Pinkwashing doesn't wash

But using gay rights as a PR tool turns the LGBT cause into a kind of tchotchke – something that makes your living room look pretty but has no intrinsic value.

PR and gay rights (photo credit: Courtesy)
PR and gay rights
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For some reason, I seem to recall having a conversation with my son that quite possibly never took place. As I recall – or not – he was about three, and we were walking along a street in Tel Aviv. He spotted a rainbow flag fluttering from a window.
“What’s that?” he asked. “It’s the gay flag,” I replied. “What’s gay?” he asked. “Um... well, I suppose it means that they are very happy people.”
I’m not sure that this conversation took place because it seems unusually evasive. Not in the sense that I tried to pull the wool over my son’s eyes – I do that all the time – but because he actually allowed me to get away with it. Now that’s odd: the child can smell BS coming out of my mouth from miles away and doesn’t let up until I’m squealing for mercy and begging to tell him the truth. Maybe it’s something else. I think about this Conversation that Quite Possibly Never Took Place whenever I see the rainbow flag – quite often, in Tel Aviv – and then I’m reminded of something else that did happen, a long time ago, but still disturbs me now.
Once, someone made a clumsy pass at me. As these things go, it was all pretty harmless. Stuff like this happens all the time, teenage boys trying to figure out what the hell is going on their bodies and stuff like that. But for reasons that I can’t quite explain, I feigned outrage at his approach and made a big song and dance about it. I blabbed about it to all and sundry; the guy got absolute hell for it for years afterwards. But so did I, in a strange and unexpected way. Each time afterwards that I heard someone sneer “homo” behind his back, a small piece of me died. I’ve done quite a few unpleasant things in my time, but this is one of the very few that I regret 100 percent.
Now, many years later, I live in Tel Aviv, the most gay-friendly city in the Middle East. Don’t you cringe when you hear that? Dunno about you, but it sounds to me like the most insincere boast imaginable. For one thing, let’s be honest: there isn’t very much competition when it comes to these things in the Middle East, is there? Then there’s the other thing. Maybe it’s just me and my personal BS detector, but whenever I hear PR apparatchiks rhapsodizing about LGBT rights and the vibrant gay nightlife and the beaches and so on and so forth, I hear a person reading from a not-terribly-well-written script.
Oh look! The gays! Aren’t they gay! And so on and so forth. It all seems so dreadfully insincere.
OBVIOUSLY, I’M not the first person to have picked up on this. You might have heard a bit about “pinkwashing” recently, for instance. The interesting notion that the political class and their not-terribly-subtle hasbara (public diplomacy) mouthpieces cynically exploit the concept of LGBT rights for political gain. You know: “Aren’t we all here so civilized and liberal and tolerant, and aren’t those barbarous, swarthy types across the way stuck in the 16th century?” I editorialize somewhat, but that is the general tone.
(An aside: Will someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs understand one day that bluster and braggadocio does not a good diplomatic policy make? We had the same with the Christians in the Holy Land business the other week. Guys, give me a call.
Anytime. I can help you.
Seriously.) Anyway, there’s nothing worse that can happen to a rights movement than to have it co-opted by the mainstream. A mainstream that, in this case, is partially populated by people who, you know, have a detailed but selective knowledge of the Book of Leviticus, for example.
All that stuff about abominations and what have you...(Another digression: Like Queen Victoria, Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t actually have anything to say about womankind lying with womankind.
Could this mean, perhaps, that... no. Best not to go there.) Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that it is not very hard to presume at least some insincerity on the part of the Israeli government when it starts to bang on about LGBT rights. For one thing, this serves to highlight other areas of civil society in which people do not have equal rights. And then there’s something else: It turns LGBT people and rights into a kind of fetish object: a bauble, a trinket, a tchotchke, something that makes your living room look pretty but has no intrinsic value. It’s like championing a cause but without caring why, aside from the fact that it makes you look good.
However, there is something equally insincere, I think, about the people thrusting the pinkwashing accusations forward. Let’s be candid about this: essentially, the accusation of pinkwashing is using a fundamental human rights issue as a lever to advance a political argument. Pretty much like the Israeli government, come to think of it.
In making a fetish out of homosexual life, both sides are missing the most important thing about gay life and LGBT rights in Tel Aviv, the most homo-friendly city in the Middle East: the sheer ordinariness of it all. On the whole, gay life in Tel Aviv is not the “alternative” life; it is life, full stop. I’m not going to suggest that things are perfect or that all of Israel is an LGBT utopia. But each time I see the rainbow flag – and I do quite often – I think about the guy I maliciously outed so many years ago. I didn’t tell the world that he was gay because I was scared of him, or because I was traumatized by what happened or because I hated homosexuals. I did it for the most banal of reasons: because I thought I could get a laugh out of it at his expense. It’s taken a long time to understand this: I’m not sure I would have been able to understand as much if I’d been living anywhere else. Now that’s something to sing and dance about.