#MeToo is not just for women as women. It’s for queer women. Indigenous women. Racialized women. Women with disabilities. Women with invisible disabilities. Old women. Young women. Trans people. LGBTQ+ people. Genderqueer people. And all combinations of those identities.
The other day, I decided to take just 10 minutes to write down all of the #MeToo moments I could think of in that time that I’ve experienced as a woman, and as a queer woman. So here we go.
As a woman, I have experienced:
- Having my ass grabbed by strangers in public.
- Being told by a boss that he’s worried I’ll meet a guy and have kids and then won’t be as useful in my job.
- Having a strange man walking towards me reach out and flick my nipple as I walked to work in London, England, at 9am.
- Having people tell me that that sexual assault is no big deal; it happens to all women.
- Having a taxi driver tell me he wants to ride me long and hard.
- Having a taxi driver in a country I don’t know tell me he wants to marry me as he’s driving.
- Having a bus driver who helps me with my suitcase tell me “they must be making hair dryers heavier these days.”
- Having a taxi driver tell me it’s fine for me to travel alone when I’m single, but not once I’m married (to a man).
- Being told I’m too emotional.
- Not being believed or taken seriously about health issues by a male family doctor and by people I love.
- Being told to smile.
- Listening to music or pretending to listen to music when in public to ignore the comments said to me by men.
As a queer woman, I have experienced:
- Being afraid to hold my partner’s hand in public in certain places.
- Having derogatory remarks or gestures made towards me while holding my partner’s hand.
- Feeling the need to turn down a potential family doctor because she believes homosexual sex is a sin.
- Having to explicitly ask potential family doctors if they are LGBT friendly.
- Being told I’m a sinner and will go to Hell, especially online.
- My uncle arranging an airport pick-up and needing to tell the driver I’m arriving with my “friend.”
- Constantly needing to come out to people who assume I’m dating or married to a man.
- Pretending to be attracted to men in case it’s unsafe to come out.
- Interviewing an LGBT activist who was later murdered right where I interviewed him because he was an LGBT activist.
- Having a taxi driver ask me if I’d still sleep with him even though I’m a lesbian.
- Being told it’s not such a big deal pretending to be straight, by straight people.
These are not all big things. They’re not all sexual assaults or rape or hate crimes. Many of them are microagressions. But they add up. And they happen. Every. Single. Day.
And I can only imagine what the lists would be if I was a woman of colour, indigenous, or living with a disability.
Guatemala: New Beginnings After Civil War
It’s been nearly a year since I returned from my 1.5 year adventure travelling the world, and what a whirlwind it has been since then! I now live in the nation’s capital – Ottawa – where I work as the Communications and Development Coordinator at a job I love, for Women’s Shelters Canada, and have an amazing girlfriend. Life has really come together.
So in honour of all this positive, estrogen-filled goodness, I’m sharing a video of the footage I shot in the Nebaj region of Guatemala last year, where the Guatemala Conference of Evangelical Churches is training more than 400 Indigenous women in human rights, citizen participation, and economic empowerment through farming.
Equipping a Child for School in India
I can’t believe it’s been two years since I was in India. As Facebook memories keep popping up on my feed, I decided to share the United Church video on the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation in India, which supports children living in poverty to continue their education by providing basic school supplies, uniforms, and school fees.
It was the first audio-visual story I really “did” during my travels, when I was in Tamil Nadu. Some amazing work being done there!
Conflict Resolution in the Midst of Violence
This time last year, leading up to Christmas, I was in the Holy Land. It was a bit of a weird experience, to say the least, as I spent half my time with Orthodox Jewish friends in Jerusalem and half my time with Palestinian Christians and Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza.
Here’s a video from the footage I filmed in Bethlehem, about conflict resolution and the work of an amazing organization called Wi’am. Enjoy!
Education and Hope: The Return to Syria
During my travels in Europe and the Middle East last year, I met many Syrian refugees across Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This story, which takes place just south of Beirut in Lebanon, is one of my favourites.
