Harvey Milk Was Here

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October 25, 2009

Late in the evening on August 1, a masked gunman entered a basement apartment on Nachmani Street in central Tel-Aviv. The apartment has long been the home of the Agudah, Israel’s Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders – the country’s oldest GLBT organization. A group of GLBT teenagers was assembled at the Agudah, as is its custom every Saturday night, for an activity called “Bar Noar”, or “Youth Bar”. The teenagers, along with a handful of counsellors just a few years their elder, come together to chat, play games, listen to and play music, and snack on juice and toasts. The get-together was shattered by the masked gunman, who shot and killed Nir Katz, a twenty-four-year-old volunteer counsellor, and Liz Trobishi, a seventeen-year-old regular participant. At least ten were injured, some badly. Two are still hospitalized. At the time of writing there is a gag order on the investigation and the identity of the murderer remains unclear.

The killing, which took place two months before the eleventh anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, shocked the Israeli GLBT community. Israel has witnessed the stabbing of two people by an ultra-orthodox Jew at the 2005 Gay Pride events in Jerusalem, and a few incidents of homophobic or transphobic harassment and violence; but never a hate crime, aimed at the GLBT community, of such magnitude.

A week after the murder, tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square, named for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin following his assassination there at a pro-peace rally in 1995. This exceptional event, swiftly organized to mark a week’s passage since the murder, was preceded by several smaller rallies and spontaneous expressions of grief and anger.

In the days leading up to the rally, GLBT activists engaged in fierce debates over the nature of the rally and over its roster of speakers. An initial list of participants circulated by the rally organizers (the organizational work was handled mostly by the Agudah and by the Tel-Aviv Municipality) struck many as overly homogenic, with almost exclusively Jewish Ashkenazi males proposed as speakers for the GLBT community. After a series of protests, the program for the rally, which wound up being very extensive, featured a more diverse roster, including a gay Israeli Palestinian, a bisexual woman, and lesbian and transgender women among both speakers and performing artists. Many were worried, and disappointed in retrospect, that the rally was too mainstream, too heavily dominated by public officials. While having a speaker like the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, was a historical moment of sorts, it was difficult for many to hear him proclaim that “‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a fundamental principle of our society” without wondering if the same applies to the killing of Palestinians by Israelis, especially given recent hostilities in Gaza. On the other hand, the presence of Peres and other political leaders most likely promoted the participation of tens of thousands, GLBT and others, including family members, friends, and supporters. Moreover, while the shock, grief, and rage that ensued in the wake of the murder might have brought many to the Square, without Peres and the others, the rally would probably not have attained the status of a live, primetime national television event.

The dilemma formed by the need for legitimization, acceptance, and recognition on the one hand, and the risk of drifting toward the mainstream on the other is at the heart of GLBT politics. It is not a dilemma we can escape; we will have to live with it, and I do not think that we would do well to pretend it does not exist. On the one hand, we want all children who experience themselves as GLBT to feel secure, and not to suffer loneliness; we want their parents to love them and to provide them with the acceptance they need and crave. Are these goals furthered by the presence of tens of thousands, headed by Shimon Peres, in Rabin Square, and by a live TV broadcast? They probably are. On the other hand, we fear that the establishment’s hug may become a bear hug that requires us, too, to some extent, to embrace the establishment, in a way that de-radicalizes our politics. When Shimon Peres declared at the rally that “it’s okay to be different and proud”, I wanted to tell him that I do not seek his permission. But isn’t such a statement from the president, broadcast to TV screens all over the country, likely to help children struggling with issues of sexuality and gender identity? Any embrace offered by the establishment can be resisted, but we must remember the price – we may end up sacrificing the opportunity to broadcast the message that “it’s OK to be gay” (and lesbian, and transgender…) to every TV screen across the country.

Some of the reactions to the rally, which dismissed it as a show of bourgeois homonormativity, ignored this issue. They also ignored that fact that a number of the speakers at the rally, such as MK Nitzan Horowitz and musician Ellyott Ben Ezzer, addressed the link between discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and discrimination against migrant workers, Palestinians, and others. Another speaker, Sami Zibak, addressed the double oppression of gay Palestinians like himself; and transgender activist Nora Grinberg discussed how restricted the acceptance of gay people is, when it is offered only to the extent that they act in ways conceived as normative. Treating the rally as a story about Shimon Peres and his messages is to obliterate these other speakers and the audiences they spoke for.

