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EXCLUSIVE: Gay Pride in Tel Aviv
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EXCLUSIVE: Gay Pride in Tel Aviv

by Richard Isaac - SGN Contributing Writer

Tel Aviv, "the Gay capital of the Middle East," celebrated its 16th Pride Day on Friday, June 12, 2009, with a festive "happening" in Meir Park, followed by a giant parade of an estimated 20,000 people through the downtown streets that ended with thousands dancing on the beach and swimming in the Mediterranean. The largest Pride event in the Middle East capped a week of parties and forums in this most Gay-friendly of cities.

Political controversy courted the festivities at the last minute when Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, along with a few rabbis and members of Parliament, called on Tel Aviv's mayor Ron Huldai to cancel or restrict the parade. "It's time for them to grow up. You don't have to do it in the main street in front of everyone," Yishai said. The mayor strongly rejected the demands, saying that Tel Aviv, which turns 100 this year, "will continue to provide a warm home and example of tolerance and openness" and that "the values of tolerance and pluralism, that have been engraved in the first Hebrew city's banner for many years now, are not just nice words to boast of, but are a true belief that every group and community in the city should be given the place, space, and option of expressing itself."

The streets of the city were bedecked in rainbow flags, and a strong, visible security contingent guaranteed that any protesters would not disrupt the celebrations. The "happening" at Meir Park, which is also home to the government-supported Gay community center, hosted thousands of Israelis and tourists, families, and friends, who came to enjoy the entertainment on stage, including drag queens and speeches of support from city representatives and members of Parliament, as well as Yael Dayan, former member of Parliament and longtime GLBT activist. There were also dozens of tables for local organizations, including the local PFLAG and one for Transgender issues, and a subset devoted to a travel expo. Attendees were colorfully dressed, and flags, balloons, posters, and stickers were in evidence everywhere.

The parade was kicked off by Dykes on Bikes and included floats from local bars and student organizations, and contingents of parents, bears, Transgenders, Russians, religious Jewish Lesbians, and Arab Lesbians. But while there were many spectators along the route and on apartment balconies (some relieving the crowd from the heat with garden hoses and water bottles), the bulk of participants were in the parade itself, clogging the streets for blocks, dancing and waving flags.

Winding its way slowly down Bograshov and Ben-Yehuda Streets, many thousands ended up on Gordon Beach, where a large stage hosted entertainment for the crowd, which danced with singer Amir Fey Gutman and swam in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Bars scattered on the beach and side stages kept the festivities going. The beach event concluded with the wedding of several couples by writer Gal Uchovsky, partner of Gay director Eytan Fox (Walk on Water, Yossi & Jagger) and a judge on Israel's version of American Idol. "We are making a statement by making public what we have been doing privately: getting married, saying that we are homosexuals and Lesbians living in Israel the same as everyone else, creating families, even though the law does not recognize our right to do so. I want that image to become part of the collective memory," said Uchovsky.

This capped off a week of parties all over town, most of which started near midnight. Other Pride events included: art exhibits; a screening of Yair Kedar's movie Gay Days; the launch of a new tour of Gay Tel Aviv, sponsored by the municipality; a Lesbian film marathon; and the iPride conference, a five-day seminar that brought editors, reporters, academics and activists from abroad to discover more about Israel's LGBT community from prominent local speakers. Gay Pride will continue, however, with the TLV Gay film festival from June 23-27. Details of all the activities can be found at www.gaytlvguide.com.

Jerusalem, a much more conservative and religious city whose Pride celebrations have suffered from violence from religious protesters in past years, will hold a parade "for pride and tolerance" on June 25 (www.worldpride.net/index.php?id=1321). Haifa celebrated Pride on June 18, and the resort town of Eilat had a Pride weekend on May 14-17.

Israel is a leader in GLBT rights. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1988. Employment discrimination was banned in 1992. Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and Gay couples are treated by the state as a unit for financial, tax, and real-estate purposes. Various legal cases have expanded partner rights to include inheritance, pensions, and adoption. The Israeli army allows service without any distinction based on sexual orientation. Since 1993, homosexuals have been allowed to openly serve in the military, including special units. Palestinian Gays and Lesbians find refuge in Israel from the physical abuse and death they face in the West Bank and Gaza. Open GLBT people serve in Israeli governments, from city councils to the parliament (Knesset), GLBT issues are frequently and positively addressed in the national media, despite sporadic religious opposition. Major film and musical artists are openly Gay or Transgender, including Dana International, who won the popular Eurovision music contest in 1998 for Israel. (See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Israel and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_the_Palestinian_territories)

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