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Why These Queer Pro-Palestinian Advocates Are Calling for a Boycott of SF Pride

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Mama Ganuush holds a megaphone they use during protests poses in their home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Amid the ongoing siege in Gaza, several pro-Palestinian queer activists and artists are calling for a boycott of official San Francisco Pride events by both performers and attendees. The SF Pride Parade, scheduled for Sunday, June 30, is one of the largest LGBTQ+ parades in the country.

In a now-removed May 23 Instagram post, African Palestinian drag artist Mama Ganuush called for the boycott on several grounds: corporate sponsors with ties to Israel, the potential for a pro-Israel presence at the parade, the long-controversial attendance of police at the Pride Parade, and the appointment of actor Billy Porter — who has made several public statements in support of Israel — as the 2024 Pride Parade’s grand marshal. Ganuush told KQED that this video was removed by Instagram in the week of June 17, and said that the platform cited reports by other users as the reason for the removal.

SF Pride ‍Executive Director Suzanne Ford and President Nguyen Pham responded publicly to the calls for a boycott in a June 4 statement, rebuffing what they called “comments and misinformation about our current policies and practices.” San Francisco’s annual Pride celebration, they wrote, “has evolved for more than a half-century, transforming from a protest honoring a riot to a vibrant celebration of the worth and humanity of all queer individuals.”

However, several drag artists and local groups such as Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT) and the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) have publicly stated their intent to boycott. BAAITS, in its social post, characterized its actions as “standing in solidarity with indigenous struggles impacting our kin worldwide.” One performer, The Dragon King, wrote on Instagram that they were withdrawing from SF Pride appearances “because Pride is a riot. Because I will not be bought.”


After months of protest, a call to boycott

The proposed SF Pride boycott is the latest of many pro-Palestinian actions, protests and rallies around the Bay Area over the last eight months. Israeli forces have killed over 37,000 Palestinians after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which militants killed some 1,200 people and took 240 hostages, according to Gazan and Israeli authorities respectively. Israel’s attacks have now displaced about 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, resulting in little to no medical care and severe malnutrition for tens of thousands of Gazans.

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Recently, queer communities in the Bay Area and across the country have ramped up their mobilization for Palestinians. Some of these activists argue that the LGBTQ+ struggle is often co-opted by those with anti-Arab sentiment to justify the oppression of Palestinians and ignore queer Palestinians. The proposed SF Pride boycott mirrors several protest actions in the local art scene, in which Jewish artists have played a leading role.

Mama Ganuush, the boycott’s originator, has lost family members in Gaza and is currently raising funds to help their surviving relatives leave for Egypt and the United States.

“Pride is something that the LGBTQ+ community earned,” Ganuush told KQED, noting the importance of having a month of recognition. But, they added, “Zionist and pro-Israel lobbyists and sponsors … are using SF Pride as a way to normalize genocides.”

Taking a closer look at corporate sponsors

In Ganuush’s initial social media post, the call for a boycott led with criticism of some of SF Pride’s corporate sponsors, like Amazon and Gilead, and what Ganuush called their “significant business operations in Israel.”

In 2021, Amazon signed a billion-dollar contract alongside Google Cloud to provide technology (including artificial intelligence) to the Israeli government and military. Current and former employees at both companies staged protests this year against Silicon Valley’s deep ties to Israel.

For years, queer communities have grappled with the increased corporatization of Pride as companies sponsor events and employees march in the parade. Boycotting companies with ties to Israel has long been a tactic among pro-Palestinian activists, with many citing U.S. schools and universities’ divestment from companies with ties to South Africa during apartheid as an inspiration.

SF Pride did not respond to KQED’s request for an interview or comment. However, the nonprofit’s June 4 statement asserts that “‍SF Pride’s sponsors, corporate and otherwise, have no influence over the content of our programming or the stance of the organization … Receiving corporate funding and paying it forward to our community reflects our mission to center queer people and is not tied to any programming decisions.”