At the same time, many were frustrated with the way the rally was organized, and with the sense that they had had to fight for representation on stage. It is regrettable that the rally was not organized by a more inclusive committee, which could have included lesbian, transgender, and bisexual activists and could have reduced some of the friction that surrounded the rally.

I hope that we will see some genuine dialogue among different groups within the GLBT community, not only at times of crisis, about how to act together for common causes. Ashkenazi gay men must recognize the relative privilege of their position, and must understand that women, transgenders, Arabs, and Mizrahi Jews have a much more difficult time attaining positions of power. We must keep in mind that demands for representation are not divisive .What’s divisive is exclusive representation that purports to speak for the entire community. On the other hand, queer activists must remember that the demand for representation loses its bite when it persists, though representation is no longer lacking. And, as I’ve noted, protests voiced after the rally that claimed that the event offered a single, mainstream message obliterate several meaningful speakers and their supportive audiences. Queer politics must acknowledge the tensions I mentioned above, and must realize that a rally aimed at tens of thousands of participants and at TV screens across the country is bound to include a great deal of mainstream and state-hegemonic content.

The rally was unusual in the presence of senior politicians from the right-wing ruling party, Likud. In the past, politicians from the Labor party and from the left-wing parties Meretz and Hadash have been the primary supporters of the GLBT community and the speakers at its events. This time, the roster of speakers was somewhat novel: although Yael Dayan, a pioneer supporter of GLBT rights among politicians as a Knesset representative of the Labor party, did speak, consistent supporters of the GLBT community from the three left-of-center parties (Zehava Galon, Shelly Yechimovitz, Yuli Tamir, and Dov Khenin) were not invited to speak, whereas Minister of Education Gideon Saar and Minister of Culture Limor Livnat, both of Likud, spoke alongside Minister of Welfare Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) and MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who is himself gay. The result was that sadly, the stage was not graced by some of our most staunch and important supporters, allies who have offered their support even when the cause was less popular, and whose dedication to GLBT rights is part of a general commitment to human rights and to equality.

Saar and Livnat, two Likud politicians who have never showed signs of homophobia, spoke laudably, for the most part, and, I believe, from the heart. On the other hand, it was difficult to hear Saar speak of a “free society” without wondering how the concept can possibly befit the occupation regime that Saar’s politics are responsible for, or Saar’s recent decision forbidding Israeli schools to teach their students about the Nakba, the Palestinian view of 1948 as a disaster. It was also impossible to forget that both Likud ministers have belonged to governments in which homophobic comments from cabinet ministers, especially those from the religious parties, were the norm. So what do we make of Saar’s and Livnat’s presence at the rally? Will the GLBT crowd now feel that it can legitimately vote for Likud, since the right wing is finally behind us too, and we do not have to turn to the left for support? Thus, the presence of the Likud ministers at the rally was a blessing, on the one hand, but on the other – might it not contribute to loosening the ties between different forms of oppression, and to weakening the felt need to fight for liberty and equality for all? Furthermore, doesn’t the presence of right-wing ministers at the rally allow them to look, to some extent, like liberal democrats, while on other fronts they advocate policies that are neither liberal nor democratic? We mustn’t forget that Israel consciously uses its relative (though imperfect) recognition of GLBT rights in international propaganda, presenting the country as a liberal democracy and contrasting it with Iran, the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern states. This was apparent in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Without detracting from the sincerity of the positions presented by the senior cabinet ministers at the rally, it should be noted that their presence plays a part in this scheme.

