August 24, 2010
SARAH SCHULMAN CONFRONTS THE PALESTINIAN DILEMMA
I wrote the following report for Gay City News, New York City's largest queer newspaper:
The impressively prolific Sarah Schulman — the avant-garde novelist and playwright, as well as a historian, essayist, scenarist, and radical activist who for more than two decades has been one of the queer world’s most admirable cultural adornments and public intellectuals — recently journeyed to Palestine and Israel to meet with LGBT activists.
Now, inspired by that trip, she has organized a US speaking tour by Palestinian queer activists that will include an appearance on February 10, 2011, at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan.
Schulman (right) spoke with Gay City News about the Palestinian queers’ tour and her trip to the region from Yaddo, the prestigious writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where she is in residence based on the recommendation of a panel of her peers. (Since its founding in 1900, Yaddo residents have received a total of 64 Pulitzer Prizes, 61 National Book Awards, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, and a Nobel Prize for Literature.)
During her Yaddo residence, Schulman is putting the finishing touches on “The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination,” a reflection on the impact of the AIDS epidemic to be published by the University of California Press. She is also writing a book-length report and meditation about her Palestine trip.
Last fall, Schulman published two new books: “Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences,” which Gay City News hailed as “one of the most exciting gay liberation texts to appear in years” (see “It Has to Be Said,” November 12-25, 2009.). At the same time, she also published her ninth novel, “The Mere Future” (Arsenal), a futuristic dystopia about a New York City in which the only remaining career option is marketing.
Schulman approached her Middle East visit with some trepidation.
“In November 2009, I received an invitation to keynote the tenth annual Lesbian & Gay Studies and Queer Theory Conference at Tel Aviv University,” Schulman told this reporter, and then referring to protests aimed at the Israeli occupation of Palestine, she explained, “At the time, I was barely aware of the sanctions movement. I was honored to be invited and fully intended to accept the invitation, but a number of friends suggested that I educate myself first. This began a two-month intensive learning process, in which I spoke to a large number of people. I learned that Palestinians, a profoundly oppressed people, were trying the non-violent strategy of developing international sanctions on Israeli institutions that are state-sponsored in order to create change.”
Schulman added, “I also learned that there is a movement of Israeli academics called ‘Boycott Me,’ who are asking for international support of these sanctions in order to ‘save Israel from itself.’ I discovered that both of these positions were very compelling. To my surprise, I came to realize that I had to decline the invitation. However, rather than stay home and do nothing, I decided to go on a solidarity visit, and in March and April of 2010 I spoke to anti-occupation audiences in Israel and Palestine.”
Schulman explained how John Greyson — the openly gay director whose films include the 1996 “Lilies” and the 2009 documentary “Fig Trees,” about South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, which won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival — helped her in her learning efforts.
“When I decided to decline the Israeli invitation, I was very concerned about turning my back on an LGBT event,” she said. “I talked at length with John Greyson, the filmmaker. Greyson had previously withdrawn from the Tel Aviv LGBT film festival after the Gaza invasion. He was very patient, kind, and supportive with me and my long process.”
Schulman explained that “given earlier uncritical support many leftists had given to queer-hostile elements in Nicaragua and Cuba,” she was “concerned about the Israeli boycott organizers’ level of acknowledgement both of queer support for the boycott and of Palestinian queers. It’s a long complex story that I can’t summarize, but I really believe that this relationship is in motion in a positive direction. Certainly there are theater producers in America who are more hostile to lesbians than some of the people at PACBI,” the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
In her travels, Schulman said she “became aware of two queer Palestinian communities. There is Aswat, which is a lesbian organization based in Haifa, and Al Qaws, founded in 2007, which is LGBT Palestinians and has chapters in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There are, of course, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, and the groups reflect this mixing as well.”
