An open letter to the organisers of TCSD 2010
Berlin, 27 June 2010
(Judith Butler, Berlin, 19 June 2010)
Two queer activists at the TCSD 2010 with their home made signs “Free Gaza” and “Freiheit für Palästina”
On the 26th June 2010, at the annual Transgenialer CSD demonstration in Berlin, two queer activists carrying home-made signs with the slogans “Freiheit für Palästina” and “Free Gaza” were asked to pack up their signs or leave the demonstration.
Three members of the organising collective, claiming to have consulted all the collective members and other participants, said that a “consensus” had been reached that our signs were not acceptable, and that they had received complaints from other participants.
The reasons presented by the 3 apparently self-designated “representatives” were varied, inconsistent, and changed multiple times throughout the course of the discussion. The arguments presented ranged from being falsely targeted to preposterous;
- that national flags were not allowed (neither sign was a national flag, nor resembled a national flag)
- that the problem was that one of the signs was a flag and that no flags were allowed (many of the floats had flags)
- that the real problem was that the word “Palestine” appeared on “the flag” therefore representing support for a nation-state (Palestine is not a recognized nation)
- that the slogans on the signs were “too short” to be understood, and that we would have had to have a speaker on the platform explaining the issue if we wanted to carry such signs
- that the sign that said “Free Gaza” was not acceptable because it did not represent the consensus opinion of the collective
- that in fact the root of the problem was that some people regarded it to be an unacceptable criticism of the nation-state of Israel
- that there was consensus not to bring up the issue of Palestine and Israel at this radical, political and anti-commercial queer demonstration in Berlin
Not only was there no consistency in this reasoning, but the actions of these collective members were uncalled for and wrong for two major reasons:
1. neither of the signs contradicted the policy of the Transgenialer CSD, which states:
“Bitte lasst eure Partei- und Nationalfahnen zu Hause! Diese sind auf dem Transgenialen CSD nicht erwünscht. Wir wollen keine Fahnen sehen, weder von Parteien noch irgendwelchen Nationen!”
2. while the collective members claimed to have consulted the other collective members, as well as each of the floats, to reach their ‘consensus’, further research on our part confirmed that at least two other collective members had not been consulted (ie, two members who happened to have different opinions on the issue), and at least one of the four or five floats – meaning that their claim to represent a general consensus was flimsy at best.
We have already mentioned that at least two other members of the collective that we spoke to personally were not consulted about this so-called “consensus”. We even made the effort to check with a member of the collective the day BEFORE the demonstration about our planned signs. We were told, consistent with TCSD policy, that as long as we did not bring flags of nation-states or of political parties, that it would be okay.
In addition to this, the suggestion that the intervention of the three collective members even represented a consensus of the demonstration or of the broader queer-left community is false.
During our short time at the march with our signs, we got many happy faces, thumbs up, and support of participants in the crowd. After the intervention of the three collective members, everyone we told about what had happened was outraged that such political censorship of an explicit call for solidarity against oppression could occur at Transgenialer CSD. We also heard from others that individuals had been expressing their support for the messages on our signs and did not understand why we had been told to pack up or leave the demonstration.
When one activist decided to express her concern from the stage at Heinrich Platz, the overwhelming majority of the crowd cheered and clapped when she said “It is disgusting and an outrage that activists who were expressing solidarity with a people who suffer under military occupation and daily oppression were told to leave the demonstration!”
The activists were asked by collective representatives to take their signs down or leave the march.
The important point here is that these three collective members DO NOT represent a consensus, but rather a minority political perspective within the queer community – they are entitled to that view, just as we are to ours.
We suppose that the problem they had was really a political rejection of expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. But we find it despicable that they tried to hide behind a technicality – no national flags – in order to manipulate the political face of the demonstration. When we tried to clarify whether we were being censored or kicked off the demonstration, they answered “no – this is not censorship” but also “no – you are not being asked to leave the demonstration.” But it had to be one or the other – they were hiding behind the technicality to fudge the question.