For years now, gay rights have served as a fig leaf for Israeli democracy, and the gay community itself has sometimes played in a role in this game. Rights for which we fought hard and which we won in difficult battles, including legal battles involving state opposition to GLBT rights, are being co-opted by the state, sometimes with our cooperation, so it can present itself as a progressive liberal democracy and gain legitimacy for its actions. In a smaller rally which took place the day after the murder, the head of the opposition, Tzipi Livni of the centrist party Kadima, said that politicians must take a long, hard look at their earlier silence about homophobia. I welcome this statement and hope that it is the beginning of a new page. But the GLBT community must also re-examine its own conduct, and both Israeli politicians and the GLBT community must ask whether the massacre of children in Gaza, and in Sderot, is less shocking that that of children on Nachmani Street in Tel-Aviv. Can we speak of a free society and continue to rule millions of dispossessed Palestinians? And are the two issues unrelated? Clearly, there are important distinctions between different forms of oppression, and between oppressions under different circumstances, and these differences should not be ignored. And homophobic murders occur in other countries, where political circumstances are very different. Still, the obvious question is whether in a society where shooting at children of the “other” is the norm, we should be surprised that GLBT children become the target of similar violence. Do rallies of the sort held in Tel-Aviv allow not only the cabinet ministers who participated, but also the general public which came to offer its support, to feel enlightened and liberal, while it is in fact indifferent or worse to Israel’s widespread killing of Palestinian youth?

The rally had its embarrassing moments, but it had moving moments too. There were the speeches made by two gay teenagers wounded in the attack; one of them, Or Gill, called on the parents’ generation to leave behind what he called “primitive notions”. Chen Katz, Nir Katz’s sister, also gave a moving address. Perhaps these moments were more important than any of the speeches made by politicians.

The rally had a number of purposes, which were at times contradictory. At the end of the day, the questions raised by the rally will engage queer politics in Israel for years to come. In the words of the Pet Shop Boys, “we were never being boring, we dressed up and fought, then thought: make amends”. It is now time to make amends, both internally and externally. We should focus our energy not on struggles within the GLBT community, but on providing assistance to GLBT youth, and on fighting homophobia and all forms of discrimination and prejudice. The murder has left the GLBT community, and especially its youth, severely traumatized. The outpouring of volunteer work in the days following the murder – many visited the wounded in hospitals, offered comfort to youngsters who gathered at the GLBT community center in Tel-Aviv, and helped handle the huge volume of hotline calls – was encouraging, and this positive energy should be channelled into the considerable work that lies ahead. Organizations like the Agudah and its “Bar Noar”, IGY (Israel Gay Youth), the Tel-Aviv Municipal GLBT community center, the Jerusalem Open House, Beit Dror (a shelter for GLBT youth), Hoshen (a group that works to educate about sexual orientation and gender identity through lectures and talks), and others as well, need support – in all shapes and forms – more than ever.

We should also take note that the murder brought out of the closet not only support to the community, but also homophobia, expressed in Internet talkbacks and Facebook groups that supported the murder. Homophobia is not limited to the religious right, and must be addressed in all of its forms and manifestations. One manifestation is liberal homophobia. This is the version of homophobia which hastens to lay blame on “gay terror”, purported to be as bad as the terror directed at GLBT people, and which considers any protest against homophobia as “gay incitement against the ultra-orthodox”. This position creates a false symmetry between the GLBT battle for equality and for protection from violence, on the one side, and hate and violence directed at the GLBT community on the other. Liberal homophobia is that which declares that gays and lesbians should do as they please in the privacy of their homes, but wonders why GLBT people have to “flaunt” their sexual orientation – while ignoring the fact that heterosexuality is flaunted all the time. Every invitation to an opposite-sex wedding, every conversation about one’s husband or wife, every heterosexual couple strolling hand in hand is an act that flaunts heterosexuality. Liberal homophobia declares that “one’s sexual orientation is a private matter”, but applies this rule only to homosexuality – which is thus left in the closet – since heterosexuality is always public. And it is liberal homophobia, with its insistence on the public-private divide, that hurries to deny the link between an indiscriminate shooting of gay youth and the dissemination of hate, as if the murder, even if it was carried out by a lone killer whose hatred is rooted in his own personal history, can be totally detached from homophobia, external or internalized.

But the struggle against homophobia must be a part of a broader battle for equality and against the oppression of all groups. We should not let the mourning, the shock, and the anger be co-opted and sterilized by national politics.

Nir Katz posted two “favourite quotes” on his Facebook page. The first was from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you WIN.” The second, from Marx: “Workers of the world UNITE, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” (The emphases were added by Nir.) For Liz and Nir not to have died in vain, we must remember this legacy. We must also recall the words of Harvey Milk, left on a recording that apparently anticipated his homophobic murder: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

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