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Celebrating Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Community

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OPINION: The Tragedy Of Queer Foreign Affairs

How our community has made a grievous error in international affairs…

By Patrick Johnson

The human rights progress made by LGBTQ+ people in the past several decades ranks among the greatest advances in human history. From isolation and vilification, we have, in many places, reached full legal equality in a period that by historical standards is incredibly brief.

This is no excuse to let down our guard, of course. Young queer people are still tragically taking their own lives and negligent religious people are irresponsibly using language that drives them to it. Recidivist politicians are still scapegoating our community to advance their hateful agendas. Those of us who are blessed with loving, accepting families can forget that our experiences are not universal.

What is often taken for granted is the limited geographic scope of this progress. The successes we celebrate are mostly limited to North America, parts of Western Europe and a few other bright spots around the globe. Most of the world’s LGBTQ+ people, we should not forget, live much of their lives hiding from threats of danger and death.

Yet foreign affairs is not high on our collective agenda. Maybe this is a natural corollary for a movement premised on the certainty that the personal is political – if our personal situation is comparatively secure, our politics may reflect this.

Organizations like the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) and Outright (founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission) address worldwide concerns of our community. But these are not household names and lack the depths of grassroots engagement one might expect from a community that legendarily grew out of a riot.

Rainbow Railroad and LEGIT Canada help endangered queer people escape their situations but their role is not fixing the broken societies from which these new Canadians come. Ethnocultural gay groups celebrate difference within their respective communities but again their mission is not primarily confronting the homophobia of their ancestral lands. Non-queer-specific agencies, like Human Rights Watch, have taken up the cause of gay rights worldwide. Canada’s federal government, among others, has put gay rights on its foreign policy agenda.

But for all the successes, strengths, resources, creativity and activism of our community, a remarkably small proportion of our energies are directed to the catastrophic life conditions of LGBTQ+ people in Uganda, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Jamaica or almost anywhere else we look in the world.

Most disturbing is that the most visible grassroots movement shining a light on foreign issues is doing it exactly wrong. They attack one of the most progressive societies (on gay or any other issues) while ignoring genuine human rights atrocities everywhere else.

Groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid disrupt Toronto’s Pride Parade, the Chicago Dyke March bans Zionists, queer film festivals refuse to show Israeli films while screening movies from countries with grotesque human rights violations. Being a Zionist – that is, simply believing that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination – makes one an outcast in large swaths of the gay community. And, since the vast majority of Jews are Zionists of some stripe, we have made our community too often unwelcoming for an ethnocultural group. Why we do not recognize that as a much bigger problem is a mystery.

A bigger mystery is how we ended up on this wrong path. Israel’s enemies, who self-define as “pro-Palestinian” but by and large do nothing to advance the situation of actual Palestinians, include the most homophobic, misogynistic, regressive forces on earth. It is, of course, a diverse movement, a many-headed Hydra. Should a Canadian “pro-Palestinian” activist be condemned merely because of the Palestinian leaders’ connections with the ayatollahs who hang gays in the streets or because Palestinian militias employ child soldiers and target civilians? Perhaps not. But they certainly should be expected to speak up for gay Palestinians, shouldn’t they?

Instead, not a word. 

Palestine is one of the most homophobic places on the planet. An opinion poll says that just 5% of people in Palestine view homosexuality as morally acceptable. The same poll indicates that 8% of Palestinians think “honour killings” are morally acceptable. In other words, more Palestinians believe it is better to kill a homosexual than to be a homosexual.

Have groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid done anything to sensitize their ostensible Palestinian allies about equality and acceptance? No. They just keep railing against Israel. When the Palestinian gay rights organization holds a rally, where do they schedule it? In Haifa, Israel. And what do North American gay rights activists do? Try to erase that one oasis of freedom in the Middle East where even Palestinian gay people seek refuge.

Palestinian activists dismiss these chasms of hypocrisy by insisting that, until all Palestinians are free, gay Palestinians cannot be free. This is specious on a few fronts. First, the Palestinian movement, whether the extremists of Hamas who run Gaza or the “moderate” Fatah in charge of the West Bank (and certainly the blood-soaked militias and terror groups) are not liberators. They each represent a slightly different form of repression for Palestinians and none of them will “free” Palestine. If we want to advance Palestinian freedom, we need to turn our obsessive gaze from Israel to the Palestinian leadership. Second, gay Palestinians are being murdered now, slain in “honour killings” by their families and decapitated by unknown assailants while “pro-Palestinian” activists remain silent. Third, Palestinian self-determination (repressive and dystopic as is likely or, by some miracle owing nothing to our activism, democratic and pluralist) will happen only through a negotiated peace. That means we all need to stop rewarding Palestinian intransigence and a one-sided narrative because it is prolonging the occupation, rather than hastening its end. A supreme example of this error was repeated this year when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh wrote a letter placing all the blame for the conflict on Israel while ignoring the many barriers to coexistence thrown up by the Palestinians. In doing so, he chose the side of Palestinians over peace.

In short, we cannot be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel at the same time. 

What’s worse, a community that has devoted ourselves to fighting bullying, demonization and discrimination makes common cause with a movement that maliciously rubs salt in Jewish historical wounds and terrorizes (figuratively and literally) Jewish people in Israel and worldwide.

On one hand, LGBTQ+ Canadians have the experience, resources and power to make positive change for our sisters and brothers around the world if we would devote a little more energy to foreign issues. On the other hand, if the distorted approach some gay people have taken toward Israel and Palestine is a sign of our sophistication in addressing global affairs, best we keep to dancing and leave politics to the experts.

The reality is, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and other hate groups are a tiny fringe, an extremist tail wagging the queer community dog.

We need sensible people who actually care about LGBTQ+ rights to step up and speak out.

PATRICK JOHNSON is director of Upstanders Canada.

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