On January 12, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued an apology for including a panel by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the program of the upcoming Creating Change Conference. Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, an organization that fiercely opposes the violence of immigration enforcement and has been part of the inspiring national #Not1More anti-deportation campaign, issued a response to the NGLTF apology: Apology Not Accepted. Familia refused NGLTF’s weak acknowledgement after the uproar that ICE’s inclusion in the conference had caused. The problem with ICE being on the Creating Change program is not just that it makes people feel unsafe (it is a no-brainer that you shouldn’t invite ICE to events where you want immigrant activists to be able to participate), it’s that ICE is a massive source of violence in the lives of queer and trans people and an institution that queer and trans activists are trying to end. Inviting ICE to participate in the conference suggests that there is some kind of collaboration sought, or that ICE can show up and be “LGBT-friendly.” Familia called out the reality that by including ICE, NGLTF ignored and rejected the clear anti-deportation, anti-immigration enforcement politics and strategy that has been articulated by queer and trans immigrant activists. We are not fighting for a gay-friendly border, a gay-friendly immigration prison or immigration raid. The only way for queer and trans immigrants to be safe is if raids, detentions, deportations and everything else ICE does ends.
There is another controversy brewing on the Creating Change program that presents a similar dynamic. The Israel advocacy organization, A Wider Bridge, is hosting a shabbat service and reception at Creating Change. A Wider Bridge aims to connect LGBT people in the US with Israel and promote the image of Israel as an LGBT tourism destination. It coordinates tours funded by the Israeli Consulate bringing LGBT Israelis to the US to talk about gay politics in Israel, it hosted a conference with many US LGBT leaders last summer in Israel and had those leaders participate in Gay Pride in Tel Aviv, it promotes Israeli-government funded films that portray Israel as a haven for gay rights in which Palestinians seek refuge, and it brings tours of LGBT people from the US to Israel. Its website proudly announces that it “led the LGBT contingent in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, and . . . marched with the Israeli Consulate in the New York Pride Parade.”
Queer and trans activists who are working to oppose Israeli colonialism and apartheid call this propaganda work “pinkwashing.” For over a decade, the Israeli government has been engaged the “Brand Israel” campaign, aimed to respond to the growing movement against apartheid in Israel by portraying Israel as “relevant and modern.” An important part of this effort has been to promote Israel as a gay-friendly country, touting the fact that gay people are allowed to serve in its brutal military and promoting Israel as a gay tourism destination. This message relies on Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism as Israel contrasts its supposed “gay-friendliness” with stereotypes of its homophobic neighbors, particularly portraying Palestinians as homophobic. Queer and trans activists around the world who oppose occupation and apartheid have called this propaganda strategy “pinkwashing” because it is a direct effort to conceal the extreme violence and harm that Israel inflicts on Palestinians, including queer and trans Palestinians, by promoting Israel as “gay friendly.”
In 2012, activists in Seattle got to know A Wider Bridge and its pinkwashing activities very intimately when A Wider Bridge partnered with the homophobic, right-wing organization Stand WithUs to bring an Israeli Consulate-sponsored pinkwashing tour to Seattle. Queer and trans Seattle activists pushed back, exposed the propaganda and got a planned tour event at Seattle City Hall canceled. We faced a very unpleasant backlash and made a film about our story (which you can watch for free online).
We made this film in hopes that it will help queer and trans people and people who care about queer and trans people to read and interpret propaganda that tries to play on our movements’ messaging to build PR for violent governments and institutions. Clearly, the organizers of Creating Change need some help with this–ICE and A Wider Bridge ended up on the program because they packaged themselves as dialoguing about LGBT issues. This is the new normal–police departments, prisons, the military, immigration enforcement and politicians and nefarious governments are all branding themselves as progressive, liberal and right-on with talking points about LGBT inclusion, meanwhile continuing their murderous work that harms queer and trans people and cannot be aligned with our liberation. When left movements across the US are calling attention to the racist violence of the immigration and criminal punishment systems, when more and more organizations are adopting resolutions to boycott and divest from Israel and the prison industry, queer and trans organizations have to get sharp about not becoming fig leaves or propaganda sites for institutions scrambling to prop up their tarnished images as their violence is exposed.
My regret about our film, Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back! is that we did not focus enough on A Wider Bridge. At the time, it made sense to focus on how Stand With Us co-coordinated the events, because they are such an obvious right wing Israel advocacy organization which an insincere interest in queer issues that is only about the propaganda opportunities for Israel. It seemed like focusing on Stand With Us made the pinkwashing more obvious. In the months that followed the completion of the film, it became clear to me that we should have also focused on A Wider Bridge, whose pinkwashing strategy is more insidious. Many people who would be suspicious of explicit Israel advocacy because they have some vague sense that Palestinians are suffering under occupation are swept up in the friendly images of gay Israelis sharing their experiences and inviting people from the US to visit. Many people who know nothing about the occupation are learning about Israel from an Israel propaganda organization and not realizing it because it seems like a gay organization. A Wider Bridge denies that it is engaged in pinkwashing, but there is nothing secret about it being an Israel advocacy organization. It is not an organization focused on LGBT Jews, or an organization focused on LGBT Israelis, it is an organization focused on linking LGBT people in the US to Israel, the settler colonial nation engaged in apartheid, condemned by the world. It is an organization whose promotion of Israel is designed to make people think of Israel as a site of liberation and freedom rather than a regime producing colonization and genocide. As a Jewish trans activist who has sometimes attended Creating Change over the years, I like the idea of having a Shabbat service at the conference, but I do not want Creating Change to invite any Israel advocacy organization to lead it or host programming focused on promoting propaganda about Israel.
I believe that the organizers of Creating Change intend for the conference to be a place of progressive queer and trans politics–they would not want it sponsored by Wal-Mart, featuring workshops by gay climate change deniers, celebrating the leadership of gay conservatives. Over the years, there have been many, many controversies in which activists have called out the failures of the conference to live up to its progressive aims–most frequently regarding issues that impact queer and trans people of color. That is an important process and the work that activists have done to raise hell at Creating Change has forging new collaborations, changed queer and trans politics, and even changing the conference in some ways. Pinkwashing is now a ubiquitous and effective strategy for harmful institutions to promote a false image of themselves, and queer and trans activists have to sharpen our ability to discern it and hold organizations like NGLTF that purport to cultivate queer and trans liberation accountable when they partner with pinkwashers. The organizers who exposed the ICE participation in Creating Change won an important victory over pinkwashing by getting ICE taken off the program. Now NGLTF needs to take an active role in preventing pinkwashing of Israel at this year’s conference.
[Image from leaflet handed out by Gay Shame activists at Creating Change 2005 in Oakland.]