SWERF and TERF: The Red-Brown alliance in Policing Gender

Trans communism
Transcommunist flag by NinjaDrawsDBZ

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, from Fightback magazine’s upcoming issue on Socialist Feminism. Subscribe here.

Late last year, a veteran of communist politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand decided to contribute to a march for the traditional working-class demand for reproductive rights by standing outside it with a sign bearing only the words “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” – a dogwhistle for anti-trans feminists (or “trans-excluding radical feminists”, TERFs). Another veteran from the same organisation now has the same phrase at the head of her Twitter biography – displacing all mention of her record as a socialist and a union organiser. And they’re not the only ones. How has the motivation to punch down on trans people – and defend the “free speech” of fascists and others who do so – come to substitute for the fight for workers’ power and a post-capitalist world in the minds of veteran activists?

Freeze peach

Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks are veteran socialists and union organisers, who were founding authors of the blog Redline when it was set up in 20121. Whitmore’s Twitter account identifies her as part of the “Left Network for Free Speech” (LNFS). The Redline post in which this “Network” was announced says:

As partisans of the working class, we know that the working class has historically been denied democratic rights, including free speech. Even after hundreds of years of struggle, workers today face being fired for expressing, in their own time and on their own computers, views which their employers disapprove of.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of employers and the state disempowers workers and oppressed sections of society such as women, Maori, gay people and migrant workers… Free speech is necessary to expose racism, sexism and bigotry. In contrast, ‘hate speech’ restrictions don’t challenge these ideas. ‘Hate speech’ laws in practice are an arbitrary tool that are used to impose social regulation. They can be used to silence progressives on a range of issues.2

Given their defence of free speech as a weapon in defence of the interests of workers and gay people, it is strange that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau – the millionaire athlete who was released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after violating his contract by making religiously-based homophobic social media posts – or of “gender-critical” (i.e. transphobic) commentators and academics. The link between these and working-class activism seems thin, to say the least.

Free-speech absolutism on the Left has had a historical record of degenerating, first into tolerance for Right-wing ideas, then actual sympathy with them. The classic historical example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain, originally a split from the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation – always somewhat of an outlier on the British far-left – began to be distinguished in the mid-1980s by opposing the consensus that fascist movements such as the British National Party should not be given platforms on campus. This clearly prefigures the LNFS’ insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse, as well as its concern about “academic mobbing” of professors who promote transphobia.

The subsequent transformation of the RCP into an outright Right-wing libertarian outfit is quite notorious. Opposing the liberal consensus had become for them an end in itself, detached from socialist principle. The organisation itself wound up in the 1990s, as their Living Marxism magazine was sued out of existence for denial of the horrors of attempted genocide during the Yugoslav civil wars. They cropped up later in the form of the “Institute of Ideas”, promoting climate-change denial through documentaries such as The Great Global Warming Swindle. They continue to exist as Spiked, a libertarian Right-wing website funded by American billionaires the Koch brothers, some of whose writers have recently been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party.3

It is interesting to note that the place where this degeneration began – minimising the threat of fascism in favour of the supposed greater threat of liberal “thought policing” – is a very common trope on the anti-liberal Left, the kind of people whom Fightback has criticised in our previous articles on Conservative Left and Red-Brown tendencies. As we have previously stated, this kind of underestimation of the fascist threat – or even seeing fascist movements as having a positive side, in mobilising opposition to a centrist/liberal consensus – was the kind of thinking from Communists which led to the victory of Hitler in Germany.

The most shocking and disturbing thing on the LNFS Facebook page, however, is the un-ironic posting of this image4:

This is an extremely common meme in online “free speech” circles (and was recently quoted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter). But this is not a quote from the 18th century French writer Voltaire at all. It is in fact a quote from Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi writing in 1993. The clue to whom he was really referring is given in the following, full version of the meme:

There is no reason to believe that Whitmore, Franks et al. were aware of the true nasty nature of this meme. But in a way, that makes it even worse. Fightback has previously characterised the spread of “Red-Brown” ideas as like a “zombie plague”, in that socialists or others on the Left who start descending into Right-populist or even fascist politics don’t even realise that they’re doing so. It is a case of losing one’s political (or even moral) compass.

