Sarah Schulman’s Joy and the Queer Practice of Everyday Freedom
Editor’s Note: Yesterday Gay City News reported that the LGBT Center of New York City would bar lesbian author Sarah Schulman from reading and discussing her new book, the subject of this review. Hundreds of people from around the world have already signed a petition urging the LGBT Center of New York City to end their policy of censorship and allow Ms. Schulman, a veteran activist, decorated scholar and author of 18 books, to appear there.
Schulman believes in queers to solve the world’s problems.
Israel/Palestine and the Queer International is a queer memoir from Sarah Schulman in which she uses her journey as a lesbian American Jew overcoming ignorance to illuminate the most “encouraging progressive development in grassroots global politics of our day”: the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. What excites her about the campaign—which aims to end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the “Apartheid Wall”; to recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and to respect, protect, and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194—is the playing, and need to play:
It has been many years since I have become aware of a political movement with so much potential for progressive change. Not since ACT UP in the 1980s—also a movement of severely oppressed people facing hugely distorting mythologies with no right. And just as ACT UP was able ultimately, to change the world, I see that kind of radical potential in the Palestinian queer movement today.
The story of the book begins in 2009 when Schulman was invited to give a keynote address at the Israeli Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference at Tel Aviv University. Given the politics of the region, a colleague suggests Schulman consider declining the invitation in order to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Schulman reaches out to people she knows to be well versed on the boycott, including Judith Butler, and researches its underpinnings. After conversations with friends and family, Schulman respectfully and publically declines the university’s offer. Instead, she decides on a solidarity visit to Israel and Palestine, meeting in boycott-approved venues with activists committed to justice.
[This book is] one of the most empowering, fascinating and optimistic reads in years.
While traveling through the West Bank, Schulman endures checkpoints, describing her first, Qalandia Gate, as being “only about humiliation” and witnesses the wide gulf between the quality of life for Israelis and Palestinians. She writes, “After years of dismissing the word as propaganda or exaggeration…I finally understood it in terms of what I was seeing: apartheid.” She meets queer, anti-occupation activists such as Sonya Soloviov, the butch organizer of the visit; Sami Shamali, a young, gay activist from Ramallah; and Haneen Maikey, the director of Al-Qaws for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Palestinian Society. All are queers finding strength and ways forward through multiple identities. Along the way, Schulman also makes connections in North America: activists and artists in the US and Canada such as queer filmmakers Elle Flanders, John Greyson, Nadia Awad, and writer Vani Natarajan, help Schulman navigate the heady politics, emotions, and rhetoric in which she is immersed.
The people Schulman meets on the visit and closer to home provide the heart and subtitle of the book. They are the queer internationals, using experiences, as people who know marginalization, and—in some cases—privilege, to work toward peace. They are the queer embodiment of critical education theorist Paulo Freire’s Practice of Everyday Freedom, “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Queers, argues Schulman “have an unusual opportunity” to be part of creating peace in the Middle East:
Today’s queer internationalist has a playing field of higher potential because of all the previous decades of work to make ourselves known to the dominant culture. Today we are poised to be an organic part of a larger freedom vision, and we are almost ready to insist on reciprocity.
Some of the most exciting and accessible sections of Israel/Palestine come as Schulman dives into this “unusual opportunity” and in turn embodies bell hooks’ declaration that, “to educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.” As Schulman learns more, she looks at the ways in which the tensions of Israel and the modern gay rights movement have come together, introducing the concept of homonationalism. This term, coined by Jasbir Puar in her book Terrorist Assemblages, addresses the ways in which the immigrant has come to be constructed as “other” than queer and the ways in which many gay and lesbian people—once they no longer feel oppressed—become conservative and begin to use the state (which oppressed/es them) to oppress immigrants, people of color, and members of non-Christian faiths.
