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I loathe Pride month. Before you jump to any conclusions, I’m not some conspiratorial right-wing reactionary. I’m queer, nonbinary, Iraqi-Egyptian and am firmly on the left when it comes to my political positions. But I really do hate Pride.
It’s not just the fact that even Udon noodle brands pretend to be bastions of gay rights for the month of June or that meaningless political platitudes like “being you is worth it” are blasted performatively by investment banks and hedge funds — mind you, only until July 1, when the rainbow posters are hastily ripped down, our pink profitability no longer potent — but it’s the sheer Western exceptionalism of it all that gets to me.
As Western democracies currently wither — yes, even in the U.S. and the U.K. — with civil rights being eviscerated by governments and courts at alarming speed, the month of Pride is a useful way for nations to telegraph an image of civil cohesion and national exceptionalism.
Take, for instance, the U.K. Home Office, the racist institution now run by the demagogic and genuinely frightening Priti Patel; unsurprisingly, it currently boasts the rainbow flag on its Twitter avatar, while this week the European Courts of Justice halted a barbaric deportation policy that would have had an Iraqi man potentially sent to his death. While British Conservatives broadcast glossy Pride signifiers throughout the sunny month of June, what’s happening on the ground in Britain tells a different story. The U.K. has fallen down Europe’s LGBTQ+ rights ranking for the third year running, with the Conservative party this year greenlighting abusive conversion therapy practices for transgender people around the country. I lived in the U.K. until very recently, and it was nearly impossible to avoid the way in which transgender lives are weaponized by right-wing political actors to fuel culture wars, stoke division and mask their terminal socio-economic program. It has been such a successful campaign of moral panic that pretty much every liberal publication, such as the Guardian, to the supposedly “neutral” BBC — which recently pulled out of the Stonewall diversity scheme meant to protect its own LGBTQ+ employees — is now complicit in this full-throttled demonization of transgender people.
As the U.K. becomes increasingly inhospitable for its LGBTQ+ citizens, its hardening immigration policies depend on the image of non-Western nations being primitive or stuck back in time; the performative politics of Pride are an excellent way to imply this imperial superiority.
I experience this firsthand as a queer Arab voice in the media; whenever I am critical of British immigration policies, I am hit with one of those intellectually disingenuous “what ifs” — “if you were back in Iraq, you’d be executed, wouldn’t you?” It’d be easier to take this line of argument in better faith if the U.K. hadn’t been so complicit in making life actively harder for Iraqi LGBTQ+ people. It’s no secret that the Western intervention was the perfect storm of conditions to create the Islamic State group in Iraq, who have brutally murdered LGBTQ+ Arabs in acts of violence that go beyond all comprehension. Much has been documented about the way extremist religious groups in Iraq have furthered their homophobic and transphobic efforts since the Western occupation. It’s no surprise that religious extremists have conceptualized homosexuality as a kind of Western export, fueled as they are by their anti-Western hatred, a lot of it in response to a senseless war that decimated a once-prosperous country.
Now I was raised in Bahrain and Dubai, and I know firsthand the difficulty of being a queer person living in an Arab country that treats my very existence as criminal. And I’m not writing this under the false pretense that Arab nations present a queer utopic offering. What is hard to stomach, however, is the way in which Arab countries are denigrated as barbaric by Western political parties, all while they legislate against LGBTQ+ people in similarly oppressive ways.
The U.S. Republican Party is a stark example of this flagrant hypocrisy. While right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro have long used Islamophobic tropes in their bid to project American supremacy — “[Syrian Muslims] are not people who are engaged with Western values” — one has to wonder what “values” he’s actually referring to. To those of us on the left, “values” might connote civil rights victories for minorities or the fundamental tenets of a functioning democracy. Yet it’s hard to stomach the right’s fight to protect Western civil values when they mirror the very regimes they paint as primitive. While Western commentators look dismissively at the Arab countries that have banned the latest Pixar animation featuring a gay kiss, Republican legislatures are at this very second fighting to ban children from seeing drag queens, as well as having already prohibited the mentioning of all LGBTQ+ people in Florida’s schools (AR-15s are still permitted, though). In fact, here’s Ben Shapiro in a tweet critiquing Pixar’s inclusion of homosexuality, as if taken straight from the Saudi censorship playbook: “Disney works to push a ‘not-at-all-secret gay agenda’ and seeks to add ‘queerness’ to its programming, according to executive producer Latoya Raveneau. Parents should keep that in mind before deciding whether to take their kids to see ‘Lightyear,’ which hits theaters this week.”
Then there’s Marine Le Pen, the far-right French presidential candidate, whose political project was founded on anti-Islamic sentiment. Such statements as “Islamism is a monstrous totalitarian ideology” were part of her strategy to create a fictitious threat to the French republic. Notions of Muslims as an existential affront to the liberal way of life, in particular, allowed her in 2017 to grab 26% of the gay vote in Paris, with one third of all married gay men voting for her. The astonishing contradiction here is of gay voters co-opted into protecting their liberal “values” through supporting a candidate utterly opposed to all forms of legal migration, the routes that would in fact allow LGBTQ+ Arabs to find safety. Liberal hypocrisy at its finest.
In Israel this June, Tel Aviv saw 170,000 people come out for Pride. On its own, this mass celebration of queer diversity is something to be celebrated.
But then consider the politics. Government millions are channeled into Pride in Israel, again to promote an image of Western supremacy and to mask the horrors of the Palestinian occupation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly remarked that the Middle East is “a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted.” As Palestinian children are mercilessly bulldozed out of their homes, innocent Palestinian journalists murdered in cold blood and no doubt LGBTQ+ Palestinians are being forced into further precariousness, the illusions of Pride are conveniently used as a liberal smokescreen for apartheid.
In the abstract, of course I support what Pride stands for. But right now, in this very moment in 2022, it is a lie. For what, really, is there to be proud of, when Western nations aggressively strip LGBTQ+ citizens of their human rights, all while contributing to the plight of LGBTQ+ Arabs — in fact, all Arabs — around the globe? It’s critical that we resist Pride’s glossy erasure of troubling realities and instead pour our collective focus and energies into the thorny political fights that are — quite literally right now — life or death.