Aswat (Arabic for “Voices”), the organization that recently celebrated its fifth anniversary of activism on behalf of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Palestinians, is finally getting some recognition — although not all of it welcoming. Their recent conference was openly criticized by the Islamic Movement inside Israel, which condemned the group and called for the general population to do the same.
The creation of Aswat was made possible by the Internet, which allowed early members to create a website and email list from disparate locations, without having to travel or run the risk of incidental “outing” that might arise from more public meetings. (Only one other similar organization — in Lebanon — is known to exist in the Arab world.) Although the group meets more regularly in person now, secrecy is a definite part of the undertaking. Many of Aswat’s members are in the closet, at least in the public sphere or with families that might be unaccepting. For example, the staff page of Aswat’s colorful website features only first names of each staff member, and there’s a subset that participate in group meeting only by email.
One of Aswat’s goals is to challenge what it sees as the “colorlessness” of Jewish LGBTQI* groups — the lack of acknowledgement for how various ethnic and religious groups might choose to deal with queer issues in a patriarchal society. Although they have not yet collaborated with organizations like Open House, Jerusalem’s gay and lesbian center, the experience of rejection — sometimes violent — is sadly familiar to both groups. Perhaps this shared experience will some day help build a bridge. That day, though, seems far off: the group assiduously avoids the word “Israel,” and any future collaboration rests heavily on the political situation.