They tried to intimidate us with the moralistic argument that if we stayed in the demonstration with our signs, that we would be showing a “lack of respect” for the demonstration and its participants. But this is really the height of hypocrisy – in fact, it was these three people and the anonymous interests they were representing who showed a lack of respect. They claimed that “some people” had complained and “felt uncomfortable” with the signs. This is really just a cover for privilege – we are not surprised that some people found our messages “uncomfortable”, but we ask how many oppressed Palestinians, both queer and straight, have the opportunity to speak of comfort when they get kicked out of their homes by Israeli settlers, or when they are cut off from their orchards by an apartheid wall, or when they are refused entry to Israel just to go to work removing garbage or cleaning toilets at the whim of an Israeli soldier, or when they have no access to their school or hospital because it has been destroyed by the Israeli military and when the cement they need to rebuild them is not permitted into the region? How is sexual liberation possible under those conditions?
A further question is, how many queers of Palestinian or Arab background living here in Berlin have the opportunity to speak of comfort when their interests are silenced by their supposedly liberated queer fellows in mainly protestant/catholic Germany? Our participation was not simply to express solidarity with those suffering in the Palestinian territories and to people everywhere suffering oppression, but also, in the spirit of anti-racism, to stand alongside Palestinian, Arab, middle eastern and Muslim queers living in Berlin and send a message that we can struggle together in diversity for human and sexual liberation all over the world. We do not believe people should have to choose which part of their oppression they fight against first. We wanted to reject the idea that some queers have more of a right to participate in the movement than others – an idea which is promoted by racist Islamophobes.
Just last week, Judith Butler rejected the Zivil Courage Award at the mainstream CSD, and criticised the organisers for their active and passive acceptance of racist assumptions. She mentioned Islamophobia, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the daily racism faced by people of colour within the queer movement as reasons for rejecting the award. Unlike the groups GLADT, SUSPECT, LesMiGras and Reach Out, in her words: “The host organizations refuse to understand anti-racist politics as an essential part of their work.”
Transgenialer CSD is supposed to be a radical alternative to the mainstream commercial CSD, on the basis that the commercial CSD has become an apolitical party limited to demanding “acceptance” or “tolerance” of “diversity”, and not addressing the broader political roots of homophobia. We agree with this criticism.
Transgenialer CSD also claims to be “the political” CSD, where critical perspectives on all forms of oppression, such as sexism, transphobia, racism, imperialism and capitalism can and should be linked to the struggle against homophobia.
The slogan for TCSD 2010 was “Formidable times demand formidable queer resistance” and the flyer called on all queers to “attempt solidarity both here and elsewhere, together, without blurring differences and power relations.” Among many other reasons, the flyer also cries out that in our world today, fugitives are finding it ever more difficult to find humane spaces in which to live, and that racism is part of the daily struggle, even amongst queers. Apart from that, there is also an explicitly anti-imperialist criticism of the war in Afghanistan. Yet activists who were responding wholeheartedly to these very cries and demands were silenced.
As we mentioned before, at the heart of the matter lies a political disagreement about Palestine and Israel – a topic that these collective members wanted to suppress and censor. In their actions, these collective members effectively took the position of “neutrality” and sided with the oppressors who want to make it impossible for queers in Palestine to eat and drink, let alone express their sexuality. It reeks of hypocrisy that we were called to exercise solidarity with all oppressed people around the world – except the Palestinians.
Exceptionalism on the question of Palestine is clearly present in certain corners of the German queer left and urgently needs to be politically discussed and challenged. Somehow, people with an otherwise radical critique of oppression in capitalist society manage to do a complete backflip when it comes to Israeli colonisation and the plight of the Palestinians, both queer and straight. But how can we truly fight for sexual liberation when we do not simultaneously call for complete liberation of ALL people from oppression? In fact, this question holds our struggle back!
While our point here is really to defend the right of queer activists to bring up critical perspectives, both within and without the queer community, it is necessary to point out why our signs and their messages for “Free Gaza” and “Freiheit für Palästina” in no way contradict the aims and actual consensus of the Transgeniale CSD as published on its website and in its call to action.