Schulman explained, “Palestinian queers are active in Israel and in the occupied territories. I’m no expert and don’t want to make mistakes here, but the folks I met were great — both socially and politically motivated, interested in Palestinian politics and queer politics, and in bringing the two together into an organic whole. What I felt was that the global LGBT movement is a vibrant force in worldwide realpolitik and intersecting with national issues everywhere. The particular intersection of the two in Israel and Palestine is very important and exciting.”
On the Israeli leg of her trip, Schulman said, “Aswat and an Israeli feminist organization called Eisha L’Eisha [woman to woman] meet at the Haifa Women’s Center, and I met with them there. I would say there were about 40 people. We had a great deal in common, and my talk was on nuts and bolts of organizing. Of course, Israeli queers are divided along nationalist lines, but queers are also visibly over-represented in the anti-occupation movement in Israel.”
Schulman underlined how “anti-occupation Israelis are in a very tough spot and need our support, especially the queers who are doubly marginalized. I think that community is amazing. Saying ‘Boycott Me’ is so difficult to do. As Americans we know what it is like to have a government that commits war crimes.”
The question of familial homophobia that Schulman addressed in “Ties That Bind” is, she said, a serious problem for both Palestinian and Israeli queers.
“I gave presentations on the book in Tel Aviv and in Ramallah, and the responses were identical, as they have been everywhere that I have presented this material,” she recalled. “I just spoke on it in Paris last month, to a room of nodding heads.”
In fact, Schulman noted, “Familial homophobia seems to be the common experience, on a continuum of specificities, everywhere. Despite all the different cultural constructions of queerness, one thing that is consistent in every culture and country is the delusion by straight people that their sexuality is neutral, natural, objective, and value-free. And this has negative consequences on queers in every condition.”
Given her long activist career — that she finds time for it while producing such a valuable quantity of writing is astonishing — it is not surprising that Schulman’s reaction to her trip was to organize an American speaking tour for Palestinian queer activists.
To list just a few of her activist credentials, she co-founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, now called MIX and in its 24th year; joined ACT UP in 1987 and spent five years organizing its direct action protests, with numerous arrests to her credit, including one for the occupation of Grand Central Station during the First Gulf War in a protest dubbed “Money for AIDS and Not for War”; co-created the ACT UP Oral History Project with Jim Hubbard, with whom she is now producing a feature documentary, “United In Anger: The History of ACT UP”; co-founded the direct action group Lesbian Avengers in 1992 and toured the South organizing chapters; co-founded the militant AIDS service organization Housing Works; and was arrested five times as an organizer of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization’s attempts to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“It is obvious that there is no human face for Palestine in the US LGBT community, and the fact that there are lesbian and LGBT organizations of Palestinians is exciting,” she explained. “People are looking forward to hearing about these Palestinians’ lives and meeting them. The tour is not finalized, but I am expecting it to start in Minneapolis on February 5, and then go to Chicago’s University of Illinois campus on February 6, to the Harvard Kennedy School on February 8, to the CUNY City Graduate Center on February 10, the University of Pennsylvania on February 11, and the Arab Resource Center in the Bay Area on Valentine’s Day, February 14. We also are very hopeful that the Palestinians will be given a chance to speak at the [National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s] Creating Change conference.”
Schulman said she can be contacted via her Facebook page for more information on the Palestinian queers’ tour of the US. Roughly a quarter of the funds needed for the tour have been raised, she said, and donations will gratefully be accepted.
Asked what were the most valuable things she learned from her trip to Palestine and Israel and Schulman responded: “That it is okay to be afraid, but fear should not control my actions. That I need to always think things through for myself and beware of received wisdom. That feeling afraid doesn’t mean that I am in danger. Finally, that doubt, contradiction, and nuance is where one has to live sometimes to make moral choices.”
The English-language website of ASWAT, the Palestinian queer women’s group, is aswatgroup.org/English/. The English-language web site of Al Qaws, the Palestinian LGBT group, is alqaws.org/q/content/community-building. The website of Lesbian Avengers, co-founded by Schulman, is lesbianavengers.com/. The ACT UP Oral History Project, also co-founded by Schulman, is at actuporalhistory.org.