“Progressive” transphobia

Unfortunately, trans-exclusive ideas are not confined to the comrades of Redline/LFNS. TERF politics are very strong on the British left, and one union activist recently arrived from Britain tried earlier this year to defend the free speech of transphobes on the “Unions NZ” Facebook group.6 Prominent veterans of the socialist movement in New Zealand – such as Unite Union stalwart Mike Treen and retired academic David Bedggood7 – have also made social media or blog posts opposing “transactivism” or defending local anti-trans activists such as Renee Gerlich. Such comrades often try to justify themselves by arguing that they are against discrimination against trans people, but that “transactivism/the transgender movement” goes too far. These are not dissimilar in form from the arguments against Gay Liberation from 1970s Communists, which are still used by fringe Stalinist groups like the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”.

This is particularly ironic in an era where some of the staunchest young communists in Aotearoa/New Zealand identify as trans, non-binary or in some other way “genderqueer”.9 As we noted in “Against Conservative Leftism”, incomprehension of new ways of living which have become common among young people in the era of neoliberal globalisation is a common feature among many veteran activists.

Beyond that, many activists have pointed to an extremely strong link between anti-sex-worker (sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism, or SWERF) and anti-trans politics. English sociology professor Sally Hines put it like this on Twitter:

If someone is a trans exclusionary feminist they will almost certainly have anti-sex work and anti-porn politics – and vice versa. The constant is a denial of body autonomy and a feminism that insists it knows what is best for other women (even when told otherwise).11

It is no coincidence that, due to social exclusion from other work, trans women have been disproportionately represented among sex workers. It is rumoured that several prominent TERFs in New Zealand developed their hostility to trans people after getting a hostile response to their anti-sex worker activism.

English trans musician “DeadBitBabe” also comments:

SWERF’N’TERFS can’t acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers because to them power only comes from maintaining the integrity of their fantasy construction of a female body… Are the cries of Lesbian erasure not strangely reminiscent of the fascist’s cries of white genocide?

The “lesbian erasure” trope is an interesting one. The AfterEllen website recently published an article entitled “A Butch Eradication, Served With a Progressive Smile”, claiming that the network of lesbian spaces and business which had been built up since the 1980s had collapsed due to an increasing tendency of “butch” (masculine-appearing) lesbians to identify as trans men. The author laments:

Our lesbian spaces are already dead. Our bookstores, our dances. Everything we built is dead and taken over by the trans nightmare.

If nothing else, this is a change from the usual TERF narrative, which tends to ignore the existence of trans men and non-binary people altogether, and instead to whip up moral panic about trans women “colonizing” or even “raping” cis women’s spaces. What should really make people stop and think about both these TERF narratives is how similarly they resemble fascist narratives about “The Great Replacement”, as made notorious by the manifesto of the terrorist who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch earlier this year.

Following the analysis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Fightback has previously argued that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them. The AfterEllen article quoted above mourns for the death of a network of lesbian/woman-identified small businesses. In most cases TERFs tend to be older, whiter feminists who have had some success in academia, writing, or in the bourgeois lesbian community (the most globally prominent example being Germaine Greer).

Analysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology might seem shocking or over-the-top; particularly because to do so would require us to categorize many veteran socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand to have slipped over into the “Red-Brown” camp. But defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable. As does the habit of TERF ideologues of suggesting that trans people are part of some kind of conspiracy of “elites”, as in the tweet reproduced below:

TERF conspiracy theories on Twitter about "elites backing the trans movement" are not dissimilar to fascist ones.

The full antisemitic force of that term “elites” can be grasped when you read a transphobic academic explicitly name George Soros, the Jewish liberal billionaire who has become a common bad guy in fascist conspiracy theory, as a guilty party. “Deadbitbabe” on Twitter again:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties.

