Last November, Israel’s official social media accounts shared a photo of a smiling Israeli soldier proudly holding a rainbow flag amid the rubble in Gaza, where over 10,000 Palestinians – mostly women and children – had been killed in the weeks following October 7.

Written upon the multi-coloured flag – an iconic, decades-old symbol of LGBTQ+ pride – in English, Arabic and Hebrew, were the words “In The Name Of Love.”

The image quickly went viral. The soldier, a 31-year-old gay man, explained to the media that the Israeli military was “the only army in the Middle East that protects democratic values… it is the only army that allows LGBT people the freedom to be who they are, and therefore I fully believe in our goal.”

Meanwhile, on Instagram, Israel’s account described the image as an “attempt to raise the first pride flag in Gaza as a call for peace and freedom.” 

But for many LGBTQ+ activists, and those struggling for Palestinian liberation, the incident represented an almost perfect example of “pinkwashing” – a term that refers to a state or organization’s attempts to use LGBTQ+ rights and symbols to distract or deflect attention from its harmful practices.

An IDF soldier smiles holding a rainbow flag in front of a village in Gaza turned to rubble.

In the context of Palestine, the term refers to Israel’s deliberate strategy to conceal the ongoing violence and repression against Palestinians behind an image of modernity, which is signified by gay rights in Israel.

Pinkwashing “places a progressive veneer atop atrocity,” Joshua Sealy-Harrington, a professor of law at the University of Windsor, told Ricochet. Such tactics, which he describes as “an unfortunately effective mechanism of propaganda,” are commonly used by the Israeli military to distract from war crimes against Palestinians.

“It doesn’t matter if the person pressing the button for the drone strike is a woman, or queer, or Black – a drone strike on a civilian square is a war crime.”

Since the start of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, critics have highlighted Israel’s reliance on pinkwashing to manufacture consent for the killing of over 38,000 Palestinians.

Last Sunday, the discourse around the phrase was thrust into the mainstream conversation when a group of activists called the “Coalition Against Pinkwashing” staged a peaceful protest at the Toronto Pride parade – the largest Pride event in Canada – blocking its procession and providing a list of six demands to Pride Toronto. 

Among the demands made by the coalition was that Pride Toronto divest from all institutions “that invest in arms manufacturers, or are supporting ‘Israeli’ apartheid and occupation in any way,” and end all partnerships with organizations that have not called on or enacted sanctions on the state of Israel. 

The coalition’s list of entities violating these demands includes Canadian financial institutions like Scotiabank, RBC and TD, tech companies like Google Canada and Amazon Prime, and political entities like the Liberal Party of Canada and the City of Toronto.

“It doesn’t matter if the person pressing the button for the drone strike is a woman, or queer, or Black – a drone strike on a civilian square is a war crime.”

Unable to reach an agreement with protesters, Pride Toronto cancelled the remainder of the parade.

“As members of the queer community, we’re uniquely positioned to respond to this issue because it is our own image being used to effectively distract from the crimes being committed against Palestinians,” Faisal Samir, a member of Queers for Palestine and the Coalition Against Pinkwashing, told Ricochet.

“It is a distraction to try to present Israel as a somehow progressive haven of queer rights,” he added, “when in fact it is a genocidal, apartheid, settler colony.” 

The origin and development of pinkwashing

Today, the term pinkwashing is typically used to describe the broad co-optation of LBGTQ+ imagery by corporations or other political entities around the world.

“‘Pinkwashing refers to a political shift that’s taken place in some countries from perceiving LGBTQ2 people as a threat to the nation to perceiving them as an asset to the nation, typically white and middle-class gays and lesbians who can more easily assimilate into mainstream society,” Daniel Del Gobbo, a professor at University of Windsor whose research focuses on queer and feminist theory, told Ricochet.

“Equality rights and the mainstream acceptance of these people have been leveraged by governments for propaganda purposes – as a political smokescreen, essentially – to support national security and other state interests,” he added.

Canadian RCMP officers at an international LGBTQ conference. Photo by: Jean Turner via Blue Line Magazine

Del Gobbo says recent efforts by police and military forces to promote themselves as “gay friendly” places are a prime example of pinkwashing efforts in the Canadian context.

