On Being Relevant: Sexuality, Gender, and Nationalism in Palestinian Society
Al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society is a national, community-based and grassroots organization that works with LGBTQ Palestinians throughout Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories. Al-Qaw’s director, Haneen Maikey, discusses how she and others are bringing sexual diversity into the mainstream and building a broader platform for justice within Palestinian society.
Can you elaborate on the name of your organization,Al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society?
Most simply, Al-Qaws means rainbow in Arabic. That is the banal part of the name. We refer to “sexual and gender diversity” because we believe that sexuality, sex, and gender are interlinked and we don’t want to talk about gay issues without talking about the gender aspect or out of the sexuality context in general. Referring to “diversity” was our way to move away from the familiar names of gay organizations — LGBTQ, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual — and avoid enforcing rigid identities. And lastly, we include “Palestinian society” because we believe that this society is our playground. It is our main target group and we see ourselves as an integral part of it.
If we can go back one step, tell me about how you established this organization?
We started as a small local project in 2001 under the umbrella of the Jerusalem Open House, which is an Israeli Jewish community center. After the second intifada, the Palestinian queers (mostly men) that used to hang out in the Jerusalem Open House stopped coming because of the difficult political situation. The leadership of the Jerusalem Open House decided at that point to build a structured, professional project in order to help bring the Palestinians back. This is how I joined the center — I started to build a Palestinian project within the Jerusalem Open House.
However, after a few years we realized that we needed to do more than provide specific services and create materials in Arabic. Being both queer and Palestinian is a very complicated situation and we needed our own space to deal with it.
The Jerusalem Open House was (and still is) an a-political organization, so we couldn’t express our political identities and our Palestinian identity there. Yet, many of us didn’t see being Palestinian as a political thing — it was our daily lives. Our friends could not cross the West Bank and soldiers who happened to be in the street could stop them at the entrance to the building. So we decided that we needed a Palestinian-only space. We also thought of it as our way of saying, “We are ready to come out of the closet and bring sexual diversity discourse into the mainstream.”
So from what I understand of Al-Qaws, you focus on many different issues alongside sexuality and gender issues, including questions of political and national identity. Is this a strategy you use to engage more people?
I think it is an ideological choice rather than strategic. It is about how communities should be built and how we understand social movements. I am promoting a holistic approach that is saying: “I am bringing all of my identities into one space and that one space is called Palestinian society.” I believe that all the different struggles in our society are part of one struggle. I might prioritize my identity as a lesbian and focus on a queer perspective, but I cannot deny that I am a Palestinian, that I am second-class citizen, and that my friends cannot move freely.
This is not a mindset that everyone in Al-Qaws agrees with 100 percent. We have many members who say they don’t want anything to do with politics. However we believe that Al-Qaws is a big enough platform to include all of these voices; that we can be relevant for the gay Palestinian community and for the broader Palestinian society.
Our role is not only to address the concrete, specific problems or issues facing the Palestinian gay community. Our role is to build a better society, a just society that is inclusive for gay people and all other people. Our discourse is a political one. We think it is critical for Al-Qaws to be politically engaged with different partners in the boycott movement, etc. Our strategy is about being relevant.
What are the programs you work on with the Palestinian community, and what are the challenges you deal with as part of your work with this community?
We work with other groups—including the Palestinian gay women’s group called Aswat—to provide workshops about sexual identity to youth, service providers, teachers, educational counselors, and others. We also have a support line that provides information and counseling for LGBTQ individuals and for service providers who have questions about sexual identity and gender issues.
Recently we have also been trying to lead a new social change program that addresses the ways in which gay rights is too narrow a topic and does not include all the perspectives within Palestinian society. We host discussion groups that examine the idea of promoting sexual rights rather than gay rights and address how we can be relevant to different audiences. We do not want to be “the owner” of sexuality. We believe that we need to discuss sexuality in many areas of our society.
You recently had a tour in the US. Can you tell me about the objectives of the tour and how it went?
The main goal of the tour was to bring the voice of Palestinian queers into mainstream venues of the US queer movement. The idea for this tour emerged because the gay Palestinian movement has a specific image in the West. We are perceived as being victims of our society. It is often assumed that Palestinian society is particularly homophobic and that the Israeli gay community is progressive and that Israel is saving gay Palestinians who run away from their communities. All of these are problematic and not true images.
No one talks about the strong, mature queer Palestinian movement or acknowledges that we have our own agenda and dreams and vision. So this is why we came to the US – we came to convey our voice.
The tour was amazing. We met with diverse queer people, people of color, Arab and Jewish groups. We talked about our achievements, our challenges and our unique perspectives. We shared how we believe that we can grow from the challenges that we face.
Judith Butler wrote a letter to your organization as a response to your tour in the US. I am sure this is a big deal for you!
Yes, getting this letter from one of the most profound queer theorists was a great highlight. Her letter gives legitimacy to our analysis of the intersections of the local, political, gay, and cultural contexts. It was a highlight of the tour and gives legitimacy to our future work.
You were probably one of the first Palestinians to go public about your sexual identity. I am curious to hear more about your personal story if you are comfortable talking about it.
I never hid my sexuality so “going public” is a funny phrase to me. Once I discovered my sexuality, I started to talk about it and to get involved in gay activism. What is interesting is that my queer journey helped me to reclaim my national Palestinian identity.
It was my Palestinian identity that was in the closet for many years. I didn’t grow up knowing my history or my culture and therefore I didn’t think being Palestinian was a legitimate identity. It was through the queer perspective that I rediscovered my Palestinian self. This discovery opened me up to be able to use the two identities in my work as an activist and, more importantly, I discovered the best way to be Haneen, a human being, in this big world.