Israeli Queers Revolt


When was the last time you heard of a demonstration against a beauty
contest? It might seem like a flash from the past, but the Israeli
queer group, Black Laundry (Kvisa Sh’hora), took an old-fashioned
protest target and turned it into a witty and pointed demonstration
against the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands.

“We
all dressed as drag-queens —girls, boys, butches, trans, everyone.
It was our own alternative beauty show,” said Dalit Baum, one
of the Black Laundry founders. Their signs helped spectators make
connections between the beauty event and the dominant political
crisis. “Glamor Won’t Cover the Crime: End the Occupation,”
they said. And with even more bite: “Children in Ramallah (on
the West Bank) aren’t Hungry; They’re just on a Diet.”

Dalit
says the group does not hesitate to salvage from the past. “We
found a leaflet from the 1970s women’s movement in Tel Aviv
and used their slogan— ‘We’re not beautiful, we’re
not ugly, we’re mad’.”


Black Laundry began life at
Gay Pride 2001. A small group of Tel Aviv lesbians and gays felt
that they could not support Pride-as-usual in light of the occupation,
so they distributed a leaflet in the bars and clubs seeking queers
with an interest in protest. To their surprise, over 250 folks joined
their contingent, well appointed in black and pink and sporting
the wittiest prettiest placards of the day.


The press found them even more fascinating than the usual drag queens
so they received a great deal of attention. Organizing around the
statement “No Pride in Occupation,” their most popular
slogan was “Gay & Palestinian: Freedom Twice Denied.”
By making connections between homophobia and the occupation, Black
Laundry brings Israeli gender politics to a new level. Dalit explains
their original motivation. “It felt impossible to celebrate
our civil rights in a carnival atmosphere when we knew what was
being done in the occupied territories just a short distance away.”


The humor used to highlight their issues makes Black Laundry the
darling of the media. They can be quite outrageous. For example,
to counter the commercialism of Pride, when every rainbow colored
object—from key rings to porch awnings—becomes a saleable
“Souvenir of Pride,” Black Laundry asked the contingent
of Palestinian gays and lesbians who were arriving from Ramallah
(only those with foreign passports) to gather up empty tear gas
grenades and bring them along. The West Bank was littered with hundreds
of spent canisters left by the Israeli Army. Piled into supermarket
trolleys, each grenade was decorated with a pink sticker saying
“Souvenir of Ramallah.” Unfortunately, the empty grenades
were seized by the police at the march as “dangerous objects.”


“Why then,” Black Laundry people asked them, “do
you throw them at people?”


Following their smash-hit appearance at Pride, they decided to become
a permanent group. They now have over 130 on their list- serve and
biweekly meetings attract over 30 activists. The mix presently favors
women in their twenties and thirties. There is a minority of Sephardic
members (Jews whose families come from Arab, African, and Spanish
countries, and who can experience ethnic discrimination in Israel).
Some Israeli Palestinians (from villages within Israel’s pre-1967
borders) make it to actions, but the danger of being out is quite
high, particularly for women. Palestinians from the occupied territories
are prevented from participating by the Army’s extreme restrictions
on their movements.


What the members share is a commitment to feminist process (consensus,
rotating chair, diversity of ideas) and an aesthetic of outrageous
and visual expression underlying a “joined-together” politic.
Thea Gold, 27, involved with Black Laundry for 8 months, puts it
this way. “If different oppressed groups—women, queers,
Palestinians, the poor—realize that the same forces are keeping
us down, it could help us all focus and combine our struggles and
make them more effective.”


Black Laundry is very active
and consistently manages to take the most provocative approach to
old institutions. Besides their presence at the beauty contest,
they also joined the annual Take Back The Night march.

This
June, Jerusalem had its first Pride demonstration in an atmosphere
so charged that it attracted world media coverage. “Jerusalem
is a heated city,” Thea says, “the religious conflicts
are strong and the political battles endless.” The Municipality
reluctantly agreed to award them a license for the event, but unlike
the local government of Tel Aviv, they provided no financial grant.
The group organizing the march welcomed the collaboration with Black
Laundry, who turned up dressed in black T-shirts with phosphorescent
pink identity signs saying: Dyke, Butt Licker, Masturbating Lesbian,
Slut. Their signs were in the six main spoken languages of Israel:
Hebrew, Arabic, English, Yiddish, Russian, and Amharic (Ethiopian).


Their messages, again, creatively
made the connections. “Transgender and not Transfer,”
they said, rejecting the call by right-wing Israelis to expel Palestinians
from their own land. “Jerusalem: One City, Two Capitals, All
Genders” suggested a solution for the city that both peoples
claim. In a brilliant co-optation of the protests of the homophobic
right-wing religious people who say that the war on the Palestinian
people is impoverishing Israel, they carried “Homosexuals and
Lesbians in Solidarity with Ultra-Orthodox Poverty.”


Black Laundry pays attention to the cultural details and finds ways
to transgress in a language which speaks to the whole population.
For instance, it is a tradition, at the entrance to Jerusalem, to
post wedding announcements with the first names of the bride and
groom prominently displayed. Using the exact graphic style of these
commonplace signs, Black Laundry plastered the city’s entrance
with “Ruth and Miriam” and “Zvi Yossel loves Menacham
Levy.”


The members to whom I spoke all believe, as the slogan says, “The
Occupation is Killing us All.” Hadas Sandler, a professional
lifeguard, sees the Israeli Army’s violence in the territories
affecting women in Israel. “It impacts on us here. There’s
now so much violence towards women and trafficking in women. I know
it’s connected to the occupation and what we allow ourselves
to do to Palestinians.”


The political roots of Black Laundry can be traced directly to Women
in Black, a protest movement begun in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in
January 1988, just weeks after the start of the first intifada
(Palestinian uprising). The Women in Black model of a unified visual
image and a regular weekly demonstration in the same location spread
throughout Israel, so that at one point there were 39 simultaneous
weekly vigils around the country. The model got picked up in Europe
and the States and eventually around the world. Women in Black was
nominated for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Last year they
mobilized simultaneous actions in 150 cities around the world for
the anniversary of the Occupation.


Black Laundry is also set to be fruitful and multiply. There is
a New York city branch of Black Laundry preparing to march in their
city’s Pride and a group in San Francisco. There is something
very contagious about the poetry with which they convey complex
connections. As one of their recent banners declared: “Free
Condoms, Free Palestine.”


Sue
Katz has published on the three continents where she has lived, including
14 years in the Middle East. She has completed her first novel,
Above
The Belt,
which takes place in an Israeli martial arts institute
during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. To contact Black Laundry, [email protected].