I’m very proud of this video that I produced – put together by the fabulous video editor Owen Sheppard. I shot all the footage while I was in Lebanon, interviewed the people featured as well as several others, took photos along the way, acted as Producer, and then wrote the script this summer. Please take the time to watch this amazing short video, about a school teacher who escorts Syrian refugee teenagers back into Syria from Lebanon to write their high school exams.
Playing It Straight
Check out my latest published article! Last year, I pitched an article to Canada’s Verge Magazine, about “travelling while gay.” It was published online earlier this year, for subscribers, and has just been made public. Check it out!
For the average cisgender white lesbian tourist like me, I’m not likely to experience those kinds of harassment, but it’s not impossible. For example, in 2014 a British tourist was jailed for four months in Morocco for committing “homosexual acts.” Luckily, he was able to fly home early after being released on appeal.
Before I left, I knew that for most of my trip I’d have to “play it straight,” to avoid endangering myself (but mainly just to avoid negative remarks or rejection from new “friends”). But I don’t think I realized how frustrating and disheartening it would be.
A Traveller’s Journey of Justice and Identity
Yesterday I preached this sermon at St. Paul’s United and Grace United churches in Brampton, ON. My first time preaching about my 18 month adventure! Hope you like it.
Good morning. My name is Kaitlin Bardswich and I’m a member of the United Church of Canada. I worked for the national office for 3 years before spending the last 18 months travelling and doing freelance journalism, including interviewing United Church partners around the world. I’d like to begin by painting a scene for you.
It’s early afternoon in Gaza City on December 3 of last year.
I’m accompanied by two Muslim employees of a Christian NGO working in the Strip, the Near East Council of Churches.
Sitting in the back of a white van as it cruises through the narrow streets, a bullet hole in the windshield a stark reminder of the last war, I’m desperately trying to get my cell phone to connect to an Israeli service provider so that I can set my blog to “private” and not risk outing myself as a lesbian while I’m there.
It’s been an interesting day and I only crossed the border a few hours earlier.
This journey into Gaza was one of many incredible experiences I’ve had over the last couple of years. I’ve recently returned from a year and a half of travelling the world, starting in Pakistan and ending in Colombia, taking in parts of South Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America along the way.
It was a personal journey as well as a professional one, as I worked as a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer along the way, documenting stories of human rights and social justice.
While I interviewed human rights activists working for peace, gender equality, indigenous rights, and food security, among others, my theme across every country was LGBTQ rights. I interviewed lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer people around the world, as well as their straight allies. It was a privilege to get a glimpse into the lives of these people who face real struggles that I can only imagine.
I’d like you to take out your bulletins and take a look at the cover photo. That man is Xulhaz Mannon, an LGBT activist in Bangladesh. I interviewed him in May last year in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, along with two other activists.
We met in his apartment, where he lived with his parents. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, he served us tea and cookies as his cat walked from lap to lap.
We spoke about the ongoing persecution the LGBT community faced in Bangladesh, as well as the ongoing killing of secular bloggers. At the time, there was a rumour that there was a list of gay rights activists to be killed circulating in extremist circles.
“I asked if my name was there,” Xulhaz told me with a laugh. “If there is a list, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
And now to refer to the quote in your bulletin. He then said, “These people, I always say, if they came to me and talked to me I would have a chance to explain, this is why I do this. But they will not do that. They will just come and kill you.”
Unfortunately, Xulhaz was right.
Less than a year later, on April 25, 2016, Xulhaz and fellow LGBT activist Mahbub Tonoy were killed in that same apartment — hacked to death by at least five machete-wielding intruders.
Ansar al-Islam, a Bangladeshi affiliate of al-Qaeda, later claimed responsibility.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the LGBT community in the country quickly went underground.
I’ve interviewed dozens of LGBT people in my travels, across the continents. After awhile, the stories they told became unsurprising in their similarity.
They talked about growing up and thinking they were the only gay person in the world, about hiding their sexuality from their families, and about getting kicked out of their home when they did come out. They’ve had to worry about things like blackmail, sexual assault, police harassment, mob violence, jail time, and even death.
