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Chattering Classes: From Don’t Say Gay To Don’t Say Palestine

Updated: Feb 22

The harder one tries to silence people motivated by love or saving lives, the louder they will become.

Image via UnSplash of a Palestinian flag at a march in Washington, D.C.

The recent firing of a Providence city councilor because he advocated for a cease-fire in Gaza by Rhode Island’s governor highlights the repercussions pro-Palistinian activists face today. From firings, smear campaigns, banning student groups, blacklists, to even calls for the prosecution of individuals, there are many disturbing parallels between the attempts to silence Muslims, Palestinians, and human rights activists and what has happened to the LGBTQ community for decades. While one can ban saying Gay and fire anyone who believes in freeing the Palestinian people it won't stop anything – suppression doesn’t work.

The first time this writer sat down with Miguel Sanchez, he was preparing to run for city council and reached out for some advice. Sitting at a tea shop on Broadway, I gave the advice I often do to candidates. It starts with a question -- why on earth would you wish to go through such a horrible endeavor! If a candidate makes it past that, my advice is to go knock on every door they can. Sanchez wasn’t phased by my dramatic poking – a sign of a strong or delusional candidate – instead he was interested in identifying ways to help the people of Providence and wanted to know what hard work was needed to make it happen.

Since then Sanchez not only won, but he’s governed in a collaborative way. He shapes policy decisions by having discussions with community members in forums and talking to constituents on social media. It is a refreshing take compared to the “I have all the answers” technocrats and the “we can talk ... for a price” machine bosses.

It did not surprise this writer to hear that Sanchez would be the Providence counselor to introduce a resolution that condemned “terrorism and ethnic cleansing” after the recent attack by Hamas that led to the deaths of an estimated 1,400 people in Israel. Or that he was also one of the Providence counselors standing up for civilians in Gaza as reports have flooded social media and news outlets that indicate Israel isn’t targeting Hamas leadership so much as leveling the northern half of the Gaza strip. The death toll there is estimated to have exceeded 11,000 people – which The Washington Post notes is “one out of every 200 people.”

Sadly, it also didn’t surprise me to learn that the consequences of his statements were to be terminated by his employer, Rhode Island’s Democratic governor, Daniel McKee. What happened to Sanchez for showing a consistent stance of valuing human life was a classic reminder that to say a Palestinian is a human being is to risk one’s career – especially in Democratic party politics.

The party frequently forgives people who have advocated anti-LGBTQ or racist positions: Joe Biden won the party’s nomination for president of the United States even after facing controversy for his work with segregationists on busing in the 1970s. New York City Democratic Mayor Eric Adams appointed three men into positions who have a history of advocating anti-LGBTQ views. Yet, one is not so easily forgiven if they advocate against the bombing of civilians in Gaza, where half the population is children.

This isn’t isolated to work in Democratic politics or the non-profit advocacy space but across the political and professional spectrum. In fact, Sanchez is one of scores of reported firings and reprisals in the last few weeks – even as polling shows popular support for a cease-fire and protests have started to rival those of the Iraq war.

In the media world, former Boston Globe editorial board member Abdallah Fayyad told American University professor Rami G Khouri there is a “culture of fear in many newsrooms” on this topic. David Velasco the editor-in-chief of Artforum was fired after the magazine printed an open letter for Palestinian human rights. A Philadelphia sports reporter was fired for tweeting he didn’t agree with a post from the outlet in support of Israel and expressed his solidarity with Palestinians. Even a Jewish editor of a science journal with family in Israel was fired for sharing a satirical headline from The Onion “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas.”

It doesn’t stop with journalists and political staffers. Law students at a number of schools have seen job offers rescinded for speaking out. While CEOs of major companies have been demanding the names of Palestinian student activists to create blacklists. While Starbucks wants to punish workers for expressing pro-Palesistinian views and sued its employees’ union for its stance on Palestinian rights.

At the same time, there is an active campaign on college campuses to shut down Palestinian student groups. It started, as a lot of recent suppression these days, with Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, demanding state colleges ban Palestinian groups. Then on Oct. 26, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to almost 200 colleges nationwide that demanded these schools “investigate” Palestinian groups on campuses for “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” Aiding a foreign terrorist organization carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. On Nov. 10, Columbia University suspended its Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters.

