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Meet writer and activist Sarah Schulman

How an expert on homophobia became a QuAIA supporter

Sarah Schulman
Celebrated writer and academic Sarah Schulman has penned novels, plays and essays; cofounded the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival; and organized the city’s first Dyke March. She is a prominent queer and AIDS activist and a distinguished professor of the humanities at City University of New York. On Wednesday, June 22, Schulman will speak in Toronto at a Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) event. When I ask how the invitation came about, she takes me back to 2009.
 
“It all started after I published ‘Ties That Bind,’ a book on homophobia in the family,” she says on the phone from New York. “That led to an invitation to give a lecture at Tel Aviv University on the subject. At first I was delighted because homophobia in the Jewish family is a subject that is very close to me.”
 
But then a friend advised her about the ongoing boycott of Israeli universities, initiated by a community of international academics, including some from Israel, in the hopes of forcing the country to change its approach to the Palestinian community. 
 
“This began a complete life transformation,” she says. “I hadn’t heard about the boycott before, and so I began researching it. I realized that if I accepted the invitation it would be like crossing a picket line of people whose rights are being oppressed.”
 
Being the academic that is, Schulman’s research process consisted of considerably more than a simple Google search; it comprised an intensive two months of speaking to academics and activists (including Elle Flanders of QuAIA and Canadian filmmaker John Greyson) about the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
 
“Both Elle and John encouraged me to decline the invite but to go on a journey of solidarity,” she says. “At the time I had no connections or history with Israel at all.” 
 
Schulman went to visit Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Haifa, meeting with local activists and seeing the day-to-day realities of life in the country firsthand. Following her return, she organized a six-city speaking tour in the US for queer Palestinian activists.
 
“It was an astoundingly successful experience,” she says.  “They were funny, sexy, human and complex. They really resonated with audiences. In New York alone we turned away over 200 people.”
 
But a week later the backlash began.  Well-known gay porn director Michael Lucas took issue with a pro-Palestinian group being hosted by the New York LGBT Center. He spearheaded a campaign, and within eight hours the centre’s leadership decided to ban the group. 
 
“This was the first time in 25 years a group had been banned from using the centre,” Schulman says. “This was stunning to me. The last group that was banned was NAMBLA [the North American Man-Boy Love Association]. The leadership claimed they were doing this to protect Jews, but there were no Jews among the leadership. It’s an example of the new kind of anti-Semitism that says that Jews are monolithic and only have one point of view. This is why I am coming to Toronto to speak.”
 
Not surprisingly, Schulman has been following the struggles of QuAIA. But her support of the group isn’t just about a common set of politics. 
 
“There’s also the meta-issue of the corporatization of our community,” she says.  “That an LGBT organization would become so dependent on government funding that they would let the government tell them how to run things is hugely problematic.”
 
“The queer community being dependent on government funding is a recent phenomenon,” she adds.  “If we’ve come to the point where governments are telling us that we have to exclude people to get funding, that means the relationship of dependency has become destructive. We have to ask ourselves what is more important, the integrity of our community or the approval of the government.”

UPDATE 23 JUN 2011 – Xtra’s Elvira Kurt caught up with Schulman during her Toronto visit.