The anarchist-communist website LibCom puts it more bluntly: “Transphobic feminists are, for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right.” Given this, the support given by the fascist and religious-fundamentalist Right for TERFs, described in other articles reprinted in this issue, begins to look less like an “enemy’s enemy” situation and more like a meeting of ideological bedfellows.

Perhaps the final word can be left to the author of the blog nothingiseverlost, in a criticism of the similar descent of the socialist-feminist academic Nina Power into TERF and other forms of right-wing politics: “you never seem to get people becoming less sympathetic to the far-right at the same time as getting into “gender critical”/trans-exclusionary versions of feminism.” It is extremely interesting that Power’s main move in defending her dabbling with transphobic and fascistic memes is an invocation of … free speech.

What is to be done?

Fightback has previously discussed what we see as another irruption of Right-wing ideology into socialist circles, here and elsewhere in the Western world – the demonization of the Syrian revolution. The repetitive argument from such people is that the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime and its Russian allies are not “real” subjects of liberation (such as, to take a more popular example, the Palestinian people), but instead pawns of some Zionist-jihadi-US State Department conspiracy against Syria’s “national sovereignty”. The really perverse issue is that some of the TERF-adjacent leftists we have quoted– and we might name David Bedggood here – have agreed with us in staunchly rejecting this dehumanizing rhetoric when used against the Syrian people in struggle… only to use similar rhetoric against trans people in struggle.20

At the very least, what this can tell us is that “it’s difficult to be right about everything”. But it also warns us against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment. We all live under a suffocating blanket of capitalist ideology, in which it becomes “natural” for different groups of the oppressed to be suspicious or hostile towards each other. Even with the best intentions, it can be very hard to consistently hold to a materialist analysis which can clearly identify patterns of oppression, exploitation and privilege, and not be confused by the “DARVO” (“Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”) tactics habitually used by fascist movements and domestic abusers.

Fightback believes that to effectively fight capitalism today means to fight fascism, the most dangerous form of capitalist ideology, which is currently on the rise. To fight fascism, we must have a united front of working and oppressed people. To have a united front we cannot tolerate racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, state-worship or any other ideology which suggests that some oppressed people are “deserving targets” within our united front, because that is literally the thin edge of the Fascist wedge.

The Left has had far too much opportunism recently – refusal to face Right-populist or even fascist ideas within the movements for fear of alienating people, of breaking up the mass movement. We need to hold to a practice of honest, sharp criticism of SWERF and TERF ideas where-ever they are raised, even by “comrades” or “good Leftists”, as contrary to the unity of all the oppressed we need to build a better world. We also need to centre the experiences of trans people and sex workers within our movement in such debates – nothing should be “about them, without them”.

At the same time, it is crucial to build the biggest possible anti-fascist, anti-capitalist united front – which will mean sometimes linking arms with SWERFs, TERFs and even partisans of Bashar al-Assad against a common enemy. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Special thanks to Sage Anastasi, Lisandru Grigorut and Anne Russell for their help with this article.

1 The founders of Redline were former members of the Workers Party of New Zealand – the organisation from which Fightback is also descended. We are aware of the historical ironies involved.

2 For refutations from the Left of the case against hate-speech restrictions, see Max Rashbrooke at Overland (liberal) and R. Totale at LibCom (anarcho-communist).

3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spiked, and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/us-billionaires-hard-right-britain-spiked-magazine-charles-david-koch-foundation

4 If this image is taken down before then, it was accessed July 13, 2019.

6 This post raised strong negative feedback and has since been deleted by the group administrators.

7 Treen has republished several anti-“transactivist” articles on social media, including those from Redline. Bedggood is the author of this blog post.

9 Not to even mention the contribution to the Communist movement over decades by “transactivists” such as the late Les Feinberg.

