Dear Seattle LGBT Commissioners:
I recently received your invitation to attend a roundtable discussion with Lt. Shachar Erez, a transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces who “advises youth, soldiers, and professionals on how to better integrate trans* people in to the armed forces.” As I understand it, you were approached by StandWithUs to co-sponsor this event.**
I will not be attending this event, and I write to urge you to cancel it. This event is part of a propaganda strategy that has been undertaken by Israel advocacy organizations like StandWithUs and the government of Israel itself to respond to worldwide opposition to the outrageous harm and violence toward Palestinian people perpetrated by the Israeli government. This campaign, called “Brand Israel,” aims 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 LGBT-friendly country. Queer and trans activists around the world who oppose occupation and apartheid have called this strategy “pinkwashing” because it is a direct effort to conceal the violence and harm that Israel inflicts on Palestinians, including queer and trans Palestinians, by promoting Israel as “gay and trans friendly.”
In January 2012, I visited the West Bank of Palestine and Israel as part of an LGBT Delegation. We were invited by LGBT Palestinian organizations to come witness the occupation and meet with Palestinians and Israelis who are working to stop this violence and oppose the use of pinkwashing to obscure it. What I saw was utterly devastating. I visited a Palestinian village where the Israeli military uses tear gas and skunk water to harass families engaged in peaceful weekly protests against the theft of their land and water and met a family whose son was killed by a tear gas canister fired at his head. I sat in their living room and watched video footage of Israeli soldiers waking their children from bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night, arresting children, and shooting gas canisters into their homes. I visited homes and villages where the apartheid wall is being constructed to separate Palestinians from their farmland, from their families, from their jobs, from health care and schools. I passed through checkpoints where Palestinians are humiliated every day trying to get to work or school or a hospital. I witnessed the apartheid road system, where Israeli settlers are allowed to drive on certain roads and Palestinians are barred. I saw the use of elaborate permit systems to enforce apartheid and imprison Palestinians. I walked the streets of Hebron where a barricade separates the part of the sidewalk Palestinians are allowed to use and the rest of the road which Israeli settlers may use.
What I saw helped me understand why Palestinians have called for a boycott of Israel, utilizing the strategy taken up against apartheid South Africa. I understand why Israel is so threatened by this strategy of worldwide solidarity against apartheid that it passed legislation in 2011 outlawing the boycott to intimidate people within Israel out of participating in the global movement, and in 2017 banned activists involved in the global boycott movement from entering the country. I understand why an enormous range of writers, speakers, and artists, including icons like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Judith Butler, Alice Walker, Roger Waters, Adrienne Rich and Stephen Hawking have publicly supported the boycott and refused to participate in events in Israel.
In 2012, StandWithUs brought a pinkwashing tour to Seattle and the LGBT Commission agreed to have sponsor an event. Queer and trans Seattleites, including queer and trans Jews and Palestinians and our allies, came to the Commission to explain that the event, which was marketed as a chance for international exchange, was actually a propaganda event designed to create a misleading image of Israel as a progressive haven for human rights rather than a brutally colonizing country engaged in outrageous human rights violations. The Commissioners heard and understood and cancelled the event. We then faced a backlash from pro-Israel organizations that wrote hate mail to the activists who had spoken up and bombarded the City government with complaints. I made a documentary about this story which has been featured in film festivals all over the world and screened across the United States to people who are working to fight similar pinkwashing efforts. You can watch it online at pinkwashingexposed.net, and I hope you will. It is a story about the Commission you serve on and the ways that well-meaning people seeking to serve their communities can be put in positions that are contradict their social justice values. I am disheartened to hear that the Commission would choose to partner with StandWithUs again. StandWithUs is a right-wing group with ties to anti-gay leaders and a disturbing record of harmful tactics. SWU is not a friend to our communities, but an opportunistic organization narrowly focused on covering up Israel’s brutality, willing to use LGBT themes to do that if it works.
