I am Palestinian, Gay & Kentuckian: ‘Prevent the eradication of my people’

Interview questions curated by Marwa Asad she/her

Queer experience by Nick Tawasha he/him

Edited by Spencer Jenkins he/him and Belle Townsend she/they

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I’ve always felt different as a queer Palestinian living in Kentucky. Kentucky leaves a lot to be desired in terms of representation aside from just being queer. Though I may fall under the definition of “caucasian”, I’ve never been able to relate to it. 

This stems from not only looking different; darker complected, framed by black hair and harshly defined features — which stands out growing up in a place called Cynthiana — but also being treated differently solely for existing outside of the norms adopted by most Caucasians in that area. 

For example, as a child, I was very privileged to have a mother who would cook homemade dishes daily, and more often than not, recipes that were passed down from our ancestors that featured foods common in Palestinian culture like lamb and grape leaves. It’s hard to forget memories that shape our values, and for me, it was only when I brought leftovers to school for lunch that I was met with clear disdain from classmates likening my sustenance to cat shit, which if you’ve ever seen warak dawali (aka “dolma”), you may not disagree. 

I would say that was basically the worst of it, in which case it really wasn’t that bad, but then 9/11 happened. 

As a Palestinian, surrounded by white presenting children, I was ostracized from my classmates once we learned that the cause of the terrorist attack was at the hands of people who looked like my family and me, to the point where I would be asked, “Was that your cousin flying the plane?” 

These things happen and you learn to deal with them and move on. Still, I do think it gave my brothers and me a more difficult time recognizing the power of diversity and the conundrum that we face when walking the fine line of societal assimilation and outward expression, especially when we lacked community as the only Middle Eastern family in the town. 

To be honest, I didn’t feel proud of being Palestinian. In fact, I resented it, so much so that I refused to learn Arabic, I requested foods representative of middle America (think hotdogs and hamburgers), I craved the processed taste of fast foods that my parents tried so hard to remove from our diets, I wanted to wear the trends of American Eagle and Hollister, not my brother’s hand-me-downs. I didn’t want my family to act, look, or speak differently in public because that drew attention and made me feel different, and at the time, I hated that feeling. Representation matters. 

Throughout life, I would hear murmurings about Israelis and some Jewish people and their relationship with Palestinians. At a young age, I could only feel the divide between me and my “white American passing” peers because I was too young to understand anything beyond that. As I matured, I began to understand the true divide between Israelis and Palestinians. 

In case you are so far removed from any sort of media, the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza has reached a head in response to an unprecedented response by Hamas. Rooted in a colonial act over a century ago, this conflict that has been ravaging the land recognized by the United States as Israel and the territories it occupies (the Gaza Strip and West Bank) has resulted in significant human suffering, claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions of Palestinians.

This conflict is nuanced with deep historical roots peppered with protest and revolution, including the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, the UN partition plan in 1947, and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) in 1948, leading to the establishment of Israel. 

The years following the Nakba saw the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Six-Day War in 1967, resulting in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other territories. The first Intifada (“uprising”) in 1987 marked a period of resistance, leading to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the formation of the Palestinian Authority. The second Intifada in 2000 brought further violence and economic damage, followed by Israel’s military assaults on Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021. These wars have left thousands dead, many displaced, and Gaza under a blockade.

I wanted to provide those historical landmarks to emphasize the fairly short time period of this conflict and the resilience of the Palestinian people, but if that was too much information, the very general, TL;DR version is this: 

Palestinian Arab natives occupied land referred to by the British Government as Palestine, a declaration was then made by Britain promising this native land to their Jewish population. Mass immigration to Palestine began primarily due to the effects of World War II and this resulted in a significant demographic shift in the state that had been comprised of approximately 90% Palestinian Arabs. From here, modern colonialism begets conflict, which has continued because the Palestinians refuse to forfeit their land. History often repeats itself, and this very conflict harkens back to other landmarks in our World’s history including the very threat the Jews were fleeing, a case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

There are a few types of Palestinians, those who live in Gaza, those in the West Bank, those who have visited, and those who have never visited. I stratify these categories because perspective is different for an individual in each of these. 

Life for a Palestinian in Gaza is different from one in the West Bank, and Palestinian visitors have firsthand experience of the racism seen when visiting the Israeli side (per the family I know that have visited). As someone who has never been, I’ve only heard about the dangers of being a Palestinian in Israel. Presenting as a caucasian helps you survive in Israel as a Palestinian. This is why I’m advised to shave my beard should I ever visit, and it’s why my auntie was pardoned by the Israeli military because she was able to communicate with them in fluent English, but it also helped that her husband from southern Kentucky was by her side wearing his veteran hat. 

Like I said, I’ve never been, but the stories I hear from my family who have shared firsthand accounts of their experiences deter me and other Palestinians, because the fact remains, Israel continues to perform random house raids, they continue to sporadically open and close their checkpoints to prevent Palestinian travel in between borders, they continue build illegal settlements on Palestinian-sanctioned land and build roads only available to Israelis, and they continue leaning into apartheid and segregating the natives  

My head volleys when I think of adding a queer identity to the mix. 

I am well aware that the traditions and conservatism displayed by some Palestinian Arabs are outwardly against any LGBTQ+ people, despite queer culture being very much alive in both Palestine and Israel. To me, I sometimes think that Israel is more accepting and I find myself asking, would I be safer visiting Palestine or Israel as a queer Palestinian-American?

If the answer is Palestine, would I have to ensure my outward expression was hetero-coded, and if in Israel, ensure my expression was overtly white-coded? Do I follow the advice of my family – diminishing my harsh features, shaving my black beard, shedding a queer identity that took years to accept? It’s an interesting predicament grappling with the idea that an entire population of people sharing your culture and values are fighting to remain, knowing that my journey may have ended a long time ago had my path led me to live in my homeland, and thinking that, would my sexual identity even be the reason for my demise? 

It took years (I’m 31) to come to terms with my identity, both Palestinian and queer, both constantly evolving. In fact, until this recent escalation of conflict, I didn’t even feel the need to outwardly present as Palestinian because I felt so far removed, so isolated from my roots that it was just easier to forget. 

Unlike my younger self, I wouldn’t describe the feelings I have towards my culture as resentful. Changing my thought processes and allowing space to feel comfort in my differences is something I strive for daily. Yes, it can feel uncomfortable being surrounded by others who don’t share your ideals, who can’t relate to your upbringing, who can’t grasp that their bubble is permeable, possessing the ability to absorb, adapt, and grow their understanding of others. I have learned to love my differences, to love my community, to love the upbringing I had and everything that it taught me, because the beauty lies in the differences. 

There is a reason that Arab people, Black people, Asian people, queer people, and other minorities feel awkward in groups where the majority of those that surround them all have more similarities than you. There is a reason why minority groups hold days and months celebrating their culture and respecting the history that led them to feel comfort outwardly expressing it. It’s because representation matters, and it takes courage to represent, especially for those who can’t conceal it. I am proud to be Palestinian. I am proud to be queer and part of a community bigger than myself. I am proud that these people can exist and show their pride, even in the face of death, even in the face of genocide, and if that isn’t resilient, I don’t know what is.  

Writing this was very liberating and I want to thank Queer Kentucky and Spencer Jenkins for taking the time and creating space to platform a queer, Palestinian-Kentuckian. There are many places to show support to help prevent the eradication of my people. Check them out here: https://afsc.org/news/6-ways-you-can-support-palestinians-gaza