Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

My Queer Agenda: Puerto Rico, Palestine and Indigenous Sovereignty

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | May 18, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: movement, racial justice

Self-determination over one's body and land are core to my personal baldwin-quote.jpegand political principles. I'm going to go even further and say that I think that self-determination over one's body and land should be a central tenet of the queer movement.

Now let me explain.

The bodies of queers, Jews, Muslims, women, immigrants, people with disabilities and people of color - essentially all communities living on the margins of society - are constantly under attack by right wing forces. What's under attack? Our bodies! It's been made pretty clear by the right that our brown, black, disabled, immigrant and gendered bodies are not "acceptable" because they are not made from a white, able bodied, hetero, Judeo-Christian mold. Damn, I wish I could track down the person(s) that made "the mold" and give them a piece of my mind!

The queer movement has a long history of understanding that the attacks on our communities are grounded in our struggle for sexual liberation and free expression of our bodies, love, genders and desires. Yet what the queer movement has failed to do is to further this understanding by connecting our struggle to the struggles some communities face around the colonizing of both their bodies and land.

Yeah, I said it: colonizing!

So much of what fuels my commitment to challenge the colonization of bodies and land is rooted in my own Middle Eastern background. For the past 15 years I have been deeply committed to ending the occupation of Palestine. As strongly as I oppose anti-Semitism, I also oppose the occupation of land that was the home of the Palestinian people long before the state of Israel was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947.

Since that time, the Palestinian people have been subjected to economic, political, social and cultural repression and denied their rightful access to their homeland by the state of Israel. Colonizing land and bodies happens when powerful forces (such as governments) use money, legal, political and spiritual institutions and war to take away the rights of whole communities and countries to govern their people and land on their own terms.

Without question another clear example of this is the struggle for self-determination by First Nations and Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. For 500 years the United States government has occupied land that belongs (not belonged) to Indigenous communities and tribes. Long before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations peoples had their own ways of self-governance, sharing of resources, resolving conflicts, engaging in spiritual practice and forging relationships to land. European settlers, bolstered by the formation of the United States government, colonized this land by imposing our own laws, religious doctrines and capitalist plans for regulating every aspect land across the Americas.

All the while the plan was to actively destroy and disrespect what was here first so that profit could be made through trade, the buying and selling of land, slavery and agricultural production. The First Nations Collective so clearly articulated the impact colonizing bodies and land has on whole communities in a recent Blierico post on the racist immigration law passed in Arizona:

As queer Indigenous people and allies, we bring forth memory of a time before capitalism, before colonization. We remember a time when our communities were whole, self-sustaining, and thriving. Our survival was rooted in our belief in community and communal values. Our respect for land meant we did not try to control it or exploit it for profit. We did not divide it or pillage it. If you can divorce yourself from the land and the Earth, you can divorce yourself from each other. Once we stop believing in community and communal values, we are all at jeopardy and our ability to survive is compromised.

I couldn't agree more with the First Nations Collective that "when you divorce yourself from the land and the Earth you can divorce yourself from each other." Divorcing ourselves from one another and from our collective responsibility to community is what leads to the building of walls, the policing of boarders, the waging of war, the justification of occupation and the violence that fuels cycles of hate, ignorance and misunderstanding across communities.

Yes, my friends, when we divorce ourselves from one another bad things happen like Arizona passing a racist immigration law and then banning ethnic studies, the state of Israel erecting a wall between Israel and Palestine and restricting the ability of Palestinian people to freely move for decades and the implementation of social, legal and cultural Apartheid in South Africa from 1948-1994. Nothing good comes from colonizing bodies and land - nothing!

Let's take another example. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since 1898 which means it has a long history of having its land, people and economy controlled by the US government. One example of how Puerto Rican bodies have been colonized by the US government occurred in the 1930's when the Eugenics Board instituted a "population control" program throughout the island. The end result was that by 1968, 35% of Puerto Rican women had been coerced into sterilization. According to the "Our Bodies, Ourselves" website:

The passage of Law 116 in 1937 signified the institutionalization of the population control program. This program, designed by the Eugenics Board, was intended to "catalyze economic growth," and respond to "depression-era unemployment." Both U.S. government funds and contributions from private individuals supported the initiative. Instead of providing women with access to alternative forms of safe, legal and reversible contraception, U.S. policy promoted the use of permanent sterilization. Institutionalized encouragement of sterilization through the use of "door-to-door" visits by health workers, financial subsidy of the operation, and industrial employer favoritism toward sterilized women pushed women towards having "la operacion." These coercive strategies denied women access to informed consent. More than one-third of the women in the 1968 study didn't know that sterilization through tubal ligation was a permanent form of contraception. The euphemism "tying the tubes" made women think the procedure was easily reversible.

