Tel Aviv, the final gay frontier
These are the voyages of the British gay journalist in his continuing mission to explore strange new worlds.
Tel Aviv resident Justin Rudzki was strolling across the city’s busy Dizengoff Square one day when he spotted an Arab man. Their eyes met and the two men approached one another.
But this wasn’t to be yet another moment of conflict between Jew and Arab in the Middle East. The pair instead swapped phone numbers and arranged a date. You might not expect such an encounter to be able to occur in Israel. But then the more you look into gay life in this country, the more surprises you uncover.
When I told friends I was visiting Israel, the common response was “Be careful, make sure you don’t get killed.” In fact, such is the level of security there, I felt far, far safer in Israel than I do in London. Similarly, when I told friends I was visiting Israel to write a feature for a gay magazine, the common response was: “Be careful, I bet it’s a really homophobic country.”
It is nothing of the sort. Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset had an openly gay member; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country’s army, the Israel Defence Force has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government.
The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits. Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel’s representative, 80 per cent of polled Israelis called her “an appropriate representative of Israel.”
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Arab states, laws governing homosexuality are brutal. In Lebanon, you can face a year in prison for being gay. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Iran they’ve managed to come up with an even worse sentence: First torture, then death. These are not just theoretical punishments; these sentences are regularly carried out.
The legal situation in the Palestinian territories is less clear-cut but gay men are routinely and brutally tortured by their families and communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Gay Palestinians are tortured by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
So in terms of legislation, Israel is incredibly advanced by any standard, let alone that of a Middle Eastern country which is less than 60 years old.
Not that this tolerance means, however, that Israeli gay men do not face personal and religious challenges in coming to terms with their sexuality. When I met 20-year-old Yossi Herzog in Tel Aviv, those contradictions and challenges were apparent.
Slim, pretty and lively, at first sight he could be any of the boys who queue outside London’s G.A.Y. club on a Saturday night. But as we passed near one of Tel Aviv’s synagogues, he nervously clipped a skull cap on his head. When he took me for a falafel in bustling Shenkin Street, he went through a pre-meal kosher blessing.
But just minutes later, as we sat on the shoreline in the blistering afternoon heat, we were discussing what we do and don’t like doing in bed with other guys. Just like any other gay guys might. Then, I stepped away to take a phone call on my mobile and when I returned, he had put his skull cap back on and was reading Jewish prayers.
I had interviewed Yossi the previous evening on Tel Aviv’s ‘Hilton beach’ – it is opposite the Hilton hotel – which is also known as the ‘Gay beach’, where men openly check each other out and pick each other up. Interestingly, it is neighboured by the city’s Religious beach which has separate bathing days for men and women. And all this is just yards from Tel Aviv’s Independence Park, which is the main gay cruising area in Tel Aviv.
Yossi says he’s never been cruising at Tel Aviv’s Independence Park. Well, the lad has hardly had a chance, he only made his aliyah four weeks prior to the interview. He grew up in the USA but had for the previous two years lived in the UK. He can therefore easily compare the UK gay scene with the Israeli one.
“I much prefer the gay scene here,” he says. “For a start, the men are so much hotter,” he beams. “Here the men are tall, slim and tanned. Not like in the UK where they are more like cottage cheese – all pasty and chunky.”
“Israelis are very blunt, straightforward people and that helps make gay life here much more enjoyable than it is in England. Here, if you like someone you tell them. If you don’t like someone, you tell them. There are none of the ‘playing it cool’ games you get in England, none of the whole ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ text message extravaganza.
House Of Freedom
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city but the gay capital of the country is Tel Aviv. Bustling and modern, with a warm air of hedonism flowing through it, Tel Aviv has a fine gay scene with a number of bars, clubs, saunas and gay sex shops on its streets. At bars like Evita, a hip, young crowd converges after midnight – none of the gay nightlife gets going much before this – to party into the early hours.
The city is also host to the House Of Freedom. Opened in the late 1990s, this is a shelter for gay, lesbian and transgender youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18 who have been thrown out of home after coming out to their parents.
At the House Of Freedom they are counselled by social workers who then visit the parents and attempt to bring about a reconciliation. Those attempts are often successful, each year hundreds of gay youngsters return to a better home thanks to this remarkable institution.
Gay ghetto? Not in here
However, the city’s gay scene does not represent a gay ghetto inside which gay men have to hide.
Brandon, 22, moved to Tel Aviv from upstate New York to study at one of the city’s universities. He has a boyfriend back home and he told me they could never consider holding hands in public there. However, when I met Brandon, he was hoping that his boyfriend would soon visit him in Israel.
“I can’t wait for him to get here so I can show him how gay-friendly this place is,” he says. “I think he’ll be surprised. I think a lot of people would be.” He has no doubts they will hold hands on the streets of Tel Aviv.
Shai Doitsh, spokesman for the National Association Of LGBT In Israel (Aguda), expands on this theme.
“It is not big deal at all for a gay couple to kiss in the street in Tel Aviv,” he says. “In fact, we now have a joke that if a man and a woman are seen kissing in the street, that is more strange!” Shai is full of enthusiasm for the gay scene in Tel Aviv and is looking forward to word getting out about it. “Our gay scene must be the best kept secret in the gay world,” he says.
‘This is a lifesaver for me’
Perhaps the most surprising gay visitors to Israel are those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Aguda organises Arabic gay evenings where gay Palestinians are invited to come and party with Israelis – and many take up the invitation. “We are their only hope,” he says. “If they came out where they live, they would be killed but they can come and party with us in Israel.”
Mahmoud (not his real name) is a 19-year-old gay Israeli Arab from a small town outside Tel Aviv. He is enormously grateful to mainstream Israel for its gay-friendliness. “I cannot be open at all in the town where I live,” he sighs, “because it is a predominantly Arab town.” What would happen if you came out in the town you live in, I ask. “Very, very bad things,” he says and refuses to elaborate.
However, the gay scene of Tel Aviv offers him a haven. “I can come here and be myself,” he smiles. “This is a lifesaver for me.” He insists he has never faced hostility on the Tel Aviv gay scene because of his Arab roots.
So what about liaisons between the two communities? Yossi says that many Israeli Jews are attracted to Israeli Arabs. “I suppose they are the forbidden fruit for us and we probably represent similar to them. So it is an attractive prospect all round. Tourists, too, are a popular prospect among Israeli gays. Everyone wants to fuck a tourist.”
Chas Newkey Burden is a British journalist who recently visited Israel