Opinion: LGBTIQ+ Rights Amidst the Middle East Conflict


Protesters march against Israeli attacks on Gaza in London (Photo: Andy Soloman / Shutterstock)

Following the recent month-long commemoration of South African Pride, I see it fitting that we reflect on the impact of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict on the LGBTIQ+ community in that region.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a subject of long-standing turmoil, where tensions and complexities have stained the lives of countless individuals for generations. The period around the late 19th century saw the emergence of a Zionist movement under the leadership of Theodor Herzl, at the centre of the movement was the plan to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine, the former Ottoman Empire.

The early stages of this tension laid the foundation for a conflict that would disproportionately affect marginalised communities including women, children and LGBTIQ+ people, thus magnifying existing inequalities and challenges. However, amid these political divisions, the suffering, and the quest for a peaceful resolution, there’s a silent, yet profound struggle that often goes unnoticed and spoken of – the plight of v individuals in this troubled region.

It is an issue often overshadowed by the broader geopolitical discourse, yet it is one of great importance. As a South African LGBTIQ+ activist, I find it important to shine a light on the experiences of queer people caught in the crossfire, to remind the world that human rights, including LGBTIQ+ rights, must transcend political divides.

Repression and pinkwashing

It is imperative to highlight the plight of queer people in Gaza amid their dual threats of escalating aggression against the people of Palestine and the ongoing repression of queer bodies. The reality is that conflict is exacerbating the already volatile situation for LGBTIQ+ people, where homosexual relations are outlawed and where being openly queer violates social and religious moral dictates.

Understanding the context of LGBTIQ+ rights in this region is crucial for contextualising the status quo. For many, it’s a history marked by silence, fear, and invisibility. The Israel-Palestine conflict has created a unique set of challenges for queer individuals, forcing them to navigate the complex intersection of their sexual orientation with their national, ethnic, and religious identities.

Beyond this intersectional dilemma, is the “pinkwashing” stance driven by Israel. Corinne Blackmer refers to pinkwashing in the context of the conflict as “Israel’s putatively dishonest abuse of its sterling record on LGBT human rights to conceal or ‘whitewash’ its struggles with the Palestinians”.

In essence, Israeli authorities and advocacy groups have been accused of promoting a positive image of Israel’s LGBTIQ+ rights as a tactic to divert attention from criticism of its aggression towards Palestine, thus instrumentalising the LGBTIQ+ community.

LGBTIQ+ rights are human rights, and they are inextricably linked to the broader struggle for equality and justice. In a region rife with political tensions, these rights have been under siege for many years. From discrimination to violence, queer individuals continue to find themselves in precarious situations in Palestine.

Drawing parallels with the apartheid era

Beyond the marginalisation of queer bodies in Palestine, there is also a growing concern that queer people in Palestine remain invisible in their organising. I want to draw parallels between South Africa’s apartheid black organising and the current-day Israel-Palestine conflict. During apartheid, queer bodies and subsequently their struggles and politics were erased for reasons that placed the gender-binary at the centre of the struggle.

Queer people and their struggles are not spoken of or discussed in many advocacy spaces as they are not expected to be utilised as a functional demographic dedicated to the liberation of Palestine (Abualsaid, 2023). The situation in Palestine almost sounds like the story of the late African National Congress stalwart Ruth Mompati’s outburst in a 1987 interview with Peter Tatchell in London, a statement she would later apologise for. Mompati said:

“I hope that in a liberated South Africa people will live a normal life, I emphasise the word normal… tell me, are lesbians and gays normal? No, it is not normal. I cannot even begin to understand why people want lesbian and gay rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don’t see them suffering. No one is persecuting them… We haven’t heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West”.

There is a salient yet silenced history of how there was a lack of moral consensus among the anti-Apartheid movement amid fears that the gay and lesbian movement would cloud the anti-Apartheid movement, presenting it as weak to the police force.

It’s important to acknowledge the discrimination faced by LGBTIQ+ individuals on both sides of the Middle East conflict. Homophobia and transphobia persist in many parts of the region, making it difficult for queer people to assert their rights. According to Equaldex LGBITQ+ Equality Index, Palestine is the 8th worst country in the world for LGBTIQ+ rights, whilst on the contrary Israel (mainly due to its Pinkwashing approach) ranks 48th in the world, also being the only Middle Eastern country recognising same-sex unions.

Despite the barriers, there is a growing movement of LGBTIQ+ activists within the region who are working tirelessly to create change. These activists are challenging societal norms, advocating for acceptance, and seeking support from the international LGBTIQ+ community.

A broader global struggle for LGBTIQ+ rights

The struggles of queer individuals in the Israel-Palestine conflict are not isolated. They are part of a broader global fight for LGBTIQ+ rights. The worldwide LGBTIQ+ community must express solidarity, recognising that the struggle for equal rights transcends borders and identities.

Behind the headlines are the stories of brave LGBTIQ+ individuals who navigate the complex maze of identity and conflict. These personal narratives provide a human face to the statistics and controversies we only hear bits and pieces of. They remind us that LGBTIQ+ rights are about people, not just politics.

In 2022 a 25-year-old gay-affirming Palestinian, Ahmad Abu Murkhiye, sought asylum in Israel from Palestine on the grounds of fearing persecution for being gay. Two years later, after returning to Palestine, Ahmad’s body was found on a West Bank roadside with his head detached and his body butchered. This is one among the many forgotten stories of the double-sided sword the queer community in Palestine is subjected to under this ongoing conflict.

In the face of a broader divisive political landscape, we should be intersectional in our analysis and solidarity efforts with Palestine. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not just a political struggle; it’s a human one. LGBTIQ+ rights are an integral part of this broader fight, and they deserve recognition and protection. By acknowledging and addressing the struggles of LGBTIQ+ individuals in the region, we take a step closer to a more just and inclusive world. Martin Luther King poignantly said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Get the Mamba Newsletter

Latest Comments
  1. Richard
    Reply -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend