asked the panel whether they were out to their families and how they reacted to the news. The panel politely explained that “out” is a limited and Western concept. To them, coming out was not a singular event, but rather an iterative procedure, like brushing your teeth. Specifically, Abeer described it as a dance. She was in and out at once, choosing whom to confide in carefully. Haneen said that she was “out” to everyone but her father, but he would soon know, since he just “discovered Google.” Sami was also “out” to his family, who requested that for his safety, that he not share that information with family friends.
Another audience member asked whether the panelists would rather live in a reformed Palestine where queers were embraced, but still under occupation or in a non-occupied Palestine with the same culture. The panelists replied that the first is impossible to exist. Occupation itself creates and perpetuates circumstances that stifle openness and ability to grow as a culture.
These three were fierce hopemakers. Not only do they live as a national indigenous minority inside Israel, breaking down the walls to find equality between Israelis and Palestinians, they also fight against invisible barriers created by a heteronormative culture, which confines and marginalizes just as much as a tangible partition.
Photo Credit 1 Gilda Mansour