“External reviews of the RCMP and Canadian armed forces conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada Justices Michel Bastarache and Louise Arbour in 2020 and 2022 respectively found that toxic work environments for women existed in these organizations, referring to a culture that permitted sexual misconduct and tolerated racist, misogynistic, and homophobic attitudes among their membership,” he explains.

But the idea of pinkwashing first emerged in relation to Israel – specifically in response to a sophisticated public relations campaign run by the Israeli government (with help from American marketing executives), which sought to improve Israel’s waning international reputation.

Dubbed “Brand Israel” and launched in 2005, the campaign originally set its sights on what was considered the most powerful and influential customer segment – men between the ages of 18 and 35.

“Israel decided that it needed to rebrand,” Sarah Schulman – a writer, queer activist and AIDS historian, who helped popularize the term “pinkwashing” in a widely read New York Times opinion piece in 2011 – told Ricochet. “It wanted to appear arty and cutting edge, and attractive to young people.”

Sarah Schulman explains that there’s a long history of pinkwashing as a funded and deliberate marketing project by the Israeli government. Brand Israel was launched as a strategy to re-brand the country in the minds of the world and encourage spending by wealthy tourists. Images via Mondoweiss

Brand Israel’s early efforts, Schulman explained, ranged from glossy photo spreads in men’s magazines – “They’re drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds,” a 2007 story from Maxim read. “Are the women of the Israeli Defense Forces the world’s sexiest soldiers? – to free food and wine tours for international critics. 

Eventually, these efforts shifted focus toward Israeli gay life, with an emphasis on Israel’s reputation as the most LGBTQ+ friendly country in the Middle East.

“(Israel) started hosting booths at gay travel fairs, they tried to brand Tel Aviv as a gay destination, and chartered flights from Berlin,” Schulman explained. “They wanted to use homosexuality as a symbol for modernity, or contemporary, progressive life.”

The problem with this tactic, according to Schulman, is two-fold. 

First, while there is a vibrant gay community in Tel Aviv, homophobia persists in Israel, particularly among the more religious sector of the population – a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in November of last year found that 56 per cent of Israelis are opposed to making same-sex marriage legal, while some political leaders are openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. 

Journalist, writer, and historian, Sarah Schulman

Tel Aviv and other queer-friendly spaces in Israel, Schulman says, are not emblematic of the entire country. 

Second – and more importantly, according to Schulman – is the fact that Israel was using this pretense of modernity to “whitewash the occupation of Palestinian life and territory.”

“They were trying to supersede the fact that they were breaking international law by claiming that they were ‘gay friendly’ to a larger degree than they were, as though that would neutralize their crimes against Palestinians,” she explains.

It was in this context that the term “pinkwashing” first emerged – the term was coined by Ali Abunimah, editor of The Electronic Intifada in 2010, the same year that the Tel Aviv tourism board had reportedly started a campaign of around $90 million to brand the city as “an international gay vacation destination.”

Activists hold a die-in demonstration against Israeli pinkwashing at Tel-Aviv Pride in 2013. Via KaosGL News.

“In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights, just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration.” Schulman wrote in her 2011 opinion piece. “The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.”

Over the course of the next decade, Israel’s government swung sharply to the right. In early 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered a new coalition with a series of religious and ultra-nationalist parties, including members who were openly anti-LGBTQ+, and who promised to enforce religious prohibitions over democratic liberties.

“The more right wing and repressive (Israel) becomes, and the more power that religious people have in Netanyahu’s coalition, the more they pull on this idea that they are a gay utopia,” Schulman says. “It’s all very manipulative and dishonest.” 

The myth of a primitive Palestine and the erasure of queer life and activism in the Middle East

The success of pinkwashing, of course, depends not only on the representation of Israel as a haven of LGBTQ+ rights, but a state surrounded by deeply homophobic Arab states and territories. 

Critics of pinkwashing do not deny the ubiquity of homophobia in Gaza and the West Bank, where public sentiment towards LGBTQ+ remains overwhelmingly negative. (Though same-sex acts were decriminalized in the West bank in the 1950s, there is no such protection in Gaza.)

Instead, they see pinkwashing in the context of a larger effort to paint Palestinians as primitive or backwards, and to erase the existence of decades-long efforts for queer liberation.