GOP presidential candidates have even called for the deportation of pro-Palestinian foreign students. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wants to go further and expand deportations to “any foreign national.”

As if that wasn’t enough, there is even a website, Canary Mission, that lists the names and photos of individuals, primarily college students, along with organizations, it accuses of “hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews.” The organization lists Al Jazeera, CodePink, The Council on American Islamic Relations, and Jewish Voice for Peace alongside Hamas,, and The Daily Stormer.

The treatment of pro-Palestinian activists – and what happened to Sanchez in particular – has sparked a national conversation on political rights in the workplace and on campuses. The Intercept reported that the treatment of pro-Palestinian student activists was "weaponizing civil rights law to quell dissent." Benjamin Douglas wrote in Jacobin how this was yet another problem with at-will employment laws. Genevieve Lakier, a law professor focused on freedom of speech issues at the University of Chicago told Politico this was “the new McCarthyism.”

These firings, smear campaigns, calls to ban student groups, blacklists, and threats of deportations and prosecutions of individuals sound too familiar to this writer – it's the same toolkit of suppression used against LGBTQ people for decades.

While Palestinian activists are often urged to wear masks at protests to protect their identities to avoid reprisals, many of the first Pride marches across the country had contingencies of individuals who wore bags over their heads for fear of losing their jobs or being disowned by family. Student LGBTQ groups have faced pressure to be banned from the beginning. In fact, before the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that one cannot criminalize homosexual behavior, a common reason given to ban LGBTQ student groups across the United States was that they promoted illegal activity.

This hasn’t stopped. In the last year alone, we have seen a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation designed to silence Queer and Trans people, from Don’t Say Gay bills, drag bans, to criminalizing Trans medical care.

From calls for peace to wanting the freedom to love, we see opponents use fear and force in an attempt to stamp us out. Yet, as the history of the LGBTQ movement shows us suppression doesn’t work.

The treatment of LGBTQ people in the United States has been horrendous, yet it didn’t stop us. So too will the tactics used against Palestinians and their supporters fail. If anything, it will just inflame the situation and lead to bigger protests and mass actions. While movements built on hate can burn brightly, they cannot sustain themselves under pressure. The few hate groups that have been around for decades, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, are not kept going by a grassroots movement, but by a handful of wealthy donors. The Queer and Trans movements were not built by a couple of billionaires that hated straight people, it came about from scores of people wanting to have the right to love. So too, pro-Palestinian activists are motivated to save lives not end them -- they are a grassroots movement that isn't going anywhere.

After all, if one believes that they are standing up to stop people in power from ignoring or supporting a humanitarian crisis, what better way to confirm such fears than people in power punishing those who speak out in support of a cease-fire? It certainly didn’t silence Sanchez – he just spoke at a pro-Palestine rally on Nov. 12. After Artforum fired Velasco, staffers resigned in protest. New York University Law School student and student bar association president, Ryna Workman -- one of the many law students who lost a job offer for speaking out -- told ABC News "I will continue to speak up for Palestinian human rights and use whatever platform I have available to me." Michael Eisen, the science editor who was fired for reposting a piece from The Onion, told Mother Jones he has no regrets.

Not only has it not worked, its led to an escalation of far more confrontational tactics: Pro-Palestinian activists have blocked ships that were allegedly carrying weapons to Israel. Activists have clashed with police outside the Democratic Party’s national headquarters – forcing officers to evacuate the building. They chased out Senator Cori Booker from his own town hall meeting and the California Democratic Convention was shut down by pro-Palestinian activists. Even in Providence, students at Brown University staged an action that resulted in 20 people being arrested.

It is clear that tactics to silence Queer and Trans people haven’t stopped us, so too will attempts to repress the movement to end violence against Palestinians in Gaza prove fruitless. Just as Queer people came out and forced the world to see them created change, the more people that come out of the pro-Palestinian closest, the harder it will be to ignore them or the lives they are fighting for.


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