Palestinian artist Yaffa A.S., Ganuush’s drag daughter and executive director of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual And Gender Diversity (MASGD), said this statement rings hollow for her. Since October, members of Yaffa A.S.’s extended family members in Gaza have been killed by Israeli forces. (She has curated a memorial at SOMArts to Palestinians killed in Gaza, some of whom are queer and trans.) As part of her work with MASGD, she has created a Pride Toolkit to challenge official parade organizers across the country on their stances on the war.

For Yaffa A.S., Pride’s funding cannot be separated from its sources. “Our lives do not matter when you are receiving money from the same people who will kill me,” she said.

Palestinian poet Yaffa A.S. was one of the lead curators of the memorial ‘In Solidarity: Queer and Trans Artists for a Free Palestine,’ which opened on June 7 at SOMArts in San Francisco. The memorial includes the names of Gazans killed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, some of whom are trans Palestinians. (Courtesy Yaffa A.S.)

The parade in the spotlight

Pose actor Billy Porter, grand marshal of the SF Pride parade, has made several public statements supporting Israel.

Porter was among the celebrities who signed a support letter for Israel shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks; he also opposed a cultural boycott of a Tel Aviv film festival in 2021. (Porter is slated to portray iconic American writer James Baldwin in an upcoming movie, who was himself deeply critical of Israel and invested in Palestinian rights.)

Another point of contention for pro-Palestinian activists like Ganuush is the presence of what they term an “Israeli float” — specifically referring to the participation of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in the SF Pride parade. “The participation of the Israeli float in Pride is distressing for many, especially Palestinians,” Ganuush wrote on Instagram. “It is seen as a symbol of oppression and a trigger for psychological trauma among those affected by the ongoing conflict.”

In their June 4 statement, SF Pride’s Executive Director Ford and President Pham replied, “‍There is no Israeli float in the SF Pride Parade.” The organization, they wrote, “values the contributions of Jewish queer individuals in advocating for peace and acknowledge their enduring efforts” and was “careful not to conflate Jewish groups and Jewish people living in America with the state of Israel.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, JCRC Bay Area said it was “disheartened” by the SF Pride statement, calling on the organization to “clarify that everyone, including LGBTQ+ Israelis, are welcome at Pride.” JCRC Bay Area later responded with approval to SF Pride’s subsequent online update titled “All are Welcome at Pride.”

JCRC Bay Area CEO Tyler Gregory told KQED that the float is a joint effort by several Jewish organizations in the Bay Area and that it will be “a family-friendly Jewish communal float for queer Jews and allies.”

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“People are welcome to come as their full selves, but the focus is LGBTQ Jews here in the Bay Area,” Gregory said. “And if that includes Israelis, absolutely, they should come — but this is by no means an Israeli float and anyone that tries to attack our delegation is engaging in antisemitism.”

Yaffa A.S. said she found the SF Pride statement to be “incredibly malicious,” arguing that JCRC has been openly pro-Israel in previous public statements. She pointed to actions and statements that Jewish Voice for Peace — a pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist Jewish advocacy group — has issued against JCRC in the last eight months, which include criticizing JCRC Bay Area for “running a cancellation campaign” against pro-Palestinian advocates. SF Pride’s statement, she said, “basically try to put out there that ‘the trans Palestinian [referring to Mama Ganuush] does not know what they’re talking about.’”

In their June 4 statement, Ford and Pham said that SF Pride “welcomed and continue[s] to welcome pro-Palestinian groups to the SF Pride Parade,” suggesting that interested groups could join the parade’s Resistance Contingent with the SF Pride Board or request a fee waiver to have their own float. SF Pride did not respond to KQED’s questions about whether such contingents had indeed requested to appear in the parade.

“I don’t know if some, we’ll say, ‘well-intentioned allies’ will try to do a Palestine float on their own,” Yaffa A.S. said. “But I think, from our end, we’ve told people not to.”