Why is this? One of the reasons I chose to focus on LGBT rights throughout my 18 month long adventure was because this facet of a person’s identity is the one thing that unites the world in hatred and discrimination.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you can find at least one person in every nation on Earth with a prejudice against LGBT people, ranging from believing we don’t have the same rights as straight people when it comes to marriage, to believing that we don’t deserve to live.
Yet, as the readings today tell us, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. God made us just as we are – there is nothing wrong with any part of our identity.
As the Lord says to Jeremiah – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
We are all appointed to be prophetic. We are all called to seek justice and love mercy.
God does not differentiate between his children. As Paul writes, there is neither Jew not Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female. No one is better than another; no one worse. We are all one, with equal rights.
Following that logic, there is neither straight nor gay. Neither trans nor cis gender.
(I’d just like to make an aside note that the passages about God creating us in His image, or being fearfully and wonderfully made, should not be misconstrued as being anti-trans. Some people use these passages to say that if we are made the way God intended, we should not change our bodies. But if we took these passages literally, rather than figuratively as I believe they are intended, than anyone here who has their ears pierced or hair highlighted, been tattooed, or has ever taken an Advil let alone had surgery would also not pass that litmus test.)
I see Jesus as a radical rebel of his time. He didn’t accept the status quo, or what religious and political leaders decreed as right. He ate and drank with those with identities that were considered sub-human. The prostitutes and the tax collectors. Probably the LGBTQ community as well, since we existed then as we did before then and as we do now.
This concept of identity was one that I really struggled with while I was travelling. It was the first time in my life that I felt the need to hide any aspect of my identity. While I came out a bit later in life, in my mid-20s, I’ve never felt the need to be closeted.
But when I was travelling in certain countries, “playing it straight” was a smart if not protective move. Some of these countries had laws making homosexual acts illegal, while in others it was still a taboo and dangerous topic.
As an example, when I was in Jordan, a country that does not outlaw homosexuality, I mentioned to someone who was fairly progressive that I was working on LGBT rights.
“Don’t talk about that here. People get killed for that,” he warned me.
I’ve had some people tell me that this shouldn’t bother me, needing to be closeted, that my sexuality does not define me, and that I don’t have to go around proclaiming that I’m gay.
But the funny thing is, it’s usually straight people who tell me that. And they don’t always realize that, while it’s true I don’t need to proclaim my sexuality wherever I go, when I’m travelling in homophobic countries – where the punishment of being who I am is jail, harassment, or even death – it’s still horrible to have to constantly deny a part of who I am.
What if it was something else? What if I was Jewish and everywhere I went people assumed I was Christian? Or what if I was mixed race but had such pale skin that everybody assumed I was White? It’s not just about sexual orientation or gender identity – having to hide any aspect of your identity because of fear, frankly, sucks.
No one wants to be invisible – we want to be seen for who we truly are.
For me, those constant reminders of hiding a part of who I am were the times when fellow female travellers want to bond over the cuteness of a nearby man, and I don’t know if it’s wise to say that actually I’m not attracted to him or to any man. Or having to constantly invent a husband in some countries to make men stop following me and talking to me. Or the fact that it’s really, really difficult to have any holiday romances for fear of outing myself to an unaccepting person.
Or even just the simple knowledge that a lot of the people I’m meeting, who are kind to me or invite me in for tea or give me directions, would probably feel very differently about me should they know this one piece of information about who I am.
It’s also the times when I get tired of pretending or denying a part of my identity, and I do come out, in places where I feel safe to do so, and then having to deal with a nosy Argentinean taxi driver, for example, who says it doesn’t matter to him, that love is love, but wouldn’t I still want to sleep with him? Just him? Because I’m really his type, with the blonde hair and everything.
That can all be really difficult to live with, day to day, if you think about it too much.
But of course, that’s nothing compared to what the local LGBT communities live with.
Sometimes I wonder if most of the tourists who visit some of the places I went ever think about any of these things. When walking through the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, which according to Tripadvisor is the #1 thing to do in that city, do they think about the fact that it was created by a couple who were criminals here for loving each other? (That couple would be Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé).
