Mohammad Hamad. | COURTESY OF MOHAMMAD HAMAD
I wanted to talk to Mohammad Hamad because, in the midst celebrating our Pride, it may be time to look at some of our prejudices. Mohammad, a 30-year-old Palestinian American, has been on the board of directors of Brooklyn Pride for the last three years. He founded Brooklyn Pride’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and teaches sociology at York College in Queens. He’s also part of an anti-“pinkwashing” campaign and works with the Boycott, Sanction, and Divest (BDS) movement.
It’s important to listen to people like Mohammad because most queer communities hear almost nothing about or from Palestinian queers. And because of the deadly progress the Trump administration is making to suppress criticism of the Israeli government’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. I began by asking Mohammad about his Pride organizing.
MOHAMMAD HAMAD: I think one of the biggest struggles is people of color feeling accepted in the gay community. To be honest with you, Pride’s a pretty white-dominated celebration. When you’re part of a committee, you want to make sure that every voice — Palestinian or non-Palestinian — is there. So I’m organizing while people are celebrating. I task myself with this.
SUSIE DAY: Why are you involved in something you feel is so mainstream?
MH: I actually started as a volunteer stage manager for the Brooklyn Parade. They liked my work and said, “How about joining the board?” Sometimes you just throw yourself into something, and that’s what happened here.
SD: Do you bring BDS into this organizing?
MH: Oh, god — into Pride? Listen, being Palestinian is problematic enough. My first two years organizing, I would avoid the word Palestinian. When I’d create my bio, I’d say, “LGBT rights” or “human rights in the Middle East.” I kept it vague. But people research me or find my social profile. They’ll see that I advocate for Palestinian human rights… The Brooklyn Pride board has faced some external pressure. There was a petition to remove me from the board. There was also a petition based on my Brooklyn Pride work to deport me from the country.
But what motivates me to stay with Brooklyn Pride, aside from being a change-maker, is that people wait for it. It only happens once a year, right? It’s exciting to be a part of that, aside from all the craziness and politics involved. But I cannot separate my identity as a Palestinian from my LGBTQ identity, my queerness.
SD: Jewish Voice for Peace — a part of Reclaim Pride — defines pinkwashing as a PR campaign, pitching Israel as the “Gay Mecca” for queers in the Middle East, to cover its apartheid regime. What draws you to confront this?
MH: People who pinkwash don’t want to see that there’s a queer Palestinian voice. That debunks the myth that all Palestinians are homophobic, misogynist, anti-trans, right? It’s necessary to teach people about pinkwashing because in American societies, LGBTQ people often prioritize their sexual identity. If you don’t accept me as a gay or lesbian or trans person, then you don’t accept me at all, and the conversation’s over. That’s an easy marketing target for pinkwashing.
SD: How does this relate to Palestine?
MH: We’re now a stateless people. Even Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship live in an apartheid regime. The level of segregation Palestinians live under in Israel is harder than American apartheid. There are surveys comparing how Israeli Jews feel about Arabs today, and how whites felt about blacks during American apartheid. The racist sentiments are higher now in Palestine than they were here.
So how does this relate to Palestine? Being active in the anti-pinkwashing campaign pressures the BDS movement to legitimize our queer identities. We’re at a point, particularly with the boycott movement, where we have to think about what Palestine will look like 10, 20 years from now. This work plays a role in state formation, of what we want our future to be.
SD: You say that you, as a Palestinian in this country, are part of a diaspora. What’s that like?
MH: Most of my family lives in Palestine, some in Ramallah, some in Bethlehem. Living here, even for those out of touch, there’s a sense of guilt. I think Puerto Ricans may feel the same way, seeing how their families in Puerto Rico are treated by the US government. There’s a sense of guilt about the luxuries here. Most of my friends, my family are very connected to what’s happening in Palestine. They feel an obligation to support them in some way.
Since the day my father came here, he supported his brother living there. It trickles into the family dynamic: “We have to make sacrifices because our folks in Palestine don’t have jobs; they don’t have money; we need to split what little we have.” I think that’s a common Palestinian story, sharing what you have with family abroad. My mother always calls her mother; I always ask about her mother. It’s a ripple effect, right? I have cousins on social media I keep in touch with.
SD: Do you get back to Palestine often?
MH: I don’t. The last time was 2013 in Bethlehem, when I visited for a couple of weeks. I don’t visit often because it’s a reckless process. You’re detained for at least eight to 10 hours. You wait and you literally see people clocking into work and clocking out. They separate each person and ask you questions about what family you have, what history. They ask for your social media. It’s a very harassing process.
If I were to go back, they might not let me in because of BDS. Also I’m listed on Canary Mission, a blacklist of anyone who’s critical of Israel — activists, academics, artists, with bios based on whatever’s online, so they may be true or not.
SD: Inside the United States, are you singled out from other Arabs as Palestinian?