11 Hines even suggests that SWERFs and TERFs might be brought together under the label “Genital-Obsessed Feminists”.

20 An excellent article on LibCom shows how a Red-Brown conference in Sweden brought together transphobic speakers with some of the most notorious defenders of Assad, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley.

Contents Page: Voices of Women and Gender Minorities

Crowdfunded special edition of Fightback magazine (subscribe here), dedicated to radical writing by women and gender minorities. All contributors were paid.

Living Outside The Rainbow: Queerness and the Housing Crisis

LGBT youth homelessness protest, USA

LGBT youth homelessness protest, USA

Fightback is running a series of articles on the housing crisis in Aotearoa/NZ.

Kassie Hartendorp (Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington) explores the specific housing problems faced by queer youth.

When you start to peer past the rainbow flags and glitter shine of LGBTIQ ‘issues’, there are many more stories to be told that don’t end with a marriage certificate and picket fences. While more privileged people along the rainbow have been able to make gains, it’s easy to forget about those who are nowhere near that pot of gold, despite ‘heartwarming’ Youtube clips from rightwing politicians and banks showing their ‘diversity and inclusion’ with their rhinestone adorned cash machines. There have been important gains made, and each one through great struggle – but we are not at the final frontier yet.

One key issue that often gets swept under the rug is housing and homelessness. The very fact that housing continues to be a need for high numbers of people across the globe means, naturally, that it affects sex, sexuality and gender diverse people as well. But the nature of homelessness can look different for our communities, and have more complex factors taking place.

The NZ Government defines homelessness as “living situations where people have no other options to acquire safe and secure housing. This includes people who are:

without shelter

in temporary accommodation

sharing accommodation with a household

living in uninhabitable housing.

This definition goes further than the stereotype of people living on the street, and can encompass many forms of housing instability. Homelessness figures are difficult to record and track easily. Most people who are in transitional housing or are couchsurfing may not associate themselves with the label of ‘homeless’ which carries a heavy stigma – despite the fact that many have experienced it at some point in their lives. In 2009, the Housing Shareholders Advisory Group estimated that the ‘urban homeless’ or those sleeping rough, numbered less than 300 across the country, yet between 8,000 and 20,000 people were living in temporary accommodation unsuited for long term habitation. Within the past year, service providers say that homelessness is ‘on the rise’ with an Auckland Council report claiming that about 15,000 people in Auckland are “severely housing deprived.”

With housing being a key commodity often left to a profit driven market, it is hard to envision a world under capitalism that would not have high levels of poverty, poor health and homelessness. The gap between the rich and the poor, and reliance on a ‘user pays’ system that means paying for almost everything we need to survive, create exactly the kind of conditions that leave many without affordable, stable and secure accommodation. The causes of homelessness can be heavily linked to and influenced by poverty, mental health experiences, disabilities, addiction issues, emotional health and trauma, sexuality and gender, convictions and imprisonment, unemployment or low wages, a lack of affordable housing and are underpinned by the forces of colonisation, patriarchy, racism and capitalism.

This already shows a complicated snapshot of the context that homelessness takes place in – how does this look for people who are sex, sexuality and/or gender diverse? Figures from the USA show that 40% of homeless young people are LGBTIQ (despite being 10% of the population), yet here in Aotearoa, we don’t have statistics on the state of homelessness for our communities of any age range. Anecdotally, when our friends or whānau struggle to find housing, we often take them in and support each other, but this isn’t reflected on any national database.

Some of the key themes that play out in sex, sexuality and gender diverse homelessness are family breakdowns, discrimination (overt and covert) and isolation. It is a sadly normal occurrence for young people to come out and face family rejection, particularly when they are gender diverse. A common scenario exists where parents will only accept a young person back into their home if they commit to living as the gender they were assigned at birth. It is not a safe or healthy option to force someone to ‘go back in the closet’ or live as someone they are not, for the sake of shelter. Yet agencies such as WINZ have had trouble recognising this as a true ‘relationship breakdown’ in the past and have therefore refused youth payments for teenagers who cannot live in such an oppressive environment.