When they go to see the famous Hassan Tower in Rabat, do they know that two Moroccan men were arrested there last June for standing too close together while posing for a photo? They were a gay couple and were each sentenced to four months in prison. They were still imprisoned when I took this photo.
I was in rural Colombia when the massacre at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando occurred, which was only the latest in a long history of fatal violence in LGBT clubs in North America, I would learn. And being in the small village where I was, I felt completely alone – not able to tell anyone why I was so upset if anyone asked.
It’s been an interesting journey. While I love being able to experience so many new cultures and meet many interesting people, there are times when I reach a point of feeling completely and emotionally exhausted with having to pretend I’m straight.
It’s not the pretending to be straight specifically that is tiring, but the pretending to be something that I’m not. And knowing that if I didn’t do that, my experiences would likely be much different.
Being so exhausted by this near constant pretending has made me realize two very important things: I have immense privilege in that I can (1) pass as straight and (2) that I usually don’t have to.
Last August in Cork, Ireland, I got my first tattoo. I have the gaelic word samhlaigh, which means “imagine,” tattooed on my foot. It’s mainly for my grandmother, who would exclaim “Imagine!” whenever she heard something interesting or exciting. But it’s also partly to celebrate the fact that I can now legally get married in both countries where I hold citizenship – Ireland and Canada (Imagine!).
And perhaps, subconsciously, this declaration tattooed onto my often exposed skin is my way of claiming my entire identity, no matter where I travel.
I only wish it didn’t have to be so cryptic, for me or for anyone.
At the end, I mentioned some of these points about being an LGBTQ ally:
1.Don’t make assumptions. Instead of “Do you have a boyfriend?” ask “So are you seeing anyone?”
2.Ask what gender pronoun or gender neutral pronoun someone would like to be referred to as. (she/he/they)
3.Talk positively about LGBT people, especially around young people. Let them know that they can talk to you if they ever need to.
4.Tell your kids you’ll love them no matter who they love.
5.Consider donating to an international LGBT charity or rights organization.
6.Attend a PRIDE parade or another LGBT event to show your support.
7.Don’t judge us; just love us.
8.Acknowledge that we didn’t choose to be LGBT, but we are choosing to be happy.
*Parts of this sermon originally appeared in an article for Verge Magazine
Meeting Alex Kingston: A Journey
Or: That time I paid $60 to meet a human person and get their signature
Let me start by saying I realize that I’m the worst fan ever.
I love Alex Kingston – she’s an amazing actress, she’s funny and charming in any interviews I’ve seen with her, and of course she’s drop dead sexy.
But I had no idea she was even in town this past Labour Day weekend. I was staying at my cousin’s condo downtown and was wandering around the city, getting sushi, checking out some movies I wanted to see, etc, and I kept seeing all these people in costumes. Weird, I thought. But it is Toronto, so whatever.
Then I spotted a friend’s Facebook post about FanExpo Canada. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “That’s what’s happening.”
So then I decided to google this FanExpo thing and see what it was all about. Oh, there’s some celebs coming. Interesting. Let’s see who’s coming – scrolls down the list – HOLY SHIT ALEX KINGSTON IS HERE!!!
You see, the last time I was ever knowingly in the same municipality as the goddess known as Alex Kingston was in NYC about two years ago, to see her in Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh.
It was an AMAZING production and my friend kindly joined me afterwards to see if the stars would come out and meet the fans, sign some autographs, etc. I’d never tried this in NYC before, but when I was living in London and would go to shows with different friends, we’d often catch a glimpse of the stars doing this. So I had high hopes.
Unfortunately, they never emerged, and this was my face:
One friend who’s wife had attended the opening night and met Alex Kingston, and even got a photo with her (I’m not jealous, I’m not jealous, I’m not jealous), told me to try hanging around the stage door over the next couple of days and maybe I’d see her as she was arriving at the theatre.
This, however, seemed a tad too stalkerish for me so I quite rightly spent the rest of my time in NYC getting drunk in a lesbian bar and stumbling around Times Square.