MH: Anti-Arab racism in the US is a big problem. We don’t live as whites do; we don’t have the same privileges. I grew up in a pretty racist neighborhood in Cleveland, and I think what adds to the racism is the hatred of Islam. My mom wears a scarf, so that’s automatically a stigma, compared to a non-veiling family who looks like maybe they’re Italian, you know? So I don’t think there’s a big difference between how Palestinians experience things and the way other Arabs do.
It’s important to know that we’re all Arab, but Palestinians are different kinds of Arabs. I say that because Palestinians are facing a monster no other country in the Arab world is facing. We’re facing repression from inside, from the Palestinian Authority, which is linked to Israel, and repression from a brutal exterior.
SD: What’s it like, living among other Arab nationalities here?
MH: It’s good to have a community of people who understand you, right? Just going to a mosque and talking to someone, it’s almost inevitable they’ll understand your struggle. Or if I go to a halal truck to get some food, the guy will ask me, “Enta Arabi?” — “Are you Arab?” I’ll say, “Yeah. Enta Arabi.” Usually the next question is “Where?” Then he’ll say, “Oh, Palestinian…”
So there’s a sense of community, but when we talk about hegemonic governmental power structures and capitalism, it’s different. The Dubai businessman doesn’t give two shits about Palestinians. The Saudi Arabian government said, “Instead of Jerusalem, how about you choose Abu Dis as your capital?” This is from the quote-unquote “Cradle of Islam,” right?
I went to the Arab Festival in New York, and people were screaming out their national identities” “EGYPT!” or “TUNISIA!” And the organizer went onstage and yelled, “We’re all ONE!” It was just fascinating to see how nationalism plays out, even where you’re all American.
If your parents are Kuwaiti or Lebanese, it’s okay to celebrate that; those are your roots. But it’s also scary. People behave this way, I think, because they feel marginalized in American society. Same for other groups. I think some Jews feel marginalized and want to connect to something and find Israel.
SD: Was there awareness at the Arab Festival about what’s happening in the Middle East?
MH: I think people use celebration as a way to escape. To escape their reality, to escape restless trauma. There is trauma involved in watching your Palestinian people being killed in open fire, you know? Others feel the same, seeing what’s happening in Libya or in Yemen. You internalize what’s happening, because this is who you are, right?
For others, celebration is a form of resistance. Even in Queens Pride, I’ve heard Guyanese people say, “Existence is Resistance — which is something Palestinians have always said. I thought to myself, “What the hell?” I’m not saying that Palestinians own the phrase, but it’s fascinating that Guyanese queers are saying that. And in the Caribbean Equality Project, they chant “Existence is Resistance.”
SD: What are you feeling now about Palestine?
MH: I’m outraged when others are not. I’m outraged that American liberals, fighting against school shootings, gun violence, and the US gun culture, are not also advocating for Palestinian rights. When you see a 21-year-old medic [Razan al-Najjar] shot in the back with live ammunition, and you don’t think this is gun violence — I’m outraged. Liberals say, “They shouldn’t be at the border. It’s too dangerous.” Well, schools are also dangerous. Do we tell students, “Don’t go to school?”
Palestinians are not performing resistance to show you they’re angry. They are resisting. That’s another disconnect between Palestinians in the diaspora and those living under occupation: We can’t tell them what to do. We can’t tell people living under state violence, “Don’t do that; these are the limits.”
SD: What, then, can you in the diaspora do?
MH: Israel’s passing laws on what can and cannot be videotaped, recorded, and photographed, so Palestinians in the US serve as messengers. We relay content. I sometimes feel it was an accident — a beautiful accident — that we found ourselves in the US, despite the struggle and the language barrier. Palestinians outside the diaspora [that is live in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza] cannot communicate as well as those who grow up here and know English better than Arabic. We’re able to translate emotions and stories and shape — or reshape — the narrative.
SD: Is your family is safe in Palestine?
MH: No. But they have normalized their home conditions, because that’s what human beings do. They adapt. When I talk to my family and I hear stories about how they have to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to work at 8 a.m., I’m always pushing back. I say, “This is not normal.” They say, “Well, what do you want me to do?”
That’s a good point. What I think is important is to challenge the meaning of violence. Violence is not just shooting. The fact that my family must go through a checkpoint and then travel to another checkpoint and show this ID and then travel over here — this process drains you. Violence is not always life and death; it can be racist structures that you have to navigate. They are just as intolerable.
But on the other side of outrage is hope. I really do feel a sense of hope. Change takes time. And I know that, while oppression and violence prevail today, they cannot continue.
SD: If you had the attention of every person at Gay Pride, what one thing would you want to get across?
MH: That’s a good one… Listen to Palestinian voices. Listen to marginalized people, both here and abroad. The struggle for justice should have no boundaries. When we realize that our queer struggles in our daily lives are connected to other people’s struggles around the world, we’ll see how these structures of oppression and domination are similar. It’s very macro.
Susie Day is the author of “Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power,” published by Abingdon Square Publishing.