While poverty is almost always a key factor of general homelessness, a person of any socio-economic status can find themselves unwelcome or kicked out of a family home for their sexuality or gender identity. One of the people I spoke with, who has faced an abusive home life says:

I’m a migrant with rich parents who’s under 21. Is anyone going to think I’m genuinely in need? My parents are pulling the “please come home” act, refusing to give me access to my health insurance policy and telling me instead that if I’m ill they can nurse me back to health if I would only come home, and what am I meant to do?

When family and whānau become a site of pain and trauma for LGBTIQ people, often the only option becomes to find new homes and families that will validate the parts of them that are not accepted in their former home.

Homelessness doesn’t just affect young people, and there are further layers that add complexity to the issue such as race, disability and gender. With a shortage of accommodation in urban areas in particular, if you don’t look ‘normative’, you’re a person of colour, you have children or a disability – the chances are low that you will be the first pick of landlords, housing agencies or even most flatmates. Many gay or queer identifying people can downplay their sexuality, but if someone is ‘non-passing’ as a transgender flat-hunter, they are more likely to experience discrimination.

One interviewee based in Auckland currently shares a single bed with their girlfriend while staying in a person’s storage room. They’ve been told they need to leave soon to make way for another transgender person, with the plan to find a new flat with three other likeminded people. So far, they have had no success in finding a safe, affordable and secure flat to move into.

Nobody wants to rent to a bunch of visibly trans/queer disabled teenagers even if we weren’t fighting a housing market that’s totally against us at the moment? Forty people showing up to flat viewings, most of whom in suit and tie or with parents as guarantors (which, as queer babies most of us are estranged from ours, or they’re really poor) ….. I can’t hide how brown and neurodivergent I am, my girlfriend can’t really pass for a masculine cis dude any more as much as she tries… I’m scared. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Another interviewee who identifies as takataapui taahine and is identified by others as transgender, queer and Māori, says that homelessness is something they are “intimately acquainted with.” From crashing on sofas, staying in vans and squatting in old sheds and abandoned homes as a teenager, their housing stability as an adult started improving after becoming a sex worker, which helped clear their debt and provided an income that didn’t depend on seasonal opportunities. They state that:

Even now though, with my stable job working at an NGO, I am aware that my position is always precarious… I definitely see my expendability as intrinsically linked to being poor, brown, visibly not a heterosexual cis person. It’s indisputably also linked to disability, or directly because of discrimination against it…  My family have no money for me to fall back on. I’ve recently been kicked out of my house because my neighbor complained that my autistic son throws toys and fruit over the fence. I don’t imagine this situation unfolding in this way if I were a more wealthy, middle aged, white, cis, man or woman.

There are almost no safety nets for people who have intersecting battles and experiences, that don’t fit neatly into common ‘gay’ experience. While communities try hard to support each other, there are not many official options. In Wellington, there is already a shortage of temporary emergency accommodation and many of the services that do exist are run by faith-based organisations that have a chequered history with sexual and gender minorities. What is available for those that cannot viably utilise the Men’s Night Shelter or Women’s Boarding House due to their gender identity? How is the safety of LGBTIQ people guaranteed, particularly when they may be fleeing trauma, discrimination and violence in the first place?

Sandra Dickson, a longtime advocate for sexual violence prevention also notes that abusive domestic partnerships can become even more dangerous to those that do not have alternative housing options. Dickson says that the impact of ‘having no family of origin to return to because of homo/bi/transphobia and gender policing’ on people who experience intimate partner violence is under-discussed. Statistics from the UK show that same sex attracted people experience intimate partner violence at the same rate or higher than heterosexual people, bisexual women experience higher rates of sexual violence, and transgender people are most likely of all to experience any form of violence. Without the resources to quantify this information in Aotearoa, it’s difficult to piece together a formal picture on how domestic violence looks for LGBTIQ+ communities, let alone to begin to work on strategies for support and prevention.

