Just this past Friday afternoon, thousands of Israelis gathered in Gan Meir Park for the 10th annual Gay Pride Parade, which had its modest beginnings in Tel Aviv in 1998. The parade marched through two of Tel Aviv’s main streets and ended with a beach party where Israeli musicians Ivri Lider (a popular gay singer), Keren Peles, Maya Buskila, and Henri VeNikka performed.
The Hebrew word for 'gay' is Ge’eh. Sounds like the English word, right? Well, sort of, but with a poetic twist. In this multilingual play on words, the Hebrew word meaning gay sounds like gay in English, but actually translates to “proud.” So how do you say gay in Hebrew? Proud.
But the Israeli gay community was not always so openly proud.
The community has made small demonstrations for decades, but up until the late 90’s these gatherings were not very large or very public, and were definitely not endorsed by any municipal or other authority. One element has remained fairly constant, though: Throughout the Israeli gay community’s struggle to receive acceptance, equal rights, and respect, Tel Aviv has always been their home court.
In 1966 the first annual gay party began in Tel Aviv on the birth date of Danni Lachman—an icon of the gay community. Tel Aviv's first gay bars also opened during the late 60’s, but under great secrecy (only those invited could get in). In 1979 the first demonstration for gay and lesbian equal rights took place in the square in front of the Tel Aviv City Hall, with a small gathering of only 60 people. The first line of Israeli drag queen performances opened at the Tel Aviv “Penguin” club in 1982. During the 80’s many gay publications and films were also made public.
In 1993 the first public gay pride event took place in the Sheinkin Street park in Tel Aviv, attracting a surprising number of gay rights supporters. Many musicians performed at the event and a large closet was placed in the middle of the park, which demonstrators ceremoniously “came out” of. When Yossi Miketon, a soldier in uniform, came out of this closet and was photographed, though, there were repercussions. Within days he was expelled from military service. But the really important year for Israel’s gay community was 1998—the year that Jerusalem’s Open House for Pride and Tolerance opened, Dana International (a transsexual Israeli pop singer) won the Eurovision Song Contest with her song “Diva,” and the first Israeli gay pride parade took place in Tel Aviv with the participation of 3,500 people, including many politicians. Tel Aviv is the only Israeli city in which the pride parade has consistently taken place every year since 1998. Parades sometimes also take place in Jerusalem, Eilat, and Haifa, but Tel Aviv is definitely Israel’s proud, gay capital. It could also be called the gay capital of the Middle East, for that matter, since Tel Aviv is home to the only yearly gay pride parade in the region. Etai Pinkas, the youngest City Councilman in Tel Aviv and a leader in the Israeli gay community, has said that “Tel Aviv has a critical role in supporting the homosexual and lesbian communities. The gay community would not be where it is without Tel Aviv.” And he would know. Working for the Tel Aviv Municipality, Pinkas has been a pioneer in getting the city to sponsor and fund the gay pride parade and to open a Community Center for the Proud Community—the first of its kind in Israel. The Community Center, which was opened just a few days before the parade this year, is located in the middle of Tel Aviv and will host cultural events and lectures, encourage research about the gay community, and provide support and educational resources. Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, said that the Community Center “symbolizes the pluralism and tolerance that characterize Tel Aviv. The city encourages and invites every person to live according to his own will and beliefs. I hope that the day is not far when this center is no different from other community centers, and the proud community is an inseparable part of the social and cultural fabric of Tel Aviv.”
Sadly, the day when Jerusalem will embrace this community is far off. Religious Jews notoriously object to gay pride parades and are often violent towards the marchers, even resorting to stabbing people and throwing rocks. Three marchers were stabbed by an Orthodox Jew during the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2005. And in 2006, the year that Jerusalem was supposed to host the WorldPride event, the parade was cancelled altogether because of harsh objections and demonstrations from the religious community. An Orthodox faction made sure that all was not pink in the city of Tel Aviv this year by pressuring the Tel Aviv City Council to remove gay pride flags from Kibbutz Galuyot Street in the southern part of the city. After many of the flags were torn and vandalized, the City Council agreed to remove some of the flags. Despite this small resistance from the city’s Orthodox community, the thousands of people marching through Tel Aviv last Friday afternoon made it clear that love is a beautiful thing. Period.