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Mixing politics with art: Queer pride and Israeli apartheid

Mixing politics with art: Queer pride and Israeli apartheid

by Anne Russell
February 24, 2014


Photo by John Darroch

When we see pictures of queers being man-handled by security personnel, it is usually because the guards’ violence is an extension of queerphobia. Indeed, New Zealand’s first gay pride week in the 1970s was held in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots, wherein queers in New York took up resistance against the queerphobic violence of the police. Many of those early queer activists would quite probably be dismayed to realise that the security officials in this photo were organised by the Auckland Pride Festival itself.

The protesters disrupted the Auckland Pride Festival on Saturday February 22nd in support of Palestine, in opposition to the Israeli Embassy-sponsored float that Pride had taken on. It is unusual for a country to send a delegation to a Pride event in New Zealand, but the press release sent by the Israeli Embassy indicated that it was somewhat done in response to the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that is growing in participation around the world. The Palestinian-led initiative involves boycotting all Israeli goods and cultural events, as a way of drawing attention to the violence suffered under Israel's ongoing war on Palestine.

On the same day, a group of people gathered in Wellington to encourage people to boycott the Israeli dance troupe Batsheva, who were performing in the Fringe Festival. They were met by a group of Zionists who had largely been brought down from Hamilton to counter-protest. Approximately fifteen people who had paid to go to Batsheva turned away once they knew it was sponsored by the Israeli government.


Palestine supporters speak outside St James Theatre.

The objections raised--that boycotting Batsheva is not the place or time to exercise anti-Israel politics--ring similar to the "don't mix politics with sport" line touted during the Springbok Tour in 1981. But despite limitations, international boycotts can often have a significant effect on government policy. The South African apartheid regime was significantly shaken by cultural boycotts from other countries during the 1970s and 80s, including New Zealand. Veteran anti-apartheid activist John Minto attended the Wellington rally on Saturday, and said afterwards that the campaign felt the same way as the anti-South African government protests had in their initial stages. When it comes to international activism, wars are often fought and won along cultural lines.

It is even stranger to argue not to mix politics with queer pride, given that queer pride's origins are heavily political. But as queer identity becomes more normalised in Pākehā New Zealand culture (given that queerphobia was not a feature of Māori culture pre-colonisation), queer politics become more conservative, moulding to fit the existing institutions of dominant society. This is a process known as homonormativism, as detailed in this talk by a queer activist; the idea that there is a 'proper' way to be a queer person. That person is gay (not bi or pansexual), cisgendered, able-bodied and keen to get monogamously married and serve in the military.

In particular, the 'ideal queer' in normative Western politics is a white person. Unfortunately, far from being universally liberatory, queer scenes across Aotearoa and the world have as many problems with racism as any other social or political group. Auckland Pride and their supporters may theoretically condemn targeted anti-queer violence, but it is unclear what they have to say in support of Palestinian queers and queer activists, who are among those being systematically oppressed by the Israeli state.


A Palestinian rights activist confronts a Zionist at Auckland Pride. Photo by John Darroch.

The Zionists at Auckland Pride said that Israel is "the only country in the Middle East where gay people are accepted." However, queerphobia still exists in both Israel and Palestine, albeit in different ways and configurations to Western versions. Moreover, casting Israel as a queer-friendly saviour invisibilises Palestinian queer activists and makes their work on the ground harder. Most notably, queer oppression is often by necessity put on the back-burner while the bombs drop over Gaza. But additionally, using the spectre of Arab queerphobia to justify Israel’s existence means that queer liberation may end up being dismissed by queerphobic Palestinians as an unwelcome tool of the invaders. This process of supporting cultural imperialism and warfare on the basis of queer rights is known as pinkwashing.

Many contemporary New Zealanders may want to watch gay pride events without getting into arguments about racism; after all, queerness does not represent a political identity for everyone who identifies as queer. Many others believe that cultural boycotts of Israel won't make much difference in the long run. However, the BDS campaign has made significant progress in the last few months worldwide, spurred on by many boycotting the SodaStream company, promoted by Scarlett Johansson, as it emerged that their factories were built and maintained in the West Bank.

The 1981 Springbok Tour protests have become part of New Zealand folklore, a time when New Zealanders had a significant political impact on the world stage. In reality, the anti-apartheid movement of that time was similarly hampered by naysayers, people who wanted to watch sport uncritically, and even pro-apartheid supporters. The Auckland Pride Festival may yet find itself on the wrong side of history in the twilight or at least late afternoon days of Israeli apartheid.

ENDS

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