Queer Support of Palestine – Afeef Nessouli

We speak to journalist Afeef Nessouli about the current conflict and why he is urging people to see past mainstream queer-washing

In the midst of renewed turmoil in Palestine, where the spectre of hellfire once again casts its shadow over children and innocents, ordinary people are left grappling for peace or paying the ultimate price for it.

As queer individuals in the West, it is imperative that we strive to comprehend, support, and delve deeper into the complexities of the situation. Why should we care, and why do some remain oblivious to the plight of those affected?

While the conflict itself is not queer-focused, there is a compelling case for global queer solidarity with the ordinary people of Gaza, despite facing backlash from some mainstream influencers and media commentators.

The argument that we should support the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) because of the intolerance for homosexuality in Hamas-controlled Gaza raises important questions. Are queer individuals non-existent in a region populated by millions, and to what extent should a government’s stance influence our sympathies for a people oppressed for decades, seeking an end to territorial siege and ethnic genocide?

Afeef Nessouli, a journalist, has been a vocal advocate, shedding light on the nearly eight- decade-long conflict in the Palestine region. His recent efforts on social media have provided valuable insights, urging people to see beyond the facades presented by mainstream media.

Afeef Nessouli. Credit: Afeef Nessouli/X

“I’m a Lebanese-American Muslim who is gay.

“From that, I have a lot of experience going to Lebanon and experiencing war.
“In 1998, I was there when one of the sonic booms was above the sports stadium.

“I remember that just because it was so traumatising as a child to hear bombs, even though in 2006 there were way more experiences and it was way more horrifying, for some reason, the 1998 experience when I was 11 was really, really traumatising.

“I think these experiences set me up for always really being interested in the Middle East as just a place of complexity and competing interests, narratives that feel different than my experiences.”

Afeef became a journalist, and went to law school, started working for the Jimmy Carter Think Tank, worked with the UN and became a humanitarian lawyer – the laws of war. During his time, he interviewed people who were tortured in Syria in 2011, 2013, and 2015, and his career, he said, has always been about human rights, and stemmed from the Middle East.

“But I started more seriously studying queerness in the Middle East about 2015 because I was coming out on my own as a queer person.

“In my mid-20s, my mom had died, I had gone through a lot of catastrophic events, she had leukaemia and I was her caretaker, and only a couple years before she died we were in the 2006 Lebanon war together.

“Then a year after she passed away, I was thrown in jail in Lebanon, because they found out that I had actually gone to Israel.”

He went to the West Bank with St Andrews University in Scotland but they thought he was a CIA spy, since the territory is so occupied, it seemed there was no other way for him to be there.

“That experience gave me insight into the controversy surrounding Palestine, not only in the West, but also in the Arab world, because in the Arab world, they think if you’re going to Israel or Palestine, it’s so occupied, you must be a CIA agent.”

He worked in New York on various journalistic and entertainment projects, but moved to Lebanon again to do a Google podcast about the ‘undercurrent of queerness in Beirut during the revolution’.

He met Muslim drag queens, queer comedians, and was taken by the boldness of these performers.

“There was this one lesbian comedian who grew up Shia and really understood the communities in in Beirut that were pro- Hezbollah.

“She was this lesbian comedian who was just taking the piss out of Hezbollah on stage in Lebanon.

“It was just like, yeah, comedy is democracy, it’s like pure gaggery.

“You think in America, these things don’t exist, but they do exist.

“People are all over the world. They’re the same people. They are more oppressed than in other places, but queer people exist everywhere, in all of these countries, and they all figure out how to have sex and have fun and talk to each other and communicate and get on whatever app exists in that area.”

No less true for Gaza, then, as some saw via screenshots of the Queering the Map app, of some people’s supposedly final messages.

No one is going to sit here and tell you an Islamist regime is what is good for gay rights in Palestine.

“I don’t think any Palestinian who has any idea of queerness would say that they are in support of an Islamist governance.

“Maybe some of them are more into Islamist regimes because really the occupation is so overwhelming, feels like a necessary thing.

“But the thing is is that it’s a complete idea. It’s an absolute idea.”

IDF soldier holds a pride flag in Gaza, November 2023. Credit: Israel/X

“You can’t really be liberated as a queer person if other queer people in another place are not even getting food to eat or electricity.

“I think that queer rights, from my interviewing and my reporting and also my beliefs, queer rights take a second seat to the fundamental right of food, water and air, and I think that that is a thing that we need to understand is important to build identitarian rights.

“To become a society that puts in the work to make people equal, you have to have a society where you’re not subjugated completely, where your leaders are not subjugated, where your leaders aren’t a resistance movement.”

Afeef shared some historical insight into the governance of Gaza and how it relates to a Western queer discussion: “Hamas only basically exists in concert with Israel.

“Without the Israeli government, there wouldn’t really be a Hamas (in the way it exists now).

They certainly wouldn’t have a reason or a legitimate call like a hand in the government of Gaza.

“If you think Hamas is antithetical to queer rights, then you must think that the IDF is also antithetical to queer rights because you cannot have one without the other.”

In brief, though further reading is encouraged, the IDF funded Hamas in efforts to undercut to Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), an organisation that didn’t match the IDF’s violence, and thus Hamas rose, but too much further than anticipated – Afeef said.

“Queerness can’t flourish in a safe way if it’s being occupied, because all of the straight people are going to fight the occupation more than they’re going to worry about social rights.

“The majority of men aren’t going to soften to liberal ideas if they’re hardened by violence every day.

You have to understand that the the IDF is as much of an obstacle to queer rights, if not more, than Islamist regimes in these territories.”

Much has been said about how Israel is more of a beacon of LGBT rights than Palestine, and was seen this month with IDF soldiers proudly showing a rainbow flag in bombed Gaza (image seen above).

It was posted to Israel’s official Twitter account as a celebration, allegedly the first pride flag flown in Gaza, which was lauded by mainly middle class white gay men in the West, and at the very least ignored, if not scorned, by many others, as performative terrorism.

It is hard for some people to see through it all, though, so how can we do that, and simply advocate for safety and prevention of killings? Afeef added: “I think queer people should be for any oppressed people.

“I think there’s oppression everywhere. To make anything binary can sometimes feel intellectually dishonest.

“I can also support the idea of Tel Aviv having a pride. I support the idea that there’s a pride in a city.

“I also understand that when there is a picture of a soldier with a pride flag in a destruction zone in Gaza, I can tell you that that man most certainly killed queer people even as a gay person.

“I can tell you that that queer soldier who’s holding that flag up in that destroyed section of Gaza is holding up that flag as a representation of nothing but murder, really.

“If you’re holding up a flag in a destroyed place, and you’re queer, and you think that that rainbow flag is symbolic of love, you’re lying, because you just killed people.

March for peace in Palestine, in London, November 2023. Credit: Austin Crick.

There’s a very high likelihood that if you killed more than 10 people, one of them is probably queer, if not more.

“While I support that soldier’s right to be queer, I don’t support that soldier’s right to kill queer people.

“For people considering the idea that there are Islamist regimes who wouldn’t allow you to be gay in the Middle East, I agree, I fight against them too.

“It’s very easy to say what they’re saying. It’s harder to say that you’ve got to pull out the stops when it’s a Western-backed government. Yeah, I can easily condemn Hamas for being anti-gay, but can you condemn the IDF for killing gay people?”

“I think that if you want to support queer people, it’s incumbent to support them always, unconditionally.”

Words by Seph Santiago