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New mapping project bears testament to queer Palestinians being annihilated by Israel

Pro-Israel activists are making bad-faith arguments about why LGBTQ+ people in the west should not support Palestine. We must push back.

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Queering the Map.

As the full horror of the Gazan genocide unfolded over the past nine months, a small but persistent refrain in some circles has centred around the idea that LGBTQ+ people in the west should not support Palestinian lives because “gay people are killed in Gaza and the West Bank for being gay while in Israel we have the freedom to be ourselves,” to quote one Twitter user.

Another, the ‘Borat 2’ screenwriter Lee Kern, celebrated IDF soldier Yoav Atzmoni holding “THE FIRST EVER PRIDE FLAG RAISED IN GAZA” up to the camera, against a backdrop of bombed out buildings and a scorched-earth landscape of sand and rubble. “Atzmoni wanted to send a message of hope,” writes Kern.

Hundreds of similar statements have been made on social media and then repeated ad nauseam by a small cluster of accounts, some accompanied by graphic, imagined fantasies of gay men being thrown from rooftops somewhere outside Rafah (disturbingly, some have even included AI-generated mock-ups).

Most of this apparently grave concern for the welfare of queer Palestinians is not being made in good faith: “If you’re gay, [Hamas] would execute you,” frets one commentator. But then again, that commentator is far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who has also shared content suggesting that trans people are a threat to women and children.

Much of this rhetoric taps into Islamophobic tropes, not just about Palestinians (and by extension all Muslims) being intolerant and homophobic, but also the implication that Muslims all think and act alike, driven only by a herd mentality and a strict adherence to religious dogma.

“It is wholly disingenuous and false to even slightly suggest that Israel's concern is in any way with LGBT+ people,” said a queer Palestinian living in Sheffield who Now Then spoke to for this piece under condition of anonymity.

“Ignoring the fact that a large percentage of Israel's economy depends on arms trading, development and manufacturing, or that Israel has been instrumental in furthering the perception of Islamist extremism as dominant and a monolithic view of Arabs and Muslims as violent terrorists, Israel's primary concern has been dehumanising and eradicating Palestinians.”

Living testimony and digital memorial

The disingenuous arguments made by anti-Palestinian activists reached their logical conclusion with a post from pro-Israel lobby group JewBelong to mark the start of pride month in June. “Hey, Queers for Palestine,” it read, referring to the queer-led anti-apartheid campaign. “Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade is today. When Is Gaza’s?”

The absurd implication that a small community currently being subjected to the highest daily death rate of any conflict this century – and which could be the scene of one of the worst genocides in history – might be able to organise and host a pride parade barely merits a response.

Another lazy and Islamophobic assumption made by pro-Israel activists is revealed in their (possibly unintentional) use of language: “You should go to Gaza,” one Twitter user writes, “Make sure to go as flamboyantly gay as possible.”

The implication contained in the words “go to” is that there aren’t already thousands of LGBTQ+ people in Gaza – or at least, the ones who haven’t already been murdered by the Israeli military.

This eruption of fake concern expressed by the hard right for the lives of queer Palistineans stands in contrast to the fearless work being done by anti-apartheid activists – particularly Jewish Voice for Peace, two of whose members were thrown out of a White House pride event they had been personally invited to after expressing solidarity with Palestine.

Another movement that’s re-centring queer Palestinian lives is Queering the Map, a community project founded in Canada in 2017. The site, which allows anyone to share LGBTQ+ stories linked to spaces and places, has come into its own since October as a safe space for Palestinians to share stories of their lives before and after the genocide began.

In many cases, these stories will already have turned from living testimony into digital memorial – the author’s life cut short by Israeli rockets. Other submissions to the map find people paying tribute to their dead partners, the victims of a brutal onslaught that has partly been ’Made in Sheffield’.

“I’ve always imagined you and me sitting out in the sun, hand and hand, free at last,” reads one post from the destroyed northern city of Jabalia. “We spoke of all the places we would go if we could. Yet you are gone now. If I had known that bombs raining down on us would take you from me, I would have gladly told the world how I adored you more than anything. I’m sorry I was a coward.”

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Queering the Map.

I was here, I was queer

Others have used the platform to counter a media narrative that systematically makes invisible the existence of queer Palestinians, a people as diverse – socially, politically, culturally, and in every other way – as any other. While Israeli citizens are (accurately) portrayed as holding a wide range of viewpoints and identities, Palestinians are reduced to an indivisible, Hamas-supporting mob.

