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    First Published: August 2003
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It is a war that has become televisual wallpaper. We have become inured to daily reports of atrocities on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. For almost two years of the most recent round of fighting, and through decades of sustained conflict before that, Israelis and Palestinians have had to try to maintain some semblance of normal life amidst the daily threat of suicide bombers or military action. Gay men and lesbians included. OutUK correspondent Steve Bustin reports on how they cope.

In theory, the situation for gay men and lesbians in Israel is remarkably good, despite historically being the birthplace of biblical intolerance of gay sex.

The first gay organisation was established in 1975, and by the mid 90’s, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, had repealed sodomy laws, outlawed workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and lifted a ban on gays in the military.

Most urban areas of Israel are generally tolerant, and levels of homophobic abuse or attacks are similar to those in most European countries.


The second Jerusalem Pride celebration was one of the few major public events of any kind to have taken place in the city in recent months.
The situation for Arab gay men and women living in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza is, however, very different. With no legal protection, gay Palestinians still face societal taboos around homosexuality with the threat of social exclusion and far worse. As Daniel Weishut, Chair of the Gay and Lesbian Network of Amnesty International, said recently, “In Palestinian society, there’s no such thing as open homosexuality.”

Differences in tolerance and treatment of gay men and women are split geographically as well as along religious lines. This is immediately obvious in the differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is a modern, cosmopolitan city with a number of gay and lesbian bars, cafes and clubs, and an annual Pride event that attracted 100,000 last year. Jerusalem on the other hand, is divided by religion, as the holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and increasingly by physical barriers, as roadblocks, cordons and no-go areas are established, resulting in little in the way of a gay and lesbian commercial scene.

JERUSALEM PRIDE

Gay men and lesbians are however making their presence felt. Earlier this year the second Jerusalem Pride event took place, with over 5000 gay men and women joining a parade through the city and a concert in Independence Park. The event started with a release of black balloons in memory of those lost in terror attacks in Jerusalem.

Naturally the parade had it’s opponents. Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Shmuel Shkedi issued a statement before the event proclaiming:

“This parade will not happen in Jerusalem. We will not let any sickness or deviance take place in the city. The very existence of these people is a provocation, their existence is uncivilised. This thing must be condemned.”

The event was declared a success by organisers, and not just because of the show of LGBT Pride in the face of opposition from officials and hard line religious leaders. The celebration was one of the few major public events of any kind to have taken place in Jerusalem in recent months, as suicide bombings and heightened security have made people wary of gathering in large numbers in such a high profile manner. Many were there as a show of strength against the bombers, to prove that their lives continue as before, and to show the outside world a different face of the city via a media used to carrying pictures of bloodstained victims and ruins, not rainbow flags and dancing in the street.

The other sign that queer men and women are still maintaining their lives and their visibility in Jerusalem is the rainbow flag that hangs about Ben-Yehuda Street, a street where 11 were killed and 188 injured in December 2001 by two Hamas suicide bombers. The flag belongs to Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the city’s lesbian and gay centre that opened three years ago.
Jerusalem Open House logo.
“We’re a community centre – plus” says Jerry Levinson, Co-founder of The Open House. “The idea began five years ago, after we’d been running an information line for about six months. We realised there were a lot of isolated sub-communities in Jerusalem, often antagonistic towards each other because the various groups never met. Now we serve the community with cultural and social activities as well as reaching out to the vast majority of LGBT people in this city who are repressed and closeted, and changing the views of wider society to homosexuality.”

The services offered by the centre are almost as varied as their clientele. “We do have a membership scheme, but a lot of people are afraid to register and put their names on a piece of paper,” says Levinson. “We serve about 2000 people in total, and we have new walk-ins daily. We have a good mix of people, with equal numbers of men and women, and we’re seeing more older people, plus we have a very vibrant youth group of about 50 kids, plus a similar group for young adults. We offer an array of support groups, including groups that study religious texts that pertain to issues of Judaism and sexuality. We helped set up the first anonymous HIV testing in Jerusalem, and we run a speakers bureau, reaching schools, youth groups and the army, familiarising people with what it means to be gay in Jerusalem.”

The one area where the mix of users is not equal is between Israelis and Palestinians.

Levinson explains that there are only about 50 Israeli Arab men in the city who are open about their sexuality, and even fewer lesbians, who face the double stigma of their gender as well as their sexuality, and could easily be killed for being gay. He cites one young Palestinian man who attends the centre as a good example of the problems faced by Israeli Arab gays and lesbians.

“This guy is 26. The norm here is for people not to leave home until they are married, so what do gay people do? This guy is beaten by his siblings every day for being gay, and has a 6pm curfew imposed so he doesn’t go out looking for men – and this is indicative of any young person who comes out to his family within Palestinian society; the stigma is unbearable.”

“We’re making a huge effort to attract Palestinians to The Open House and participate in activities,” says Levinson. “We have established a position of Palestinian Outreach Coordinator, plus we’ve translated a lot of our materials into Arabic.”

“There were more Arabs coming to The Open House before the intifada started, and we were about to start an Arab information line, with 15 volunteers lined up, but the whole idea fell apart because most of them couldn’t get into the country. We want to reach out to Jewish ultra-orthodox lesbians and gay men as well, as they suffer from a very similar sort of oppression in their community.”

However the centre, which is run by five staff and a team of volunteers, and replies heavily on donations from overseas, especially the US, does not take a political stand on the current conflict. Jerry Levinson explains:

“The gay community in Jerusalem is very pluralistic, with many differing views from the Orthodykes who attended Pride in full Orthodox garb, and would never countenance a united Israel of Jews and Palestinians, through to Kvisa Sh’chora (Dirty Laundry) who link the oppression of sexual minorities to what it claims as the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.”

“The LGBT community is not unified in it’s outlook regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so The Open House is treading a delicate line. We see ourselves as serving the whole of society. We’re an apolitical group and won’t take a stand on political issues. Our only stand is that we intend to serve the entire community.”

According to Levinson, The Jerusalem Open House is already looking ahead to the future direction of its work. “The most important thing on our agenda is reaching out to the 90% of LGBT people in Israel who still feel fear and terror at being who they are. If we can touch those people then we’ll be starting to do what we set out to do”

Levinson and his co-workers at The Open House also know that the battle for LGBT equality is part of a wider struggle:

“Jerusalem is Israeli society in microcosm. The Pride parade symbolised the need for recognition of multi-culturalism within Israeli society. We would like both the outside world and the community in Jerusalem to understand that we are the vanguard of the new Israeli society – one that must recognise the rights of various groups to live their lives without oppression and in an atmosphere of tolerance. We need to conduct a serious dialogue among ourselves, as legitimate communities of different ethnic origin, gender and sexual orientation, to enable all of us to live together in an atmosphere of equality.”

 

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