“So much of (Israel’s) propaganda campaign is rooted in notions of Israel’s paternalistic efforts to civilize Palestine – that Palestine is just a setting of barbarity, that Israel and the ‘West’ need to intervene upon in order to bring it up to the standards of the enlightened Western hemisphere.”

Part of what makes pinkwashing so effective, Sealy-Harrington explains, is the persistence of “deeply Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian narratives about the Western mission to civilize the Orient.”

“So much of (Israel’s) propaganda campaign is rooted in notions of Israel’s paternalistic efforts to civilize Palestine – that Palestine is just a setting of barbarity, that Israel and the ‘West’ need to intervene upon in order to bring it up to the standards of the enlightened Western hemisphere,” he says.  

For Schulman, pinkwashing not only paints Palestine as a primitive culture, but effectively erases the “long and interesting” history of queer solidarity with Palestinians – she notes the activism of Jean Genet, a prominent, openly gay French novelist and playwright, who spent time visiting Palestinian refugee camps in the 1970s – and the emergence of Palestinian queer rights organizations like Aswat, Al Qaws and the Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. 

Joshua Sealy-Harrington, professor of law at the University of Windsor.

“There are gay Arab and Muslim organizations all over the world, including Canada,” she adds. “Queer Arabs and Muslims in their home countries and in the diaspora have been organizing for 20 years at least, if not more.”

Writing in 2012, culture studies scholar Nadia Elia echoed these points, while situating the pinkwashing strategy within the context of settler colonialism: 

(Pinkwashing) is the 21st century manifestation of the Zionist colonialist narrative of bringing civilization to an otherwise backwards land – a narrative that sanitizes the violence of occupation while erasing indigenous experience, struggle, and resistance. And just as the Zionist myth of ‘making the desert bloom’ completely distorted the reality of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, by failing to mention that native olive trees were uprooted so that imported pine trees could be planted, so pinkwashing distorts the reality of Israel’s violence against all Palestinians, regardless of their sexuality.”

Pinkwashing since October 7

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis and taking hundreds hostage, Israel has launched a siege on the Gaza Strip that many international experts consider a genocide. Israel is currently on trial for genocide at the International Court of Justice.

Over the course of the subsequent nine months, supporters of Israel have sought to obscure the efforts of queers liberation movements organizing on behalf of Palestine, accusing these activists of “glorifying” or minimizing the brutality of Hamas

Moreover, queers expressing solidarity with Palestine are often described as hypocrites, based on the false assumption that their support for Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation necessarily implies support for the homophobic policies of Hamas or other factions. 

Indeed, since October 7, a common attack lobbed at queer activists supporting Palestinian rights is that if they lived in Gaza, they would be “thrown off a roof.” (There is little evidence of Hamas executing or throwing people off roofs for being queer or trans. In April, the Israeli military discovered documents in a Gaza tunnel showing that Hamas killed one of its senior members in 2016 after allegations of gay sex and theft surfaced.)

Pinkwashing is not new for Canada. The lack of rights and safety of LGBTQ people in the Middle East are frequently used as justification for continued fossil fuel extraction in Canada. The 2010 campaign “Ethical Oil” argued that supporting the Alberta tar sands made the oil “ethical” because Canada supports gay rights, unlike countries in the Middle East.

According to Schulman, these attacks are not only rooted in pinkwashing, but act to conceal a glaring contradiction.

“There’s a lot of false language in circulation about gay people being executed in Gaza,” she says. “The irony of the whole thing is that the most queer and trans people who’ve been killed in Gaza have been killed by Israeli bombs.”

“In the United States, we have entire states now that have ‘don’t say gay laws,’ where teachers are not allowed to teach anything about gay history or life in their classrooms, or where books are banned,” Shulman adds. “But no one is saying we should bomb and kill people in Florida and Texas because their government is anti-gay.”

The Israeli military has also sought to play up the role of female and gay soldiers in the state’s war on Gaza, in what Sealy-Harrington describes as a “superficial” kind of identity politics, “which is used not to critique systems of oppression, but to incorporate minorities within those ongoingly oppressive systems.”

“There are gay Arab and Muslim organizations all over the world, including Canada,” she adds. “Queer Arabs and Muslims in their home countries and in the diaspora have been organizing for 20 years at least, if not more.”

He adds that the IDF’s use of such imagery is used as a symbol of Israel’s superiority over the people it is slaughtering.