The purpose of movements for queer and trans liberation is to break free from systems of violence and harm and build a just world. Trans service in militaries that are enforcing colonial rule, and protecting the theft of life, land and water from indigenous people, is not liberatory. It is not liberation if trans people get to participate in arresting children, preventing people from reaching hospitals and schools, shooting tear gas and bullets at colonized people. Co-sponsoring an event designed to glorify the Israeli Defense Forces aligns the Commission with values that are directly at odds with the racial justice and social justice values claimed by the City of Seattle. Particularly in this political moment, it is vital for us to be clear about what we support and what we oppose. I want to see the Commission prioritize supporting queer and trans immigrants, queer and trans Muslims, Black queer and trans people, queer and trans people with disabilities, queer and trans people facing police violence, homeless queer and trans people. I want to see the Commission joining the efforts of social movements across the US opposing the Trump administration’s brutal policies and plans. Instead, you have chosen to sponsor an event utterly aligned with Trump-style politics: Israel is a leader in building illegal, racist walls, imprisoning vulnerable people, and practicing apartheid. This event is propaganda for apartheid and colonialism, and it exploits queer and trans movement politics and undermines our quest for justice and liberation.
I strongly urge you to cancel this event. It is part of a public-relations campaign to conceal apartheid and violence, which I trust the Commission does not mean to support. I would be happy to discuss this further in person or by phone if that is useful.
**Stand With Us is also organizing at least one other event with this speaker in Seattle.
Dear Professor Spade,
Thank you for expressing your perspective on this matter. We want to clarify that the Commission is not sponsoring the event, but we’re invited to have a discussion with a trans Israeli soldier. Additionally, we have not been contacted by StandWithUs. A Sister City Association is sponsoring this event.
Some members of the Commission have elected to attend this meeting in an effort to participate in dialogue and critical conversation. Other Commissioners are not attending for a variety of reasons—several Commissioners will not attend because they do not support the event occurring. While a couple of Commission members do plan to attend the event and engage in conversation, that is not an endorsement from the Commission as a whole of any views expressed at the event.
Because the Commission is not a sponsor of this event, we cannot cancel it. Since the event would occur with our without our participation, we invited you specifically because we value your knowledge and the perspective you would bring to this conversation. We apologize that the intent behind our invitation was not clear. We have been and continue to seek diverse community voices to participate in this discussion. Given that your online presence has a much greater reach than ours does, we politely ask that you update your Facebook post and website to clarify our role in this event.
Though we are often asked to meet with individuals from other cities and countries to share our work, the work of the Commission is focused primarily on addressing the immediate and long-term needs of LGBTQ individuals living and working in Seattle. We appreciate you contacting us to share your expertise. We invite you to our April 20 Commission meeting to further share your expertise and discuss the history of our Commission with regard to this issue.
City of Seattle LGBTQ Commission
Thanks for sharing the message below with the Commission.
I find it hard to understand how the Commission can claim not to be sponsoring the event when the invitation I received says “Please join the Seattle – Be’er Sheva Sister City Association and the Seattle LGBTQ Commission for a roundtable discussion with the first openly transgender officer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Shachar Erez.”
I expect the Commission to use discernment about events that it puts its name on, like this one. I know the Commission is capable of rejecting sponsoring events because in 2015 I was part of a group of activists who asked the Commission to sponsor a screening of a documentary film we made about the Commission and the pinkwashing controversy it was involved in. The Commission declined that opportunity for education, dialogue and engagement claiming it didn’t want to revisit a controversial and divisive topic. It is now clear that the Commission was not interested in engaging with or supporting Jewish and Palestinian LGBT activists who are part of anti-racist Palestinian liberation activism in Seattle, but is willing to sponsor events featuring Israeli military officials. At this time in particular, it is vital that the Commission gain clarity on whether it will align with pro-military, pro-war, pro-apartheid forces or support grassroots anti-racist queer and trans activism in our city.
I am disappointed to receive a response focused on distancing the Commission from its decisions rather than being accountable and denouncing an event that uses trans issues as a cover for racist, colonial militarism. Perhaps the Commission might be less concerned with how its actions make it appear when I report them on social media, and more concerned with the message that putting its name on this event sends about its values.