Israel/Palestine posits an interesting connection: homonationalism is the Gay Rights movement’s Israeli occupation because it too is the problematic result of an oppressed population choosing protection over peace. Reports of homophobia and bullying are exploited to maintain a sense of fear in lesbians and gay men, resulting in gay exceptionalism and protectionism, while many other forms of violence within LGBT and queer life go unreported. Strategically similar, Israel often cites anti-Semitism to justify its actions. Using the work of gay Israeli lawyer Aeyel Gross, Schulman writes, “In the past, he said, it was widely assumed that LGBT rights would correlate with advances in civil rights and the peace process. ‘Today, the opposite may be true: LGBT rights are used as a fig leaf, and the larger the area that needs to be hidden, the larger the fig leaf must be.’”
The fig leaf to which she refers is pinkwashing, the ways in which governments cover human rights abuses by touting their record on LGBT issues. Israel is the textbook example, as Schulman explores at length in the book’s appendix, tracing its advertising campaigns and sponsorship money to lure lesbian and gay tourists and thereby divert attention from the occupation.
A running question in the book is whether PACBI, the main organization behind BDS, will support and recognize a queer contingent. PACBI, homophobic by default like many organizations around the world, thinks it can afford to ignore the queer activists calling for BDS. After many conversations, meetings, and the fierceness of the queer internationals’ commitment, PACBI does recognize the queer BDS activists.
The situation with PACBI is a microcosm of the global stage, illustrating Schulman’s theory of the queer international, “Now, not only were LGBT people speaking to international politics, but international politics were speaking back.” It is a hopeful statement that makes Israel/Palestine an optimistic read. The queer international is an opportunity to oppose homonationalism through the practice of everyday freedom. As queer people with a global perspective, a queer international parallels the figure Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.
As homonationalists align themselves with the state, Schulman’s queer international is a radical who pushes back against the state, demanding better on a global scale with an eye towards interconnection. An example in the book is Black Laundry, a queer, direct action, anti-occupation organization founded by Dalit Baum whose mission statement includes: “Our own oppression as lesbians, gays, and trans people enhances our solidarity with other oppressed groups.”
Through her writing, Schulman equips queer internationals with tools to push back, reflect, and synthesize. Her 2010 release, TheGentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, explores the ongoing systemic impacts of HIV on US culture, which she concludes with a call to embrace complexity. Her 2009 book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, makes the case for third-party intervention when it comes to discrimination within the family. Schulman provides ideas and terms that literally make conversations possible. She coined the term “familial homophobia,” she explained at a reading this summer at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto, because no other term existed to describe her experience that she knew was a global phenomenon: queer people being shunned by their families.
Both books look at the failure of the world around us and the role that a culture lacking in accountability and imagination play in preventing justice. This is not happy terrain to tread, and yet, as with Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, her articulation of suffering is empowering. This is where joy comes in. Happiness is a plateau on which people can get stuck. The queer international is working a path to the seemingly always-out-of-reach proverbial mountaintop.
Counterintuitive to the depressing subjects she explores, there is no pessimism in Schulman’s cataloging of what is wrong with the world. Instead, demonstrating a trait of the queer international, she is proactive in the face of adversarial forces such as familial, state, and capitalist violence. Withdrawal from Palestinian lands, dismantling the Wall, and humane application of the UN Resolution 194 are not lofty goals. In the face of such work to be done, a queer international is likely to take as a credo from TheGentrification of the Mind, “Anything that humans construct, humans can transform.”
Beauty is palpable in Israel/Palestine and the Queer International because Schulman is sharing and teaching while she is learning herself. As she understands early on in the book, “to make a contribution, I had to think everything through for myself.” From the very minute Schulman went on the solidarity visit instead of taking up the official invitation, she embarked on the practice of everyday freedom. In Pedagogy of Freedom, Freire writes:
When we live our lives with the authenticity demanded by the practice of teaching that is also learning and learning that is also teaching, we are participating in a total experience that is simultaneously directive, political, gnostic, pedagogical, aesthetic, and ethical. In this experience the beautiful, the decent, and the serious form a circle with hands joined.
It is in this circle Schulman stands and invites us, as possible queer internationals, to join.