He kokonga whare e kitea, he kokonga ngākau e kore e kitea”

The corners of a house can be seen, but not the corners of the heart.

Te Mahana, the Strategy to End Homelessness in Wellington, writes that “if the issue of homelessness is to be adequately addressed for Māori, it is vital that deeper needs such as spiritual, relationships and cultural connection must also be identified, considered and satisfied” and that the heart of the issue is “cultural dislocation and loss of cultural connection.” The link between colonisation, poverty and homelessness runs strong and is hard to address within a setting of profit driven capitalism and a collective historical amnesia regarding land theft and severe cultural grievances at the hands of colonisers.

The ability to find a safe and secure place to rest one’s head goes further than physical walls, it is about having a papakainga, turangawaewae and a place to physically and spiritually rest, settle and heal. Capitalism doesn’t, by nature, build us homes or papakainga. It doesn’t instinctively nurture us culturally, physically, emotionally, socially or spiritually – we have to fight to be seen as anything other than one-dimensional beings that must spend the majority of our time doing meaningless work to survive, rather than living, exploring, creating and re-generating ourselves, our families and our communities. Sara Fraser, Housing Research Assistant says that one of the things she has learnt whilst working in housing research is:

Providing people with good tenure of housing is a pathway to better health and this is as important in our queer communities as elsewhere. We are overrepresented in the suicide and mental health statistics; social housing is one avenue which provides secure tenure, but with the current government having a hands-off approach to housing, I don’t see how the statistics will drop.”

With the National Government’s plans to sell off state housing to NGOs, rather than focusing on building new homes, the housing crisis around Aotearoa doesn’t look set to ease in the near future. Creating safe, secure and stable housing for sexual and gender minorities isn’t compatible with a housing market that is highly competitive when non-normative bodies and existences are policed or discriminated against. A democratic, public housing solution must ensure both free universal access and specific kinds of support; ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. When asked what safe and secure housing would like to an interviewee, they replied:

I imagine housing security for me personally, looks like living in a community where people care about each others’ well being, where a homeless person doesn’t exist because resources are shared, and where circumstances are recognised and we don’t imagine that we all exist from a zero sum starting point.“

Let’s continue to create more room for possibilities and imaginings as this, where we dream and demand of more than the narrow, and damaging options that are currently given to us. Let’s question the economic conditions that prioritise profits over quality of life, and let’s continue in creating true papakainga for our communities.

* Thank you to those who shared their stories, thoughts and research as contribution to this article. Arohanui to those who live this, and to those who dedicate their lives to supporting others through this.

** This article is used in reference to, inspired and shaped by Te Whare Tapa Wha, the Māori health model developed by Professor Mason Durie.

If you are sex or gender diverse (intersex or transgender) and currently needing emergency accommodation in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara, feel free to contact the Temporary Emergency Accommodation Project at the 128 Radical Community Social Centre.

Queer Politics and the Election: What are “Our” issues?

Action in solidarity with queer worker mistreated by McDonalds during 2013 industrial dispute.

Action in solidarity with queer worker mistreated by McDonalds during 2013 industrial dispute.

By Nic Wood, reprinted from Ours.

I’m queer. My ideas about what it means to be and belong as a queer person have changed a lot since I ‘came out’ in my teenage years. It’s interesting for me to reflect on this in the context of an election, because the notion of ‘belonging’ is intensified and highly visible in lots of ways in the lead–up to voting day.

Belonging is a powerful force. When we belong, we can feel swept up by a kind of euphoria, or simply able to go about life with ease, without having our presence questioned. And when we don’t belong, the consequences are often borne out painfully: as exclusion and discrimination, or even as physical violence.

For queer people—that is, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans people, intersex people, and the multitude of others whose genders/sexualities appear to be at odds with what’s deemed ‘normal’—belonging holds a particular importance. Our early years are often marked by its absence or denial. This can manifest as the loneliness and fear of being ‘in the closet’, or the extremely noticeable difference of being ‘out’ (sometimes by our own choice, other times unavoidably).