Fast forward to Labour Day weekend and I decide to buy a spur of the moment Friday ticket and have my first ever FanExpo or ComicCon experience. Why Friday? Because Alex Kingston had a Q&A that day!
(Another example of being the worst fan ever: I haven’t seen all of the new Doctor Who, in which Alex appears. I’ve watched the first two seasons, and then just kinda got occupied by other things. Though I have watched a few of the episodes she’s in because #obviously. Instead, I first saw Alex in a British miniseries called Marchlands, and then binge watched ER with my roommates when I moved back to Toronto.)
During the Q&A, in which she was her lovely and charming self of course, I started thinking, “I wonder if she’s going to talk about being in the new Gilmore Girls.”
Somebody then asked a question about Amy and Rory that I half hear.
Me (thinking they mean Amy Sherman-Palladino and Rory Gilmore), whispered to my friend: Yeah, I heard she was going to be on Gilmore Girls.
Friend: Yeah…..that’s not what they mean…
Me: Oh…right… (realizing it’s a Dr. Who reference)
(Side note re security – now, maybe I’ve been to too many countries where they check under your car with mirrors before you’re even allowed into the parking garage – but seriously. I just strolled into the Metro Convention Centre with my extra-large purse, containing my camera, a sandwich, two bottles of water, my wallet, and a sweater. No metal detector. No one glanced at the contents of my bag. Nothing.)
A friend of the friend I met at FanExpo was getting his Dr Who DVD boxset autographed by Alex, so I asked him if I could tag along, maybe take a photo, and really just get within 5 feet of her.
He said of course, so we did, but while we were in line they told us that we couldn’t take photos when we got up there. One of the people working the lines told us that the day before, someone had taken a photo of Alex at the front of the line – with flash (horror!) – and she had not been happy.
Which I totally get – I mean, I’ve travelled through India and Bangladesh while a single, tall, white female. People constantly taking photos of you sucks.
But this also made me a bit nervous. Because some of the celebs who I admire, I get the impression they could be a bit prickly in real life. Dawn French. Kristin Scott Thomas. Margaret Atwood. (Oh God, do NOT put me in a room alone with a pissed off Margaret Atwood).
I started to worry that if I said hello to her or asked to shake her hand or something, after my friend’s friend got his autograph and talked to her, and I’d not paid for an autograph, that she’d be less than pleased or maybe her “people” would stop me or quickly move me along and really I just didn’t want to ruin the illusion by having her fall off that pedestal I’ve knowingly placed her on.
(if you read that last sentence-paragraph really quickly with no breaks for air, you’ll have some understanding of how my mind works)
So I quickly decided to cough up $60 for one of the photos of her sitting on the table and a chance to meet her. And this was our conversation:
Me: Hi! I saw you in Macbeth in New York. You were so good.
AK: Oh, thank you.
Me (now rambling): Yes, I waited outside pathetically for a bit to see you…(inner voice: Oh God where is this going…why did I mention this?!?!)
AK: What clan were you in?
Me: Uhhhhhh…..I’m not sure…(inner voice: Thank you Alex Kingston for salvaging this horrible conversation)
AK: Do you remember?
Me: I think it was purple…
AK: (Names a clan)?
Me: Maybe. I can’t remember…(inner voice: OMG this conversation is awful/why did I not prepare/think of something to say STAT!!) It was such a beautiful production – I remember seeing all the lights from the army in the dark in the distance.
AK: Oh, I get chills just thinking about it!
And that, people, is my one and only conversation with the ringleted goddess that is Alex Kingston. It probably could’ve been worse.
I should’ve thought it through. WHY DID I NOT THINK IT THROUGH?? It’s like the time I met Jennifer Saunders (someone else in the entertainment world who I adore) and, without context, told her she’d helped me through my economics exams.
Her reaction? “Um…ok.”
The context (aka what I should’ve said): I would get so nervous before economics exams that I’d put on a few minutes of Ab Fab bloopers or a French & Saunders sketch, and I’d laugh and that would relax me as I left my apartment to go write the exam.
But no. Not that of course, in the moment.