“Pls know despite what the media says there are gay Palestinians,” writes one contributor from Khan Yunis in the south of Gaza. “We are here, we are queer. Free Palestine.”

“I was here. I was queer,” writes another from the outskirts of the city. “Free Palestine <3”

Some stories hold memories of violence (“The first boy I ever kissed lived here. His cousin found out and tried to stab me”), but these are experiences familiar to many queer people in the UK as well. No stories describe rooftop executions of gay men, as fantasised by the pro-apartheid activists (there is no evidence that this has ever happened in Gaza).

The claim that Israel is a haven in the Middle East for queer people is similarly misleading. The country saw a record number of harassment and discrimination incidents against LGBTQ+ citizens in 2022, in large part driven by the religious fundamentalists who have played an increasingly prominent role in the country’s recent coalition governments.

“Claiming some kind of solidarity with LGBT+ people is just another PR spin tactic to get moderate liberals riled up in support of Israel,” said the Sheffield-based queer Palestinian we spoke to, adding that in recent years Israeli propaganda to justify the occupation of Palestine has moved away from “a colonial rhetoric… towards the perception of creating some kind of democratic utopia in a hostile and regressive part of the world.”

“The point is that Israel does not care even slightly about LGBT+ people,” he added. “Their primary concern is to weaponise LGBT+ identities to gain as many allies as possible against Palestinians whilst simultaneously furthering a century-old ambition of dehumanising Palestinians, portraying them as small-minded and regressive, and justifying their persecution as some kind of moral or ethical imperative.”

In a bid to cling to power in 2022, Israel’s now-embattled prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for potential war crimes) signed a deal with religious hardliner Avi Maoz, who leads the extremist Noam party, which led to him being gifted a government post.

According to the BBC, Maoz has “described LGBT people as a threat to the family and has said he wants to cancel gay pride parades.” He is also on record as having said that “a country in which two fathers or two mothers are recognised as a family is not normal.” Unlike many of the countries that back it and arm it, Israel has not legalised gay marriage.

This frequently hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people in Israel mirrors some of the challenges faced by queer people in Gaza, many of whom were displaced long before October, and Queering the Map pays testimony to relationships torn apart not by death but by exile.

“I’m from rafah and she’s from deir al balah,” writes one person. “she got married later and i left gaza strip, to this day i think of you, to this day i wish to be back to sleep with you in the same bed, i want you to call for my name again, i wish if i can be with you again my heart.”

Another, also from Rafah, recalls “realizing the feelings i had for you were more than adoration, realizing that wanting to see you everyday, to be with you and talk to you, for you to call me by my petname that you gave me, i miss you beyond words can describe, i wish if i had the courage to tell you but again i was scared, I didn’t want to cause you any trouble. Now both of us outside gaza strip, but much far a way from each other”

“I am so sorry the world failed you”

Other contributors look back to life in Gaza before the current bombardment, detailing hobbies, places to hang out and their day-to-day routines and pleasures. One person marks the small stone pier at the Port of Gaza as “the place w[h]ere I kissed my first crush”.

“Being gay in Gaza is hard but somehow it was fun,” they continue. “I made out with a lot of boys in my neighborhood. I thought everyone is gay to some level.”

“This is where I first fell for you,” writes another person. “It was 2021, the last major Israeli bombardment on Gaza. You never knew you were the reason that I first listened to my favorite bands or watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire. everything comes back to you.

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Queering the Map.

“now you are a student abroad and Israeli occupation bombs may take everyone and everything you ever loved away. Your mom, your home, your memories. I am so sorry the world failed you. that your mom, sister, best friends, everything is lost in this genocide.”

One story near Gaza’s northern border stands out for its heart-rending desolation and sense of unimaginable loss. It’s been picked up by activists and independent media outlets around the world, possibly as a stand-in for the thousands of queer Palestinians who cannot tell their story, either because they are dead or because they have been cut off from the internet.

“Idk how long I will live so I just want this to be my memory here before I die,” writes the unknown contributor.

“I am not going to leave my home, come what may. My biggest regret is not kissing this one guy. He died two days back. We had told how much we like each other and I was too shy to kiss last time. He died in the bombing. I think a big part of me died too. And soon I will be dead. To younus, i will kiss you in heaven.”

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