What Is Pinkwashing and Why Do People Care
By John Hutton • Halifax • 2016-10-15
In 2011, a shock pundit named Ezra Levant and some former communications staffers from the Conservative Party founded a group called the Ethical Oil Institute. Their goal is to promote the Canadian oil sands as “the fair trade of oil” by comparing it to the practices of other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The Harper government enthusiastically adopted “ethical oil” rhetoric to promote the tar sands. They recently released an image of two women kissing with the text “In Canada lesbians are considered hot! In Saudi Arabia if you’re a lesbian you die! Why are we getting our oil from countries that don’t think lesbians are hot?”
Pause for a moment and process that. Yes, they’re talking about one of the most environmentally destructive projects on the planet. Yes, this is from the same group of Conservatives that opposed same-sex marriage, blocked numerous attempts at passing trans rights legislation, removed LGBT references in Canada’s citizenship guide, and more. Yes, it’s strange that they only seem to care about LGBT rights this one time.
Ethical Oil is an example of a marketing tactic called pinkwashing. Through the use of LGBT imagery and phrases, companies and politicians portray themselves as modern and progressive. Whether or not they actually support LGBT people is beside the point, because it’s about image and not substance. Understandably, many LGBT people resent Ethical Oil’s faux-allyship.
But they’re not the only ones pinkwashing. It’s done by banks that put rainbow stickers on their ATMs while donating to the Republican Party. It’s done by Prime Ministers that walk in pride parades while expanding the blood donation ban to exclude trans women. Many companies advertise during Pride, yet trans employment discrimination remains strong. Pinkwashing is all around us.
At the recent Halifax Pride annual general meeting, pinkwashing was a hot topic. A group called Queer Arabs Halifax felt that materials distributed by Israel advocacy organizations at the Pride community fair pinkwashed over the human rights abuses of the Israeli government against Palestinians. They put forward a resolution which would have restricted materials from an ad campaign called Size Doesn’t Matter (an ad campaign designed to portray Israel as a fun, modern, and LGBT-friendly place) from being distributed.
The pro-Israel booth also handed out materials from StandWithUs, a political action group that supports the positions of the Israeli government, such as its wars in Gaza and settlements in the West Bank. People involved with Queer Arabs Halifax viewed this as pinkwashing because their experiences with the state of Israel are not ones of liberal tolerance, but oppression and violence.
Introducing the motion at the Pride AGM, a member of Queer Arabs described life in a refugee camp with drones flying overhead. It’s not hard to understand why some people resent efforts to portray Israel as an uncomplicated dance party.
In 2014, after I received materials from the Israel advocacy booth and a few other groups that addressed global LGBT issues, I wrote a piece in The Coast on the topic of LGBT solidarity vs being a White Saviour. People that appoint themselves saviours of the marginalized without actually talking to them usually do more harm than good. A pamphlet produced by StandWithUs about LGBT rights in the Middle East, does exactly that.
The pamphlet devoted a page to LGBT rights victories in Israel, and another to the repressive laws against LGBT people in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and discussing homophobia in Palestine. There is no reference to LGBT activism in those countries or how people can support it, because that’s not what the pamphlet is for. The pamphlets target audience was me, a progressive white western queer, and its message is that I should support Israel and not the barbaric Arabs. To win me over, it creates a contrast between progressive and modern Israel versus backwards and dangerous Arabs.
If they had actually talked to Palestinan LGBT organizations such as Al-Qaws and Aswat (respectively "Rainbow" and "Voices" in Arabic, -Ed.), they would know that portraying LGBT Palestinians as victims with no agency in their lives perpetuates harmful stereotypes against them. They would know that the claim that Israel is an oasis of tolerance in a desert of backwardness for LGBT Palestinians doesn’t match reality, as Israel has never legally welcomed a Palestinian refugee of any orientation.
They would know that claiming to support LGBT human rights in Palestine but silence about military and police violence, punitive house demolitions, restrictive blockades and checkpoints, water restrictions, and other abuses gets pointed out in Palestinian discourse, which only reinforces an unfortunate narrative that homosexuality is a western colonial deviation, and that makes LGBT Palestinians less safe. The materials pinkwash over the reality of occupation for LGBT Palestinians and in doing so cause actual harm- not just hurt feelings.
Graffiti art in the West Bank city of Ramallah; it reads, "Queers were here."
Al-Qaws and Aswat endorse activism against the Israeli occupation as part of their LGBT work. Restrictions on freedom of movement, intense surveillance of political groups (not to mention blackmailing of LGBT people by Israeli security forces), and curfews limit the ability of the LGBT community to meet and organize. People in Gaza cannot leave, people in the West Bank need permits to travel, Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot go to the West Bank or Gaza, and most refugees can’t go anywhere. They fight for freedom from daily violence, the right to love who they choose, live where they choose, and attend groups, meetings and political activities free from persecution. It’s not possible to support Palestinian LGBT people and support the occupation at the same time.
It is not only possible, but encouraged that groups celebrate LGBT rights victories around the world, including in Israel. But when governments take credit for LGBT rights that they once opposed, be it Stephen Harper in Canada or Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, it’s on us to call out pinkwashing as the distraction that it is. To be a better ally to oppressed people, adopt the motto “nothing about us without us.” Queer people are not props to make organizations look modern and progressive.
Editor’s Note John Hutton is a queer social activist from Halifax. He is a graduate in International Development Studies.
You can learn more about LGBTQ rights and activism in Palestine here.