Haaretz recently published an article about queer issues in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories ("Stop using Palestinian gays to whitewash Israel's image," October 7). The piece, by Morten Berthelsen, was a long interview with Haneen Maikey, an Israeli Arab and lesbian activist, who is very critical of Israel's treatment of gays and lesbians. But by insisting that there is nothing for Arabs or Muslims to learn or adopt from Israel, Maikey almost comes off as if she's defending the homophobia in Palestinian society, if not blaming the problem on Israel altogether.
The idea that "others" are somehow behind the extreme homophobia in our communities is something one encounters often in the Arab and Muslim world. I myself encountered this attitude repeatedly during research for my recent book on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) lives in the Muslim world. Such an approach does little to help gays and lesbians, who face threats that can range from harassment to capital punishment. But until Muslim and Arab activists learn to admit that homophobia is a problem in our societies, and one for which we bear the responsibility, things are just not going to change. Only after one accepts the facts is it possible to move on to the next step. And the fact is that homophobia has been a problem in Arab and Muslim societies since long before Israel was created or the West colonized us - or whatever other "foreign" entity folks decide to blame, on any given Friday. When an Israeli Arab gay woman blames the occupation for the hatred of queers in Palestinian society, that is equivalent to declaring the baseless homophobic notion that homosexuality itself was introduced into the region by Israel or the West.
Beyond that, the article seemed to be using Israeli society's purported homophobia - including the claim that court rulings in favor of gay people's rights have benefited only a handful of people, and mention of August's fatal attack on a clubhouse for young gay people in Tel Aviv - to support the argument that Israel is "just as bad" as the rest of the Middle East for gays. Anyone familiar with queer issues in the Middle East can appreciate the silliness of such an idea.
I would like to tackle the most horrific example cited: the shooting in Tel Aviv, which left two dead and wounded some 15 bystanders. Many years ago, while traveling in Israel, I met a Jewish woman who had immigrated from the United States and had been injured in a suicide bombing. I asked her why she would choose to leave the safety of the United States for a country that's in a constant state of conflict. She responded with words that truly changed my understanding of Israel and of Jews' relationship to it. She said: "It is a privilege to be injured or even killed in a Jewish state."
For a gay person in a country like Israel, in a region like the Middle East, with its historically conservative religions and societies, as horrific as violence is, one could similarly say that it is a privilege to be shot in a gay social center. The very fact that there are such centers to visit is a privilege. In most other countries in the Middle East, there aren't any social centers for gays.
Likewise, it is a privilege to be able to challenge discrimination in the courts. There isn't any country in the Arab world where one can take on homophobia via the legal system. In fact, in most Arab countries such action would truly compromise your personal safety, and endanger the very lives of the people you are trying to defend.
So, when a gay woman in Israel declares that "there are no gay rights in Israel" - from the office of the gay organization that she heads, and in the knowledge that she enjoys the legal rights and protections enshrined in that country's legal system - one can appreciate the stark similarity to the hypocritical denials of leaders from Arab and Muslim countries, who declare with a straight face that there are no gays in their states.
Regardless of how people feel about the occupation, or about Israel in general, it helps to focus on the reality and the facts. If we are going to change the homophobic attitudes in our societies, we have to stop using others as a shield. Otherwise, our hypocrisy will spit in the face of our own struggles, and ultimately serve only to increase homophobia.
Afdhere Jama is the author of "Illegal Citizens: Queer Lives in the Muslim World" (Salaam Press). He is based in San Francisco.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now