Policing at Pride

The issue of police being present at Pride — including as participants in official events — has been a decadeslong point of contention, especially for queer people of color who police officers have targeted. Ganuush’s boycott proposal invoked the origins of Pride in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which started when patrons pushed back against a police raid at a gay bar. A police presence at Pride is an active contradiction, Ganuush wrote, to the “foundational anti-police-brutality ethos of Pride.”

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According to a 2021 study by UCLA, queer people are six times more likely than the general public to be stopped by the police, with “heightened risk” for transgender women of color. At a 2020 SF Pride march, police officers raised their batons at a group of SF Pride marchers and Black Lives Matter protesters. In 2022, marching queer police officers were asked by SF Pride organizers not to wear their uniforms. Recently, police officers have also been criticized for their intense crackdowns on pro-Palestinian student protesters on college campuses.

For its part, ‍SF Pride said it has never called for an increased police presence. “The City of San Francisco required increased police presence in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 and again after the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting in 2019,” the June 4 statement reads. “SF Pride and San Francisco’s other large events do not dictate law enforcement responses and security strategies.”

JCRC CEO Gregory said his organization was worried about their float being targeted and was working with SF Pride to discuss security. Gregory pointed to Philly Pride, where pro-Palestinian protesters blocked the parade — an action which he called “homophobic and transphobic” on X. (As reported by queer online news site Them, these pro-Palestinian protesters were themselves part of the LGBTQ+ community.)

Gregory said that JCRC “wants to be deferential to SF Pride, and also to queer communities of color as to how security can work.” He added that “we have Jews of color that are going to march with us that have the same concerns as queer people of color.”

‘Do I turn down this gig?’

Even before this year’s calls for a pro-Palestinian boycott of SF Pride, some artists planned to avoid official SF Pride events — and turn down paid performance opportunities — due to the organization’s stance on the war.

“It’s a really hard ethical thing for drag performers and queer entertainers. … Do I pay my rent this month, or do I turn down this gig?” said Mama Celeste, the executive director of Oaklash, a drag festival based in Oakland.

King LOTUS BOY, an Oakland drag king who serves on the Oaklash board, wrote in an Instagram story that he has dropped several gigs “due to them having ties to [Israel].” As a result, he said he lost $1,000 in gigs for June — events that he told KQED by email were associated with biotech company Gilead, which has financial ties to Israel.

“I haven’t attended the SF Pride Parade or any official SF Pride events in over seven years for many reasons — increasingly militarized police presence, pinkwashing, harmful corporate sponsorships — to name a few,” he said.

Oaklash is one of the facilitators of the BAD (Bay Area Drag) Fund, a mutual aid fund created to support artists who choose to opt out of gigs that may clash with their support of Palestinians.

Celeste, who is Jewish, said the BAD Fund “gives people the ability to say no … because that’s not a luxury that many of us are afforded.” The fund, Celeste points out, is a way to lessen artists’ dependency on the wealthy, especially amid the economic disparity that has pushed many queer and trans artists out of the Bay Area.

But Celeste said they and their colleagues were not out to shame performers who do take these gigs. Instead, they wanted people to think about “ where our money comes from and where our money is going to.”

Mama Ganuush poses for a portrait in their home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mama Ganuush is hosting events, including a Cabaret Palestina to assist the BAD Fund, featuring drag artists like King LOTUS BOY and Papi Churro — joining a list of alternative Pride events this month that show solidarity with Palestinian activism. For example, during the SF Pride Parade, there will be a pro-Palestinian queer and trans march hosted by Jewish Voices for Peace, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT) and the Brass Liberation Orchestra.

In SF Pride’s statement, Ford and Pham wrote that “while we encourage resistance against oppressive systems and governments that fail to recognize our humanity as queer people, we cannot achieve liberation by fighting other queer and trans people.”

However, it’s a sentiment Celeste pushes back on. “[SF Pride] should be listening rather than resisting these voices who are telling them that they’re doing something wrong,” they said.

“If you’re not listening to the smallest voice in your community,” Celeste said, “you’re not working for the community.”

This story has been updated.


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