“The height of non-civilization, of course, is the commission of genocide,” he says. “There’s nothing more barbaric than genocide. And yet Israel claims the mantle of civilization while committing genocide. And the way it does that is through pinkwashing – through the claim that because those committing the genocide happen to at times be minorities, that this in some way changes the overarching political analysis and political critique of genocide.”

Pride as a site of protest and queer solidarity with Palestine 

For queer activists familiar with this context, the disruption of the Pride Parade in Toronto – along with recent disruptions at Pride events in New York City, St. Louis and elsewhere – came as no surprise. 

Indeed, the history of Pride is rooted in protest. 

New York City’s first ever Pride march (known then as the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March) took place in 1970, one year after the Stonewall uprising against police raids targeting queer communities. Toronto’s Pride parade emerged from the mass protests that followed the 1981 gay bathhouse raids, which marked one of the largest arrests in Canadian history. 

In 2016, Black Lives Matter brought the Toronto Pride parade to a halt, accusing the event of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. (Toronto Pride eventually apologized for the way it handled BLM’s demands, and for what it called its own “history of anti-Blackness.”)

Today, there exists a tension inherent to mainstream Pride events, according to Sealy-Harrington. 

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) demonstrating at Toronto Pride for the final time before “retiring” in 2015. Photo via NOW Toronto.

“There are institutions who partner with pride out of a genuine and authentic commitment to advancing justice for LGBTQ people,” he says. “But there are others who kind of latch on to the Pride parade as a mechanism of laundering the forms of social injustice that they’re complicit in.

“Pride is primarily (made up of) corporate floats for companies with all kinds of dubious impacts on the world,” Schulman says, adding that these events are also highly policed.

“Some of these corporations, including Canadian banks, have money invested in or financial relationship with Israeli (arms manufacturers), which makes it even more egregious in people’s minds. We’re seeing this long simmering conflict finally erupting. When queer people interrupt a pride march, they’re confronting corporations. It’s not just a division within the community, it’s a response to corporate control.” 

The disruption at Toronto Pride

The Coalition Against Pinkwashing (CAP) came together recently in advance of Pride, and in response to what Samir – the activist with Queers for Palestine – described as the “complicity of our government and institutions” in the assault on Gaza, and “the gaslighting we’ve seen in the media.”

“For us, that essentially confirmed our impression of Pride Toronto – that they would rather cancel an entire parade than do their part in ending their complicity in genocide.”

Over the past several months, CAP urged Pride Toronto to “eliminate its complicity in genocide,” Samir explained, citing its partnership with Scotiabank – which is the largest foreign shareholder in Elbit Systems, an Israeli weapons producer – as a prime example of such complicity. 

In March, Pride Toronto issued a “Statement on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza,” which called for an “immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.”

But for Samir, the statement lacked teeth. “It failed to name the genocide for what it is, it failed to name Israel as the perpetrator of the genocide,” he said. “It was essentially just a sentimental statement with no real meaningful action to back it up, and it failed to clearly identify the problem and its own role in allowing these problems to persist.”

Weeks later, longtime queer activist Gary Kinsman resigned from Pride Toronto, after the organization failed to discuss and adopt the Liberatory Demand from Queers in Palestine, which demanded that organizations around the world “refuse collaborations with all Israeli institutions and join the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement.

“We felt the need to take meaningful action, and to raise awareness of these issues,” Samir said.

Longtime queer activist Gary Kinsman speaks to the media.

Following CAP’s disruption last Sunday, Pride Toronto abruptly cancelled the remainder of the parade, stating its “commitment to ensuring public safety.”

“There were a number of safety concerns,” Kojo Modeste, the executive director of Pride Toronto, told Ricochet. “We had a large number of vehicles that were still stuck on the parade routes, we had a number of marchers that were still on the parade route – as a result of not being able to access water or emergency exits, I was not comfortable continuing with the parade.”

Modeste also said that he witnessed verbal altercations between protesters, parade participants and attendees. 

Samir, who said that the response from the majority of attendees appeared to be positive – “people were cheering, and starting pro-Palestine chants” – said that Pride’s decision to cancel the remainder of the parade was unexpected. 

“Our goal was not to cancel the parade,” he said. “Our goal, like Black Lives Matter before us, was to force (Pride’s board) to the negotiating table.”