Before I went into FanExpo and paid $40 for my ticket – which wasn’t too bad considering I spent most of the day there – I had sworn to myself that I would not buy an autograph or photo op (for those like me who did not know, this is an opportunity to meet your idol for 5 seconds and pose for a photo with them).
Why? Because the whole concept of paying for an autograph or paying for a photo is just weird to me. I mean, I’ve never done that before. I’ve gotten a few autographs here or there, mainly because I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I’ve never had to pay. And to pay someone to take a photo with you is just – weird. Although, the photos I saw posted on FB and Twitter of people with a variety of Sci Fi stars were pretty cool.
But what also bothered me was the elitist nature of this whole thing. $60 for an autograph and $80 for a photo, which is what Alex was charging and was at the low end of the scale in comparison to what some of the other celebs were charging, is a lot of money. What about all those people – much bigger fans of these shows and people than I am – who can’t afford that? People who need that kind of money to pay their rent or feed their kids or pay for school. It just saddened me, that something as innocent and lovely as meeting your idol can come with such a huge price tag and therefore be inaccessible to many.
Plus there was the knowledge of all the homeless people literally just on the other side of the wall, on the street outside.
But I did it, I paid $60 for a photograph and a signature and a 1 minute encounter with one of my favourite actresses. Was it worth it? Is it sad that I would say “Probably.”??
But I don’t think I can justify doing it ever again…
Notes on a Love Affair
Check out my friend’s blog – she’s started reblogging some of her friend’s work which I think is a really cool idea, and she decided to share my memoir piece “Notes on a Love Affair”
December 6 – Love Letter
You are perfect to me. I want to hold you, wrap my arms around you. Caress you and kiss you. Sleep beside you, curled up, the big spoon spooning the smaller spoon.
Mould my body to your body. Hug you close. Become one with you.
I want to know that I can proudly walk with you hand in hand. I want to love you and to be loved by you.
And while I partly hate feeling this way – the anxiety, the wondering, the yearning to see you again – at the same time, I love feeling this way. Because it means that you’re special to me.
And I hope you feel the same way.
And I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.
I want to be numb. To not feel the pain.
But I also want to phone you. To hear your…
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Glimpses of Gaza
It’s early afternoon in Gaza City on December 3, 2015.
Accompanied by two Muslim employees of a Christian NGO in the Strip, I’m sitting in the back of a white van as it cruises through the narrow streets, a bullet hole in the windshield a stark reminder of the last war, desperately trying to get my cell phone to connect to an Israeli service provider so that I can set this blog to “private” and not risk outing myself.
It’s been an interesting day and I only crossed the border this morning.
My parents don’t know I’m here. No one in my family knows I’m here. I’ve given a colleague back in Canada my parents’ phone number “just in case anything happens.”
Israel gave me permission to enter Gaza the day before. The Palestinian Authority had approved my request the day after I made it, weeks previously.
I’m here on behalf of The United Church of Canada, gathering audio-visual material about a partner organization, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC)-Gaza, particularly their health clinic and apprenticeship work.
To be honest, I was nervous coming here because of all the bad press Gaza gets. But I reminded myself that there was no active conflict at the moment – no rockets going out or bombs coming in – so I was likely as safe in Gaza as I was in Jerusalem at the moment, where tensions were high after a spate of stabbings. Jewish Israelis were on high alert after numerous stabbings – many fatal – by Palestinians. Palestinians were hyper vigilant because the Israeli army had given soldiers permission to shoot to kill if they felt threatened, and no one knew what that meant. Did it mean reaching into your pocket for your ID and the soldier thinks you have a knife? There were also rumours of knives being placed at the scene after unarmed Palestinians had been shot.
So with all of that going on in the background, maybe Gaza wouldn’t be so bad.
I arrived at the Erez crossing bright and early that morning, hoping for smooth passage through. It was relatively simple – the main Israeli border officer who looked over my permission was one of the nicest I’d dealt with so far, though I did have a minor hiccup when the previous Israeli officer switched my first and last names.
Then, I went through a maze of largely unmanned passageways and tunnels in crossing the border. No one waved me through – I would just stand in front of sealed doors, waiting for someone on the other side of the security camera to push a green button so I could pass through the long metallic-like corridors.