Solidarity with the queer struggle against homo- and transphobia must be linked to a broader struggle against oppression, something the TCSD collective claims to support. Judith Butler, in her speech at the mainstream CSD, said there is no queer without anti-racism and anti-colonialism. On the question of Palestine, this includes the daily struggle for people to be freed from military and civilian violence, economic blockade, and financial and social discrimination.
The relevant point is that in a space such as Gaza, where people have to struggle every day just to stay alive and maintain their right to live, the struggle against occupation and the struggle for gay liberation become one and the same – you cannot have sexual liberation unless the whole society achieves self-determination and independence.
In the words of a Palestinian queer activist group:
As Palestinian queers, our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in the Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid; a system that has oppressed us for the past 63 years. Violations of human rights and international law, suppression of basic rights and civil liberty, and discrimination are deeply rooted in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, straight and gay alike.
This point was again highlighted during last week’s controversy surrounding a debate on whether to allow the self-declared Zionist propaganda group Stand With Us to have a workshop at the US Social Forum – the group claimed to represent “middle eastern queers” but refused to allow Palestinian and other Arab queer voices on the podium with them. The group alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society responded:
Stand with Us would have everyone believe that the Palestinian cause is an unworthy one because of the homophobia that exists within Palestinian society, as if homophobia does not exist elsewhere, and as if struggles for justice are predicated on some sort of inherent “goodness” of the oppressed, rather than on the principles of freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, everywhere. […] While Stand With Us is quick to point out the oppression of queer Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, it conveniently forgets that those same queers are not immune to the bombs, blockades, apartheid and destruction wrought upon them daily by the Israeli government, and that Israel's multi-tiered oppression hardly makes a distinction between straight and gay Palestinians.
Recently a group of activists in Toronto, Canada, had to fight for their right to participate in Pride March due to their expression of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. They WON. In the words of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid,
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. Road blocks, military checkpoints, house demolitions, curfews and the apartheid wall are all part of the daily reality for all Palestinians, regardless of their orientation.
Transgenialer CSD issued a public statement of support for Judith Butler in her criticism of the mainstream CSD’s passive and active support of the status quo regarding racism.
Ironically, Judith Butler herself would be probably be disturbed by the actions of the three TCSD collective members only a week later, in suppressing messages of support for oppressed Palestinians. In an article in 2003 she wrote:
“I signed a petition… an ‘Open Letter from American Jews’, in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis.
If one can’t voice an objection to violence done by Israel without attracting a charge of anti-semitism, then that charge works to circumscribe the publicly acceptable domain of speech, and to immunise Israeli violence against criticism. One is threatened with the label ‘anti-semitic’ in the same way that one is threatened with being called a ‘traitor’ if one opposes the most recent US war.”
Far from representing the “consensus” position, in fact these three collective members were swimming well against the current – the international queer community is prepared to discuss this issue. Are we ready too, in Berlin?
Time for a change
The above mentioned small sections of the German queer left cannot hide behind the flimsy position of “neutrality” forever. Even less can it use “neutrality” as an excuse to censor calls for international solidarity, freedom and liberation. Political censorship of progressive struggles is not the brief of a radical queer demonstration. TCSD should be a place where critical political positions are welcome – in fact we were truly surprised that there were barely any other political banners or placards to be seen at a demonstration that claims to be critical of the status quo.
• We call for a formal condemnation of censorship from the TCSD organising collective – even though these actions did not properly represent the collective as a whole, they were carried out in the name of the collective.
• We call on the organising collective of TCSD and of the Berlin queer community in general to radically rethink its “fence-sitting” on the question of Israel/Palestine and to express solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed and colonised in Gaza and the West Bank.
• We call on the organising collective of TCSD in 2011 to include a speech (Redebeitrag) from Palestinian/Israeli queer activists against the occupation, in the interests of extending international solidarity and extending our hands to other progressive struggles.
We would like to conclude with a statement of the group ASWAT- Gay Palestinian Women:
Pride parades started as political marches, and we firmly believe that solidarity should be with human rights first and foremost. We believe that as queers, one of the most disadvantaged and oppressed minorities in human societies, we should protest against all forms of oppression and struggle together to promote the rights of minorities and oppressed groups.
Founding members of the newly formed “BQISP” - Berlin Queers for International Solidarity with Palestine”