The protesters were approached by Modeste, alongside the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, one of the vice presidents of the Ontario Public Service Union, a Black elder and an Indigenous elder, but were unable to reach an agreement. 

Pride Toronto executive director Kojo Modeste speaks with activists during the shut-down of the parade. Photo via mwickens on X.

Samir claims the group was unwilling “to engage with the substance of CAP’s demands.” Nor did they offer a counterproposal to their demands. 

“For us, that essentially confirmed our impression of Pride Toronto – that they would rather cancel an entire parade than do their part in ending their complicity in genocide.”

Speaking to Ricochet, Modeste said that the protesters were unwilling to engage beyond the demands that they had already discussed via previous email correspondence and in public statements. 

“They made it very clear to us at that point in time that there was no conversation to be had – you either sign on to our six demands or they are going to be there for the entire parade,” he says. “We did offer a meeting within 30 days of (the parade), and they refused that.”

“I welcome conversations, I welcome protests. That is what Pride was built on,” Modeste said. “However, you know, I think it’s really important that we recognize that Pride is very different from Pride 47 years ago. And there is a lot of that the Pride movement needs to celebrate, and there is a lot that we still need to protest about. The two can work together, but we have to do it respectfully.”

“(CAP) would rather take away Pride from newcomers, they’d rather take away Pride from young people, they’d rather put people’s safety at risk rather than have a conversation with us.”

“A principled advocate for feminism is opposed to the genocide of women in Gaza. A principled advocate for queer liberation is opposed to the genocide of queer people in Gaza. Full stop. There’s no social justice paradigm that permits genocide.”

Modeste also pointed out that about 80 per cent of Pride Toronto’s funding currently comes from corporate sponsorships.

“We need to acknowledge that these corporate sponsors are not just supporting Pride, they are supporting many social service organizations in Toronto, whether that is queer refugees, queer youth line, queer seniors, trans individuals.”

“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge and recognize the contributions of the private sector has been making to the 2SLGBTQ community, both through Pride and social service organizations.”

Looking forward

Nearly a week after the Toronto Pride parade disruption, protesters and organizers have not moved any closer to reaching an agreement. On social media and in the press, the protest is often described without context, leading to a deluge of confusion and misinformation.

But Sealy-Harrington believes that the Toronto Pride disruption stems from a principled and intersectional understanding of social justice. 

“A principled advocate for feminism is opposed to the genocide of women in Gaza. A principled advocate for queer liberation is opposed to the genocide of queer people in Gaza. Full stop. There’s no social justice paradigm that permits genocide.”

“Different forms of political struggles are interconnected,” he says. “We can’t segment them – the way we liberate people is through liberating everyone… If your queer liberation is about white people only, then it isn’t for liberation – it’s white supremacy with a gloss of queerness.” 

Demonstrators at Toronto Pride hand out information explaining why they brought the parade to a halt. Photo via mwickens on X

Samir holds a similar perspective. He says he hopes the CAP disruption will encourage people to learn more about the Palestinian struggle, but also draw parallels with struggles against colonialism occurring both at home and abroad. 

“Palestine is simply the most visible and the most obvious genocide that is happening right now. We are also ignoring genocide that’s happening in Sudan. There are also issues in Congo, in Haiti and Yemen – the list goes on and on. But I hope this can serve at least as some kind of a primer for people to become aware of the imperialism that their governments are involved in and for them to fight for real change on behalf of not just people within their own borders, but internationally as well.”

For Schulman, the growing movement against pinkwashing, and the demand to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation, is evidence of growing support for the BDS movement, and the broader struggle for Palestinian liberation.

“For years, BDS, which is the nonviolent strategy of putting economic and cultural pressure on Israel, has been a fairly marginal campaign,” she says. “But now, with the campus uprisings focused on divestment, it has become the common parlance of youth politics across North America.”

According to reporting in The Maple, a series of recent polls showing significant levels of negative views on Israel and its conduct in Gaza highlights a growing gap between Canadian public opinion and this country’s political class. 

A Leger poll from June found that 45 per cent of Canadians “agree that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip.”

“Palestinians are aware that the people do not want this war, and that it’s only the governments that want it” Schulman says. “They know that they have support on the ground.”