The colonizing of Puerto Rico extends to its land as well. During World War II the US Government seized a small island in Puerto Rico called Viequez. Up until 2003 the US Navy used the island to conduct weapons testing and maintain a military base called Roosevelt Roads. The local people, along with an international community of activists, organized decades of protests to end the occupation of the island and stop its environmental degradation. It took generations of Puerto Rican people to end the occupation of their land. Today, Viequez is a National Wildlife Refuge under the control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

So why do I think that all of these issues are queer issues? Well, for one, there are queer Palestinians, First Nations and Puerto Rican people all around us. Many of the issues I have written about impact their communities and families. The LGBT community has to stop thinking that certain issues don't impact the community because all issues impact the LGBT community. It's only out of political expedience that we push issues that do not fit a narrowly defined LGBT frame to the margin of our movement. How does this make sense when queer people are everywhere, in every community and experience every type of social, political and cultural issue taking place across the globe?

Secondly, as queer people struggling for self-determination over our bodies and our right to define relationships, community and family we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with communities struggling for self determination in other ways. Self-determination over one's land is often critical to a community's survival and ability to sustain a communal way of life. This is just as important as being able to have self determination over how you make family, who you love and whether or not you are able to legally marry.

As an LGBT community we must broaden and connect our struggles in ways that require us to stretch beyond our own individual or community specific experiences. As a diverse, growing and global LGBT community let's get our learning on and figure out how we are going to support self determination in all of its complex and multi-layered forms. Why? Because our collective survival depends upon it.

This post is dedicated to Lisbeth Melendez Rivera and Coya White Hat-Artichoker whose fierceness knows no bounds.

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I don't think issues need to be a queer issue to get our support and attention, it being a human rights issue is more than enough.

Yeah, well that might make sense if all those people stood with us in our struggle. But they obviously don't. Try to be gay in Gaza, or Puerto Rico. If you want to help the queers in those communities then find a way to help the queers, not the communities.

There are also gay gun owners. Should we support the NRA because there are gun-toting queers?

You argument is silly. Queer politics has been stuffed into marginal group politics by liberals. It's as much a mold as the white, male, able-bodied, etc. mold you think that has been externally created. And in fitting this mold you have adopted a non-sensical notion that being marginalized in some way means we have all been marginalized in the same way.

The true path to queer empowerment is a place where we are the majority and govern ourselves with our own laws. When there is such a place, queer Palestinians and Puerto Ricans and the less-abled among us can gather and be free. Then the politics of other nations and communities will be entirely irrelevant.

I don't understand why we'd want the imprimatur of the queer movement on this issue. Does it mean that it'll get more money or more people working on it? Doubtful. Will politicians take it more seriously? I doubt that as well - they're already busy ignoring everything else that's been labeled a queer issue. Will LGBTQ people be more likely to support one side? I doubt that one too - we're a pretty free-thinking bunch.

Although it might prevent stuff like this from happening, or at least complicate it:


I found myself thinking about imprisonment as I read your piece. Imprisonment, enslavement and forced migration seem to me to be major expressions of colonization as you describe it. I think you helped me to break through the static idea of colonization (I come and control your land, but you still are on the land) which is actually pretty unrealistic. Colonized people don't just get new masters on the same land, certainly not in modern imperialism. They become objects of exploitation at every level, with no assurance of connection to the land. The colonizer seeks to re-define them to fit his agenda, whether as slave or overseer, savage or moneylender, nameless convict or exotic entertainer.

Thinking this through, I can better understand your connection to the queer experience. Self-determination of identity requires a space -- land -- over which you have control. A room of one's own, one might say, is a minimum. Or a Castro or Northampton or Provincetown of one's own.

I guess the bottom line of what I get from your thoughts here is that self-determination and power are quite different from having one's identity tolerated in some system of cultural diversity. And self-determination and power do not exist apart from the material world, from the earth.

Am I in tune with you here? Anyway, thanks for the nudge.


This piece is one of the most thoughtful, most well-written, most timely, and most well copy-edited articles I have ever seen on Bilerico.
(Especially lately, folks. Take some pride in your work. Hire or find a volunteer editor or at least use grammar check.) It is wonderful to see a woman blogger of non-U.S. background reflecting on issues other than those affecting middle-class people on Bilerico. I'd love to see more diversity on this blog, especially more content like this, more contribtors of color, and a bisexual contributor!