I think it’s this sort of beginning which makes the search for and congregation in ‘community’ by queer people all the stronger. If you’ve ever been to a pride parade you may understand what I mean when I say that belonging can ‘sweep you up’; there’s a swell of emotion that comes from the togetherness at such events. I remember the first time I attended one in Wellington, I felt so at home, unlike I ever had around family and friends who’d not known, or liked, my sexuality. It was at once comforting and exhilarating.

Who gets to feel included in this euphoria, though? Not everyone. One of the things about belonging and inclusion is that to exist for some people, they rely on the exclusion of others. One could argue that it’s belonging which drives a nation to mobilise to vote, and underpins attempts to secure the vote of those who understand themselves as ‘kiwis’.

Belonging, already so important for many queers, is sharply in focus in public discourse at election time. Deciding how to vote, we might look at literal representation: how many ‘out’ queer–identified MPs or candidates are there in each political party? How about how many overtly homophobic and transphobic ones? If we’re concerned with the politics of inclusion—of ensuring that queer people have access to the same conditions as others who are included within the nation—we might consider candidates’ stances on explicitly ‘queer’ policies like marriage and adoption equality, or regulations around service in the military.

But you could say this focus on inclusion in what’s ‘normal’ shores up a narrow idea of what a queer person is. This tends to make the experiences of the very narrow selection of queers who benefit from these measures—generally wealthy, white, and more often than not male—appear as universal for everyone.

The longer I live openly as a queer person and meet others, the more I realise this is not true; the comfort and ‘at home’-ness I felt in my first pride parade was something many of my friends could enjoy in the same way. And the more my understanding of my sexual orientation matures, the more I question whether things like the right to marry would enable me to live freely, or actually restrict what I want to express. In my mind, the politics of representation and inclusion run the risk of erasing the very difference they purport to speak for. Although that difference can bring us much pain and hardship, it also makes us alive.

If we’re to be so wary of all of this, what might ‘our’ important election issues be? It’s hard to say. I do know that far more than we drink fancy cocktails or have lavish gay weddings, queer people—especially youth—are disproportionately affected by poverty. Maybe if we want to vote as queer people we should think about which policies for welfare, housing, access to education and healthcare will benefit those who are currently marginalised, and look into whether there are options which will see organisations who work to support queer and trans youth better supported.

While I’m not sure that voting or parliament hold all of the solutions for the complex structures of social power we need to undo to improve our lives, they do influence how much support organisations like the ones mentioned above get to do so within given frameworks. Perhaps instead of getting caught up in the fantasy of ‘gay rights’ which masks a certain kind of harm and exclusion, we might view voting as a pragmatic way to improve, however incrementally, the material conditions of the many queers who don’t get to be the faces of pride parades.

In 2012, Colin Craig tweeted that “it’s not intelligent to pretend that homosexual relationships are normal”. In the lead–up to the election, bytes like this have been dredged up by commentators; the ridicule of what many understand as laughably outdated homophobia has become a pretty typical part of political debate as voting day approaches.

While it’s important to call out homophobia, the response the statement begs also exemplifies up what I’m so wary about in the crossing-over of possibilities for belonging as queers, and the parliamentary election. In my personal experience voting is just one of many ways to make queer lives more liveable. Above all, we mustn’t settle for ‘normality’ as a goal.

There’s too much lost in that.

There’s pride in resistance, not apartheid

After the disruption of Israeli pinkwashing at Pride 2014, GayNZ asked activists involved to submit an article. This contribution comes from Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (Aotearoa), an online network including members of Fightback.

We are Arabs, Jews, Māori, Pākehā, Asians. We are queer. We value the work that LGBTI activists before us have done to improve the lives of queers in Aotearoa and the world over. We value Pride for creating a queer-positive space where our community can come together and celebrate who we are.

