PFLAG, Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national organization that "promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends," has unfortunately gotten snared in a "pinkwashing" event by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Jay Huckaby, PFLAG's Executive Director, sent out an invitation for a meeting with Anat Avissar from Aguda, Israel's national LGBT organization, that was held this morning, Feb. 22, at PFLAG's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Most importantly, the event is co-sponsored by the Israeli Embassy to the U.N., and the invitation is printed on joint PFLAG/Israeli Embassy letterhead:
In a letter I sent Jay Huckaby on Feb. 20, expressing my concern about PFLAG sponsoring an event with the Israeli government, I wrote:
I am particularly concerned about the degree to which the Israeli government has enlisted members of the gay community to be part of larger foreign policy efforts to repair Israel's international reputation. Aguda, unfortunately, has played a key role in this national re-branding campaign, and I hate to see an organization as important as PFLAG become implicated in a public relations campaign that will likely tarnish its well-earned reputation.
I have recently returned from Israel/Palestine as part of a delegation of prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer academics, activists, artists, and cultural workers who travelled to the West Bank to better understand the reality of occupation on the ground and to meet with lesbian, gay, trans and queer Palestinians about the work they are doing in Palestine. Our delegation was historic, insofar as we were the first group to visit the Occupied Territories with an explicit gay/trans/queer focus. What we learned while we were there was the degree to which the Israeli government has set out to counter international criticism it has received for its treatment of Palestinians by advertising the gay-friendliness of Israeli culture. In this sense, gay and lesbian Israelis have been recruited by their government to travel internationally to places such as Washington D.C., to act as ambassadors to rehabilitate Israel's international reputation in meetings, conferences and convenings such as the one you are holding on Wednesday. So too, the Israeli government has appropriated rather large sums to underwrite gay and lesbian events in the U.S. and Europe as a part of this larger public relations effort. The Equality Forum's 2012 Global Summit, to be held in May in Philadelphia, is another salient example.
In our delegation's conversations with gay, lesbian, trans and queer activists in the West Bank, they expressed great frustration that that their lives and well-being were being used by some voices within Israeli to drum up support for Israeli policy and to demonize Palestinian society. In fact, they are well organized and are doing incredible work through two principal organizations: al Qaws (www.alqaws.org) and Aswat (www.aswatgroup.org). Both of these organizations provide support services, including a telephone help line, to LGBT people in the region. Unfortunately, Aguda representatives are often quoted as saying that they run the only telephone support line in the Middle East. So too, as part of Aguda's tour through the U.S. and Canada this month, their director, Mike Hamel, told a Canadian reporter that: "when it comes to the Middle East, [Israel] is the only place you can be LGBT and be active." This simply isn't the case, as the activists we met with during our delegation made evident. While it is wonderful that the Aguda representatives are interested in meeting with U.S. LGBT organizations such as PFLAG, it is truly unfortunate that they do not or cannot work more closely with the LGBT groups in their own back yard.
I write you now not to discourage you from doing coalition work with partners around the globe who share PFLAG's mission, but out of concern that you and PFLAG have been drawn into a public relations campaign launched by the state of Israel that is using gay rights to advance larger agendas that well-exceed PFLAG's mission. To be sure, many gay and lesbian people live open, free lives in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, and this is something to celebrate. So too, there is much to learn from cross-cultural dialogue about doing gay and lesbian rights work in transnational settings. But it is tragic to witness how LGBT rights have been politicized and manipulated for cynical reasons in certain corners of the globe, particularly -- although not exclusively -- in the Middle East.
If you choose to go ahead with your meeting with Aguda representatives on Wedensday, I would encourage you to be careful not to be drawn into a larger reputational re-branding campaign that was launched in 2005 by then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to "make people like us." So too, I would encourage you to meet and partner with Palestinian LGBT organizations to better round out your exposure to the challenges and tools of making life more free for LGBT people in the region.
Members of our delegation in January were so moved by what we saw and what we learned that we co-authored a statement of solidarity with the LGBT people and organizations we met in the West Bank: http://www.queersolidaritywithpalestine.com/. The Middle East is a very complicated part of the world, to be sure, and the issue of LGBT rights there is equally complicated, in many ways more so than here in the U.S. I urge you and the PFLAG leadership to reconsider undertaking joint projects or receiving funding from any national entity, but particularly from the state of Israel, given the cynical use of gay rights in larger politics of the region.
I would be happy to meet with you to discuss this matter further.
Jody Huckaby, PGLAG's Executive Director sent me the following thoughtful response on Wednesday, February 22nd:
Dear Ms. Franke:
Thank you for contacting me about the meeting today at our offices.
We reviewed the issues that you raised and discussed them at length internally because we took very seriously the concerns you raised. We decided that we should live the value of our mission statement to provide opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and [act] to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity. As the original family voice on LGBT issues in this country, we know that our model of support, education, and advocacy of, for, and by LGBT people, family members, friends, and allies has been replicated in Israel and many other countries in part because of this philosophy of engaging in dialogue. At PFLAG, we take very seriously our nonpolitical nature and believe that we must cross party lines, borders, faiths, and any other gaps that divide us to unite in a common vision of LGBT equality.
I wanted to make you aware that we did not receive any financial sponsorship for this event. The gathering was intended only for the purposes of engaging in a dialogue around LGBT issues. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you on identifying representatives from Palestinian organizations for a similar dialogue.
Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to schedule time to talk. I can be reached here via email or at the contact information provided below.
To which I responded:
Jody - thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my letter. I hope you understand that my concerns were generated not by the substance of the meeting, but by the collaboration with the Israeli Embassy, whether or not you received any financial benefit from them. I laud your commitment to remain neutral on issues of politics, and regret that the Israeli Embassy may have pulled you into something more divisive than you ever intended.
I am delighted that you are interested in meeting with other activists and organizations from the region. While it is difficult for Palestinians to travel to the U.S., both because of the cost and because of severe restrictions on their travel, I do hope we can find a way for you and your organization to work collaboratively with the families of LGBT people in Palestine.
I look forward to working together in the future, and remain a great supporter of PFLAG.
Follow the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law on Facebook
Read the Gender & Sexuality Law Blog