I think Lisa clearly and succintly sums up her position in the last three paraphraphs of her article as to why justice and human rights are and must be queer issues. She speaks my mind, resoundingly, and speaks to my beliefs and values eloquently. Perhaps funding will not flow to Puerto Rican NGOs if queers support anticolonial justice in Puerto Rico. Perhaps political capital and popularity will not abound if queer people stand up for true peace with justice in Palestine and Israel. As I see it, Lisa is not advocating these stances out of pragmatism or effectiveness, but because it is the ethical, principled thing to do for queer people who have been marginalized, dehumanized, and bashed and who are now making headway toward being recognized as fully human and dignified. As part of a group who has known the suffering of dehumanization, I need to then turn around and lift up those, anywhere in the world, who are treated in the way I do not want to be treated. It is not enough for us queers to demand dignified, just, and fully humane treatment. If we narrow our focus strictly to our own rights, our own narrow interests, we enter too easily into the experience of the oppressor, risk forgetting what it is like to be oppressed, and then we might become what we hated. To be fully human ourselves, we must remember where we came from and ensure that people everywhere are treated in the way for which we always hungered. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." When we fight for justice in Palestine, in Puerto Rico, among indigenous peoples, we are fighting for justice for ourselves.

It is wonderful to see a woman blogger of non-U.S. background reflecting on issues other than those affecting middle-class people on Bilerico. I'd love to see more diversity on this blog, especially more content like this, more contribtors of color, and a bisexual contributor!

Not to be petty, but have you seen our contributor list? Lisa is hardly the only woman blogger of non-U.S. background on TBP, and I'm extremely proud of the diversity of our contributors. I'd challenge you to find a more diverse LGBT site out there - especially with our caliber of contributors.

Are you planning on paying this hypothetical copy-editor's salary? You do realize that copy-editing is real work that, for a site this size, would require someone in a full-time position?

Please try to focus on the ideas.

Marc Paige | May 19, 2010 10:22 AM

Just out of curiosity, Lisa, do you think Israel has a right to exist within the pre-1967 borders?

Your contributor list, compared to many sites, is more varied. I honor you for that. There are several African American contributors, there are many transgendered contributors, and more. This is wonderful. I stick to what I said: that I would love to see even more diversity. Your blog is much more thoughtful and reaches further than other sites to encompass the whole queer community. As a bisexual woman, bisexual contributors on a regular basis would be particular welcome, as I feel extremely invisible in the gay media almost all of the time. And having more posts such as Lisa's, posts that address issues beyond those that concern middle class Americans (issues that organizations such as Queers for Economic Justice fight for, for example) would be particularly welcome.

My remarks about copy editing were flippant and derogatory in tone. I apologize for that. Let me try to explain in a more serious way why I said what I did. I expect some typos and mistakes on blogs and have never mentioned them. The level and number of editing gaffes I have seen in articles lately has detracted and distracted from the caliber of the work and they do matter. Bilerico, rightly, sees itself and presents itself as a site that both entertains and provokes thought and inspiration. I enjoy your site and I read it often. That is why I have noticed the rising number of editing glitches. They mar your image and my experience of this intelligent, alternative source of analysis and ideas. I do realize that copy editing is work because I have done it for a living. Other solutions could be to find volunteers or just ask writers and editors to be more careful.

jaime grant | May 22, 2010 4:24 PM

Audre Lorde noted at the US invasion of Grenada that the same mentality that invades a women's body against her will, invades a sovereign nation for the purpose of gaining power, wealth, etc.

And that same mentality left a generation of men to die needlessly of AIDS, denigrates our partnershps and our families -- finds our lives expendable.

If the AIDS crisis didn't make these connections crystal clear for queers, I don't know what will.


Nephtaly Velez Crespo | June 17, 2010 6:05 PM

As a Boricua and an Israeli, born in Lares, (la cuidad de grito para la independencia) and living in Israel, I can't help but protest the parallels being drawn between the struggle of Puerto Rican Independence to the national aspirations of the Palestinians, let alone any arguement that relates to sexual liberation based on ethnic grievances of colonization or occupation.

Neither Puerto Rico's independence nor Palestine's independence are global LGBT community issues. Independence for the respective parties are national grievances of the ethnically inclined, not of the universally and sexually gay orientated.