But we are not proud that queer struggles are hijacked by the state of Israel in order to ‘pinkwash’ its colonial violence towards Palestinians. We were not proud to see the Embassy of Israel included in Auckland Pride. This is why we had to take a stand, to protect queer spaces from being complicit in Israeli apartheid.


For many, our protest came as a surprise. The Israeli embassy, however, had anticipated the presence of protesters. In a press release just days before the event, the embassy was clear that their participation in Pride was motivated, not by a desire to support LGBTI rights, but as a PR exercise in response to Wellington protests against an Israeli Embassy-sponsored dance show.

The cynical use of queer rights as a publicity strategy to create a positive, humane image for Israel is not new, nor is it exclusive to New Zealand. In 2011 the Jewish lesbian writer Sarah Schulman published an op-ed in the New York Times criticising Israel’s ‘strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’. Other prominent queer Jews have echoed Schulman’s criticism of pinkwashing, including Judith Butler and Aeyal Gross.

The pinkwashing narrative presents a familiar racist trope: Arab societies are conservative, gender normative and homophobic. Israel is the only Middle-Eastern country where gays have equal rights. Queer Palestinians escaping persecution in their own communities relocate to Israel for asylum.


A 2008 report on gay Palestinian asylum seekers in Israel, published by Tel Aviv University’s Public Interest Law Program, presents a very different picture. The report found that gay Palestinians who escape to Israel live in the country illegally—since Palestinians are barred from applying for refugee status in Israel. This means that they are in constant danger of being deported back to communities where they will be subject to homophobic violence. Israeli security services have been known to exploit this vulnerability, and blackmail Palestinian gays into becoming informants.

Even for Jewish-Israelis, the country is not a queer-loving utopia. Two months ago a trans woman was viciously attacked on the streets of Tel Aviv. A gang of 11 men assaulted her with pepper spray and tasers. Israeli police were quick to dismiss the attack as a ‘prank’ and denied that it was motivated by transmisogyny. Her attackers, it turns out, were off-duty officers in Israel’s Border Police.

It’s not surprising that the same young men who spends weekdays shooting and tear-gassing Palestinians also spend their weekends assaulting trans women. This is the intersection of militarism and homophobia in which Palestinian and Israeli queers exist.

Palestinian queer organisations like al-Qaws, Aswat and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions have called on the global queer community to support their struggle against both Israeli apartheid and queerphobia. That call has been answered around the world, by groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in Canada, No Pride in Israeli Apartheid in the UK, and Black Laundry in Israel.


It’s out of a desire to support Palestinian queers, and in the tradition of intersectional queer politics, that we decided to take a public stand against the Israeli Embassy’s float at Auckland Pride. We know that some of our fellow queers think that Pride is not the appropriate time or place to make a political statement about Middle East politics. The argument that we shouldn’t mix pride parades with global politics sounds an awful lot like the 1980s argument that anti-apartheid protesters shouldn’t mix rugby with politics. We were not the ones who chose to use Pride as a platform for discussing Israel. The Israeli Embassy are the ones who decided to hijack a gay pride event and exploit to uphold a progressive image of a state that subjects its Indigenous inhabitants to apartheid.

Our queer politics are rooted in the principle of ‘no one left behind’. We do not accept the advancement of gay men at the expense of lesbians, or of cis queers at the expense of trans people. We also cannot accept the advancement of any queers at the expense of Palestinians.


We recognise the link between colonisation of Palestine, and colonisation of Oceania and Aotearoa. Tagata Pasifika and tangata whenua gender and sexual diversity were violently displaced through the colonisation of this region. We celebrate the first ever Pasefika LGBT Youth float at Pride 2014. The hijacking of Pride to promote apartheid detracts from this celebration of diversity and solidarity.

We urge Auckland Pride—and all LGBT organisations in Aotearoa—to take a stand in solidarity with queer Palestinians and refuse to help Israel pinkwash its human rights abuses. There is no pride in being complicit with Israeli apartheid.

All pictures by John Darroch