On the other side, I had to cross the security checkpoints of Fatah and Hamas (I can’t remember in which order), and was met by an employee of NECC-Gaza. From there, I visited the head office, two apprenticeship programs (one for fashion design and one for aluminum engineering), and a health clinic in Shijaia that focused on women’s and children’s health.
I met so many amazing people, some with stories of triumph and some with tales of horrendous pain.
One of the young women in the fashion apprenticeship program, Reem Alharzeen, had a message for those outside of Gaza: “The world thinks we’re are all suffering, but we are businesswomen too. We can be very successful.”
(It was here that I gave one of the women my business card, which links to this blog where I openly talk about being gay, and realized when we’d gotten back into the car that that might not have been such a good idea in an area that isn’t exactly gay-friendly. I’d been careful to “play it straight” in many countries and areas where I was travelling, but momentarily forgot the risk in the friendliness and welcoming I was receiving.)
At the clinic in Shijaia – a clinic that had been bombed by Israeli airstrikes a few years previously and had lost all of their files so is now using an electronic system – I met this couple. They were sitting in the prenatal waiting room for a checkup, having recently found out they were expecting twins. “Mubarak,” I told them, in my limited Arabic – meaning “Congratulations.”
This woman, Nisreen Alkhateeb, who works at the clinic as a cleaner, broke down during our on-camera interview as she told me about her son who had taken refuge in a UNWRA school during the summer 2014 war. The school her son sheltered in, along with a couple others, was bombed by the Israeli air force during the war. Her son and two nephews were killed; her aunt was injured. She said she hopes peace will spread all over Gaza – “I want to see all of Palestine at peace. We cannot tolerate any more wars.”
Almost everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and curious about why I was there, as I’m sure I was an unusual sight – this tall, blonde, white woman out and about in the streets of Gaza. One NECC-Gaza staff member took me, his wife, and their twin toddler sons to the beach as the sun set and to see parts of the city after dark. It was beautiful – I took loads of photos, and some local teenage girls wanted some selfies too of course.
However, one woman did stop us in a parkette area, asking who I was. The questions took an uncomfortable turn, and I got the feeling my Gazan friends were not translating everything she was saying. But the gist was, “Are you Muslim? Why are you not Muslim? I think you should become a Muslim.” I wisely decided that the best course of action was simply to say “Inshallah” (If God wills it) with a smile and move along.
From what I could see, Christians and Muslims get along quite well in Gaza. In my opinion, it’s likely from a common experience of oppression and war in what some describe as the world’s largest jail.
The description is apt – considering Erez is the only way to leave overcrowded Gaza and very few Palestinians are allowed to cross.
On the Friday morning I was there, we visited Gaza’s oldest – and possibly only – church, serving Gaza’s 1300 Christian people, mostly Greek Orthodox. It’s a 1600 year old Byzantine church – there were once two churches on the same site but one of the churches was gifted to the Muslim community for their worship, with the Christian community worshiping in the other. The church and the mosque share a wall, as can be seen in the photo below.
But of course, there were some glimpses of anti-Semitism, like the store named Hitler in downtown Gaza City or this sign on the Gazan side of the Erez crossing. I can’t read the Arabic, but I think the gist of the message is fairly clear.
After spending nearly two days and one night in Gaza, I headed back to the Erez crossing before it shut down for the Jewish Sabbath. Arriving before noon, I met the same Israeli border officer who had let me in the day before. She asked me some more questions, and when I said I was heading to Tel Aviv and had never been before, she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you from experiencing all that Tel Aviv has to offer. Off you go!”
And so I headed back into Israel, on my way to interview some Israeli gay men for a story on surrogacy before I went to a queer Palestinian party in Jaffa put on by Al-Qaws that evening.
Thus completing one of the most surreal two-day experiences of my life.
But I did make one mistake – letting the Israeli border control officer stamp my passport, which would prove to be a HUGE headache when I was leaving Israel for Turkey the following week. (…to be continued)
More photos available on Flickr