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Pride is Political

June 12, 2010

June is LGBT pride month in the United States, and Pride week runs from the end of June to the beginning of July in many other countries.  That’s true for us here in Canada, with Toronto’s Pride week culminating in a series of marches and parades on July 3 and 4.  This year, Pride has gotten…well, if real life were facebook, we’d just call it “complicated.”

Pride has in the past enjoyed significant support from the government of Ontario and the City of Toronto, who have provided a sizeable chunk of its funding.  But this April, the city began threatening to withhold funding from Pride–not because LGBT Pride itself is controversial in Canada, but because the city believed that Pride violated the city’s anti-discrimination policy by allowing a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march in its parade.  And now, to avoid that potential cut in funding, Pride Toronto has banned the use of the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” in any Pride-sponsored event–effectively banning the group, which, according to its blog, exists

to work in solidarity with queers in Palestine and Palestinian resistance movements around the world. Today, in response to increasing criticism of its occupation of Palestine, Israel is cultivating an image of itself as an oasis of gay tolerance in the Middle East. As queers, we recognize that homophobia exists in Israel, Palestine, and across all borders. But queer Palestinians face the additional challenge of living under occupation, subject to Israeli state violence and control. Israel’s apartheid system extends gay rights only to some, based on race.

There is no pride in apartheid, and QuAIA is dedicated to fighting it wherever it exists. We work in solidarity with anti-colonial struggles and with queers leading their own struggles of resistance.

As a result of the ban, the Honoured Dyke and Grand Marshall of Pride have, along with 21 other honourees, rejected their awards in protest.  Meanwhile, Pride Toronto maintains that the ban was necessary to avoid the total cancellation of the Pride Parade, which was a possibility, given the city’s allegation of an anti-discrimination violation.

And, just in case you missed it, Pride’s alleged violation consisted in allowing a group to protest.  Specifically, allowing a group that used a particular word to characterize the object of its protest:

“We have no legal grounds to ban the word apartheid,” Sandilands said. “While I understand there are a lot of people who don’t like the wording, there’s got to be more than just the name of the organization (to justify taking action).”

But, she said, the city has told them that Toronto Pride had contravened its anti-discrimination policy on the grounds that “those words make certain participants feel uncomfortable.” [emphasis mine]

Indeed, after the ban on the words “Israeli apartheid,” Pride suggested that QuAIA could participate in the march if it changed its name to “Queers in Favor of a Free Palestine”–but noted that marchers who refused to abide by the rules of the ban would be “removed.”  This is, to put it mildly, a problem.

The censorship of language that specifically criticizes the actions and policies of the government of Israel–which is what “Israeli apartheid” does, and what support for a “Free Palestine” does not, at least not directly–on the grounds that such language is discriminatory not only stifles political dissent; it does so by vilifying those who would speak out against the oppression of Palestinians.  It does this, moreover, by treating this vilification as somehow “inclusive” or keeping Pride a-political or neutral.  What this position ignores (beyond the simple fact that people as diverse as Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have used “apartheid” to describe the treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel) is that the exclusion of this language is itself a political position, that the refusal of QuAIA constitutes the support of a particular view–specifically, a view that denies the reality of the oppression of Palestinians, including queer people in Palestine.  The problem, of course, is that expressing the view that Palestinians are mistreated on a regular basis by the Israeli government is mis-characterized as an instance of anti-Semitism.  Making such a critique, however, is no more anti-Semitic than criticizing the Bush administration (or Obama administration, for that matter) for its egregious behavior in Guantanamo Bay is anti-American.  Such a line of thought is incredibly dangerous, both because it silences opposing voices, and because in so doing, it tacitly supports those practices that become  immune to critique.

Zahra Dhanani, who was Honoured Dyke in 2006, points out precisely what’s wrong with this picture:

Until there are human rights for all people, we have not succeeded in our work towards equality.

Queer advocates who straddle many identities of oppression, have never been able to focus their attention just on so-called “same-sex rights and benefits”, we have always known that our humanity is directly linked to that of all marginalized people. Therefore, our fight for equality as queer people has meant a fight for international human rights on all fronts.

[…]

I am a human rights and refugee rights lawyer and my job is to represent people who come here because they were persecuted for expressing their political opinion. My understanding is that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid is an organization standing in solidarity with other lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people against divisive and oppressive policies of one government. I do not see how commenting on the policies of any government, including those of Canada, the United States, Uganda, Iran, Russia, Israel or Palestine makes it against its people or those with ties to those countries. In fact, in Canada, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees our right to express our political opinion freely.

Pride’s decision not only contravenes the values outlined in our Charter but flies in the face of all of the work that queers have done for decades to get those kinds of values enshrined.

Of course, given that the Ontario legislature officially denounced use of the word “apartheid” with reference to the government of Israel in February, calling it “close to hate speech” (which, as you may or may not know, is kind of a big deal in Canada, since you can actually be put in jail for it), a reversal of Pride’s decision doesn’t look particularly likely.  And that’s particularly disappointing.  Because it means disavowing both members of our community who hold marginalized political views and those members of the global LGBT community who suffer under the policies of the Israeli government.  And neither of those disavowals is compatible with the ostensible goals of Pride.  As QuAIA puts it,

Queer and trans people living in the West Bank and Gaza face daily military violence just for being who they are: Palestinian.

There can’t be freedom of gender and sexuality without freedom from daily violence and the right to love who you choose, live where you choose, and attend groups, meetings and political activities without persecution.

Criticizing the Israeli government’s refusal of those freedoms is not hate speech.  It is a crucial political statement, and one that is completely in line with what Pride supposedly stands for.  What isn’t in line with Pride’s goals is censorship in the name of inclusiveness, or refusing to speak out against the oppression of our LGBTQ friends when it becomes politically costly.  It’s disappointing that Toronto Pride has chosen to take that route.

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