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LGBT+ History Month Spotlight: Colonialism, Israel and Palestine

February 22, 2024

Content Note: This article deals with distressing themes, including LGBT+ discrimination and exploitation, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and colonial violence.

This LGBT+ history month, we’re taking a deep dive into how historic systems of oppression are being replicated to this day. LGBT+ history is symbolic in understanding the political and cultural landscape of today, especially in the context of oppression and liberation. LGBT+ freedoms and equality have been and continue to be used to justify colonising acts of occupation, violence, land or resource seizure, and even mass-killing. Many laws that criminalise same-sex conduct are the historic relics of colonialism.  

An example of this is how we're now seeing the very same tactics used by the West to oppress LGBT+ communities globally, being used in reverse to claim higher ground in the context of the crisis in Gaza. This specific use of LGBT+ freedoms is known as pinkwashing, or rainbow washing. Pinkwashing is defined as an instance or practice of acknowledging and promoting the civil liberties of the LGBTQ+ community, but superficially, as a ploy to divert attention from allegiances and activities that are in fact hostile to such liberties. We’ve seen this in the sponsorship of pride events by fossil fuel companies, just as we are seeing this applied by military activities.  

Pinkwashing links closely to the concept of ‘homonationalism’, when nations who have adopted some degree of LGBT+ rights use this progressive self-image as a way to justify invasions and exploitation of other countries, to maintain power imbalances against those presented as not sharing these values. The argument is that because countries have adopted some LGBT+ rights, they must be ‘the good guys’ in international conflicts, which means that any acts of aggression and oppression are for the greater good. Stereotypically, countries in the global South are imagined as deeply homophobic, with LGBT+ people in those countries presented as needing to be ‘rescued’ and ‘liberated’ by Western military intervention. Pinkwashing presents a deeply distorted narrative of LGBT+ life and history - but even taken on its own terms, it suggests that anti-LGBT+ attitudes can justify the horrors of occupation and violations of international law like the indiscriminate bombing of children and other civilians and cutting off water and food supplies, as we are currently seeing in Gaza.

LGBT+ history is important here. More than 50% of the countries where being LGBT is contentious or criminalised today are former British, French or Spanish colonies (including 66% of Commonwealth nations). Often, when colonisers outlawed homosexuality, oppressive laws impacted gay men particularly, with the colonising powers not acknowledging female same sex relationships at all.  

Pinkwashing narratives attempt to erase this complex history, where Western imperial powers have often actively embedded homophobic structures in colonised countries. Instead, they use racist tropes, often Islamophobia, that seek to present certain people as inherently violent, homophobic and ‘barbaric’ and others as ‘pure’, ‘good’ and ‘civilising’.  

There is no debating that many countries, including the UK, Israel, and Palestine have polices, cultures, and laws that oppress queer people. The fight for LGBT+ liberation continues all over the world. But it’s vital to explore how oppressive, anti-LGBT+ structures came to be in the first place, whether policies and laws present a full picture of the experiences of queer people on the ground, and whether those presenting themselves as LGBT+ champions live up to this claim. Above all, we must stand firm that nothing, especially not a cause that claims to value human life and dignity, can ever justify the kinds of grotesque horrors now unfolding in Gaza.  

Palestine was occupied by Britain between 1920 and 1948. During this period, in 1936, homosexuality was outlawed. In Palestine, homosexuality is criminalised in Gaza, but not the other Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the Human Dignity Trust reports that the law "appears to be largely obsolete in practice." As countries seek to disentangle themselves from their colonised past, many are undoing oppressive laws towards LGBT+ people, and queer Palestinians have been fighting for this from within Palestine.  

Israeli pinkwashing casts Palestinians, and Palestinian allies in other Middle Eastern countries, as backwards and in need of civilising (a modern re-imagining of the justification for Victorian colonisation). Israel, by contrast, is presented as a beacon of LGBT+ rights, surrounded by violently homophobic neighbours on all sides. In the logic of pinkwashing: countries which claim to have strong LGBT+ rights have a duty to invade and control those presented as oppressing LGBT+ people in order to protect and save these people from oppression. This LGBT+ history month, we are seeing this narrative play out in real time. In its latest assault on Gaza, which is now being considered by the International Court of Justice as a possible genocide, the state of Israel’s social media pages have proudly celebrated photographs of Israel Defence Forces soldiers standing in the rubble of bombed homes, hospitals, and schools, raising an LGBT flag emblazoned with the words “in the name of love”. They also ignore inconvenient realities including that gay marriage is only recognised in Israel because of a loophole or that its current government includes a minister who described himself as a ‘fascist homophobe,’ and another who petitioned repeatedly for Jerusalem’s Pride parade to be cancelled.

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The bottom line is that anyone who promotes a narrative of a benevolent, LGBT+-friendly west and a ‘backwards’, violently homophobic Global South isn’t paying close attention to the complex realities of LGBT+ life, or to history. Often, these simplistic narratives simply serve as convenient pretexts for invasion, control and domination. As a climate justice movement that is proudly working to decolonise, and acts in solidarity with LGBT+ liberation struggles, it’s vital that we do not allow distorted narratives of LGBT+ liberation and equality to be used to justify imperialist violence.

Branding colonised communities as wholly oppressive and violent also erases the LGBT+ subcultures that exist within these communities. LGBT+ Palestinians are being killed alongside thousands of others in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The group Queers in Palestine say that “for decades, we have been tirelessly working on carving up and maintaining a space for Palestinian queer life amongst our communities and not despite them ... what we are working towards is a Palestine liberated from colonialism. Under nationalist and colonial regimes, our bodies and sexualities will always be regulated ... our pride can only come through true liberation for all."  

So this LGBT+ history month, let’s reflect on the complex and painful realities of LGBT+ histories, and their interactions with colonialism. And let’s redouble our efforts to push back against those who seek to use LGBT+ freedoms and distorted versions of LGBT+ history to enact horrors on others.  

This article was authored and contributed to by members of SOS-UK's LGBT+ staff group.