TEL AVIV, Israel -- The Middle East isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when we think of LGBT equality. It may not even be the tenth.
In report after report, countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are singled out for imposing the harshest penalties for homosexual activity, including death and lashings. With ISIS now controlling much of Iraq and Syria, there is a de-facto death penalty for homosexuality there as well. This revelation shocked the world when the Islamic State posted photos of its members allegedly stoning to death and throwing gay men off of buildings in Iraq and Syria.
The Middle East is also home to the societies with the most anti-gay views. So, it may come as a surprise that one of the largest Gay Pride parades in the world is held in a tiny country in the heart of the Middle East, in a city consistently rated one of the best places for gays to live and visit: Tel Aviv, Israel.
Though LGBT Pride Week here officially kicked off on June 7, Tel Aviv began dotting its streets and the Mediterranean coastline with hundreds of rainbow flags a week earlier in anticipation of approximately 30,000 gay tourists from around the world who have since flown to Tel Aviv specifically for this occasion.
The parade, now in its 17th year, drew an estimated 180,000 people on Friday, making it the largest gay pride parade in all of Asia and the Middle East. Considering that the entire population of Tel Aviv is just 420,000, this turnout is proportionately higher than the 2 million who march in the annual pride parade in New York, a city of 8.5 million.
“Tel Aviv is regarded as the gay capital of the Middle East,” said 76-year-old Benny Raphael, who marched on Friday with the Golden Rainbow, a group comprised of gay activists over the age of 60. Raphael has lived here for seven years, the same amount of time he has been out of the closet. Before that he lived in South Africa and Fort Lauderdale -- what he calls “the gay capital of the State of Florida.”
Tel Aviv, he says, is the most accepting, open and gay-friendly place he’s been.
Among the parade's participants were drag queens and bikini-clad men and women -- but also some you might not expect, including government ministers, political party representatives, teens, kids and families.
With this year’s theme dedicated to the transgender community, the city invited Caitlyn Jenner to be the parade’s guest of honor, citing her as “a source of inspiration.” She did not attend, but another transgender celebrity, Conchita Wurst, did. The bearded, cross-dressing, Austrian winner of the 2014 Eurovision contest performed at the end of the parade route, in a beachside park across the street from a mosque. It’s quite possibly the only mosque in the world -- definitely the only one in the Middle East -- currently surrounded by rainbow gay pride flags.
And it's not just Tel Aviv. Israeli society as a whole is relatively tolerant considering its religious values, which in most parts of the world lead to more conservative views toward gay rights. For example, gays, lesbians, and transgender people serve openly in the Israeli military, and the government funds LGBT centers throughout the country. According to a recent poll, 70% of Israelis support equality for the gay community, and 59% support same-sex marriage.
Still, hurdles remain. One of the greatest obstacles to full equality is that same-sex couples cannot marry, as issues of marriage are in the hands of orthodox rabbinical courts. Without that freedom, most of Israel's same-sex couples who choose to wed do so by traveling to other countries. Their marriages are recognized by the Israeli government upon their return.
Karen Reiss Medwed came to Tel Aviv from Atlanta with her three children to march in the parade with their gay grandfathers who live in Israel. Reiss Medwed is a rabbi, and used to live in Massachusetts. Soon after gay marriage became legal there, she officiated the marriage ceremony of her father and his partner, who had already been together for more than 30 years.
Celebrating at the parade with her kids and fathers, Reiss Medwed was beaming. “We’re pretty sure not many grandpas get to march in pride with their grandchildren, so that’s pretty special for us.”
Every political party, except for the religious ones, has gay activists and groups. On Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party ticket is an openly gay man who has fought to bring gay rights out of the exclusive hands of the left-wing parties, and helped turn it into a bipartisan issue that nearly every party can agree on.
“The LGBT community was traditionally aligned with the left,” said Amir Ohana, the head of Likud’s Gay Forum. “Now we see the monopoly has been broken. The LGBT issue is no longer identified just with the left.”
Ohana was at the parade with his partner of 10 years, who he has not yet married because they are waiting until they can say “I do” in Israel. “It’s not a matter of 'if' but just a matter of 'when'” civil marriage will be a reality in Israel, he said.
Arab Muslims and Christians in Israel have their own religious courts that deal with marriage, but for gay Arab-Israelis and Palestinians, the issue of marriage is the least of their worries.
In Gaza, which is governed by the Islamic militant group Hamas, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, homosexuality is not illegal, but it is certainly not accepted by the government or the public.
And while Israel's Jewish population -- save for the more conservative ultra-Orthodox -- is supportive of gay rights, the situation is quite different for Israeli Arabs. As in much of the Arab world, homosexuality is condemned, and those who come out live in fear of abuse or even honor killings at the hands of relatives who believe they’ve shamed the family.
Karam Dadu, a gay transvestite Arab-Israeli from the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acre, was something of a local celebrity at Friday’s parade, getting kisses from nearly every gay man who passed him. Yet things weren’t always so fun for 23-year-old Dadu. He was banished by his Muslim family when he came out to them at the age of 14, and for the following two years he suffered constant abuse from his father, who beat him with an iron bar. The turning point that led him to move to Tel Aviv was when he was hospitalized for seven weeks after one of his father’s beatings. His mother visited him just once in the hospital, where she blamed him for being gay.
Dadu’s story is like that of many other gay Arab men and women living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A 2008 study by the Refugee Rights Center at Tel Aviv University features interviews with gay Palestinians who fled the Territories and sought protection in Israel. The report goes into graphic detail about the torture they experienced at the hands of Palestinian security officials, and the death threats they received from members of their own families. The study also criticizes Israel for refusing to grant political asylum to the victims of such treatment, and raises questions about whether Israeli security officials exploit gay Palestinians to use them as political informants — an accusation that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson vehemently denied.
In recent years, critics have accused Israel of highlighting its friendly stance toward gay rights as a hypocritical strategy to deflect attention from its conflict with the Palestinians -- a practice they call “pink-washing.” Some left-wing activists in Israel refuse to attend the parade for this reason. But for most Israelis, Jewish and Arab, Israel’s progress in gay rights is something to be proud of.
“Ask people in Tel Aviv if Israel is pink-washing, or if they are treated better here than they would be in any part of the Middle East, and you’ll get your answer,” said Eytan Schwartz, an advisor to the Mayor of Tel Aviv. “Some people have a problem with the facts, but the truth of the matter is that’s the reality of this country.”
For Dadu, the idea that Israel’s support for gay rights is some sort of PR scheme is ludicrous to the point of laughable. “I love Israel,” he said, his false eyelashes fluttering. “I love my country.”