I remain open to engaging with the Commission about this event and decision, but I cannot honor a request to remove my concerns while this event goes forward. I would be happy to support the Commission in learning more about these issues and working to pursue the racial justice and social justice values that the City of Seattle asserts. I urge the Commission to pull out of all participation in this event.
So many thanks to everyone at CLAGS for a wonderful experience giving the Kessler Lecture this year. The unedited video is below, and is a version edited by the phenomenal Hope Dector that shows the slides more clearly is available here.
Hope Dector and I just released six new videos from our Queer Dreams series. These all examine the limits of marriage inclusion as a liberation strategy for queers, and the reasons it became so central to the agendas of the most well-funded LGBT advocacy organizations. I hope these will be useful tools for teaching and community conversations.
In 2014, Juana María Rodríguez organized an event called “Soapbox Manifestos” at the American Studies Association annual meeting and invited me to perform a manifesto. I wrote and read this Questionnaire which Undercommoning just published. I recommend looking at their site more broadly–lots of provocative thinking and wonderful tools there.
In other news, Original Plumbing recently contacted me for an interview about my 2002 bathroom arrest in Grand Central and my thoughts on the contemporary bathroom controversies and what has changed in trans politics. It was a fun conversation, and threw me back into thinking about some old times. I dug up the zine we made after that arrest, Piss & Vinegar, and some old photos for them. I’ll post the interview and more photos when it comes out.
Hope Dector and I have been making more things!
Queer Liberation: No Prisons, No Borders
Featuring Reina Gossett, Angélica Cházaro, CeCe McDonald, and Dean Spade. With art by Micah Bazant, Roan Boucher, Julio Salgado, Rommy Torrico, and Zuleica Zepeda.
I have gotten a bit behind at posting new work. Many new things have come out.
First, the new edition of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law is out from Duke University Press. It includes new reflecting on the mainstreaming of trans politics and new cover art by Xylor Jane.
In other translations news, I had a wonderful visit to the Center for the Study of Sexualities at the National Central University of Taiwan. My generous hosts translated some of my writing to Mandarin. Here is Chapter 2 of Normal Life, “What’s Wrong with Rights?” in Mandarin. Here is the article I co-authored with Morgan Bassichis and Alex Lee that appears in Captive Genders, “Building an Abolitionist Trans & Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got” translated to Mandarin. And here is an article with some US trans law basics in Mandarin.
My documentary Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back! (1 hour long) came out in the summer of 2015. You can watch the entire film on the website and you can watch with captions in English, Spanish or Greek captions (Mandarin is coming soon!).
We also made short clips that address particular topics that are easy to share. These include “What is Pinkwashing?” “What is Brand Israel?” and “What is Normalization?” I put all of these and the full documentary online hoping that people will do free screenings in their own communities and on their campuses. I am happy to report that the documentary has already screened at festivals and community events around the United States and in Canada, Argentina, Japan, Korea, Greece, Holland and in the UK. It is playing on Cambridge Community Television tomorrow! You can read a review of the Pinkwashing Exposed in the recent issue of Make/Shift magazine.
Last month, The Scholar and the Feminist Online published a special issue co-edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse, entitled “Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Non-Profits and Beyond.” It is full of great articles and I highly recommend the whole issue. It includes a new article I co-wrote with Dr. Rori Rohlfs called “Legal Equality and the (After?)Math of Eugenics” that looks critically at the proliferation of new statistics about LGBT populations and how they are used in legal reform efforts. The special issue also includes six more short videos in the series that Hope Dector and I are making as part of our Queer Dreams and Nonprofit Blues project.
Finally, in November I participated in an Oxford Union Debate about whether states should recognize marriage. It was probably among the most uncomfortable events of my life, not only because I was wearing a tuxedo but also because I was on the “same side” of the debate with a raging zionist and a raging transphobe. Still not sure what to make of all that, but if you want to see what I said, here is the video.
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.]