How I was pinkwashed for protesting Israeli pinkwashing

A right-wing pro-Israel website has accused me, a queer person, of harassing the queer community at a US university.

An Israeli soldier holds a flag as he takes part in the gay pride parade in Jerusalem [File photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner]

When I was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I was involved with a group of students called the Queer-Trans Coalition, which was fighting for LGBTQ rights at the university. All the members of the coalition were queer, including me.

However, shortly after I graduated in 2015, I was shocked to discover that an online hate group was accusing me of harassing the UCSC queer community – the very community I had been part of for two years.

You would know this if you Googled my name. On top of the Google search page, you would see an image that has haunted me for a while now. It’s a photoshopped photo of me at a protest during a student gathering, its edges blurred out so you cannot see the people standing next to me. It states in big rainbow colours, “Katherine Berjikian harassing the UCSC LGBTQ community”, followed by “and calling for terrorism” in red. 

The original picture tells a different story. Standing next to me are people holding signs saying “Queers against Pinkwashing” and “Queers against Apartheid”. The signs make it very clear that the people participating in the protest, including me, are queer.

This image was first published by the Canary Mission, an anonymous reactionary group that blacklists students, professors, and activists who support Palestinian rights. Today, there are more than 2,000 people on their list.

The Canary Mission operates a website featuring profiles of the “blacklisted”, with demonstrably inaccurate summaries of their activism and a Twitter account which regularly cyberbullies people. They often use racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric to harass people, even going as far tweeting at their universities. In one of their online videos, they state that this is to “ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees”.

I’m bisexual and Middle Eastern (my mother is Syrian-Armenian and my father was Lebanese-Armenian). The Canary Mission attempted to erase my sexuality because of my race. They didn’t include evidence to back their baseless claims about my activism because they didn’t need it. My foreign-sounding last name was enough for them to see me as an easy target, as someone who could be labelled a “terrorism supporter” and anti-LGBTQ.

The only thing I could do about this is challenge them in writing. This has required me to out myself as queer to the general public. Most people get to choose who they reveal their sexuality to; the Canary Mission took that choice away from me.

Protesting, not harassing

At UCSC, I was heavily involved in student activism. While I regularly participated in protests organised by the Queer-Trans Coalition, I was also on the executive board of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). 

In January 2015, I received a message from one of my friends who was also a member of both organisations. She had heard about an event called “Being Queer in Israel” which was to be held on campus and which was meant to encourage queer students, like ourselves, to study abroad in Israel.

Events like this one constitute what we call pinkwashing, or the use of the LGBTQ movement as part of a public relations campaign to whitewash Israeli human rights abuses and war crimes by inaccurately glorifying Israel as liberal and “gay-friendly”.

I, like many others in the queer community, am against this appropriation of our movement. Even if Israel is friendly towards select LGBTQ individuals, this does not absolve it of the human rights abuses it perpetrates against Palestinians and minorities, including LGBTQ Palestinians.

So we decided to organise a small protest against the event. We went to the venue, made a five-minute speech in which we explained why we were against pinkwashing, and then we left.

While we were there, a person took a photo of us without our consent. It was that photo that was used by the Canary Mission to accuse me of harassing the LGBTQ community, who I and my comrades standing next to me in the original picture were part of.

When we organised the protest, we made sure that our queer identities were known through our signs and our speech. Everyone in the room knew we were a coalition of queer and anti-Zionist Jewish students.

By photoshopping the image and posting it online, the Canary Mission deliberately lied about my identity and actions.

The irony of it all is that I was pinkwashed for protesting pinkwashing.

Acting against the Canary Mission

There is no way for me to know if this image will be successful in hurting my career or my public life. However, it is hard for me to believe that a future employer won’t think twice before hiring me once they see that photo.

I also know that the Canary Mission will probably never be held accountable for publishing this photoshopped picture. A defamation lawyer told me that my case would probably stand up in court, but that taking legal action would cost me a minimum of $50,000. 

And I am not alone in my struggle. Many of the activists targeted by Canary Mission have had similar, if not worse, experiences.

It might be impossible for most of us to take the people behind this insidious campaign to court, but we are still determined to stand up to them. In response to their blacklist, a group of activists have recently created a website called Against Canary Mission. This website allows people that have been placed on the Canary Mission to create an accurate and uplifting profile of their activism.

In solidarity with the victims of Canary Mission’s cyberbullying, I am telling my story. I hope this unified effort will help stop the trolls of today from blacklisting the activists of tomorrow.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.