Gay Pride: an Otherworldly Night in Jerusalem
June 21, 2004
By Adrienne Arsenault
It is, apparently, raining men. Not frogs as some rather
piously warned. “Men...Hallelujah...It’s raining men.”
The music is so loud, the song, which is effectively a
gay anthem, thumps in the Jerusalem night air. I imagine it in cartoon terms
with the oversize notes and lyrics bouncing off the bleached stones of the
Western Wall. Or, perhaps, competing with the chaotic call to prayer that
fills the wadi.
At night, parts of Jerusalem can be ghostly quiet. It’s
the sort of place where whole families go for after-dinner strolls.
Long-skirted women, their heads modestly covered, push prams down the centre
of well-treed roads.
Step off the main streets, with their restaurants and
bars, and often it’s quite dark. Occasionally, the only light and movement
come from tiny synagogues that throw open their doors to catch a breeze.
Inside, rows of men pray softly, rhythmically.
So, “otherworldly” is the only word I can think of
for how some passersby might view the scene unfolding before me tonight. A
ring of police protect Liberty Bell Park and several thousand booze-soaked
partiers dance in the sticky summer night. Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade has
An eclectic, and sometimes scantily-dressed crowd winding
its way from the city centre up these historic streets and spilling out onto
the grass. Here, under the guidance of an overexuberant DJ and bartenders who
pour with wildly generous hands, they eat and drink and flirt. It is a moment
of abandon in conservative, contemplative, conflicted Jerusalem.
All here know they aren’t entirely embraced by this
place. There is a high alert on this party. Police are keeping track of the
death threats uttered against some of its supporters. And earlier in the day,
a prominent rabbi called homosexuals “subhuman.” He publicly declared they
would all be reincarnated as rabbits.
I’m not sure why he chose rabbits and he never really
explained it. But the poor man had no idea what he started. The light bulbs
must have gone off in a hundred heads at once. Surely, the text messages were
Because everywhere you turn at this party someone else
has managed to dig up a pair of bunny ears to wear proudly. The park before me
is awash in fluffy, droopy ears silhouetted against the night sky and bouncing
up and down to the music.
Even the Israeli soldier found a pair. He’s in uniform,
rabbit ears askew, arms draped over his boyfriend, who is beaming. Other than
the clearly frustrated rabbi, who doesn’t like bunnies?
A sense of humour is a marvellous defence. And some
people needed it this night to block out the right-wing activists who threw
eggs or hurled invectives all along the parade route.
The condemnations are everywhere. All week, all over
Jerusalem’s streets, posters have gone up making that tired link between
homosexuals and pedophilia.
“Mom,” read the not-so-catchy posters, “I heard
that the same people who do indecent things to little kids, acts of sodomy in
the public parks of Jerusalem, decided to organize a third pride parade in
Jerusalem...they will return to celebrate in the darkened public park, there
they are mercilessly attacking small children. Daddy, mommy, help, I’m
afraid.” Try putting all that on a bumper sticker.
Quick as rabbits, as it were, the party organizers drew
up their own posters. “Mommy,” they read, “I’m Happy.” A soldier
standing next to me points out one of the signs and laughs. It seems someone
has added a line: “but I’m afraid the religious will try to make me
This is a city with an ultra-orthodox mayor. Uri
Lupoliankski’s core constituency is livid with him for even allowing this
parade to happen. They have, these last few weeks, taken to the streets to
protest. And their voices are strong.
The mayor finally admitted he had tried at the last
minute to stop the parade, but failed. He promises them he will try harder
next year. You see Jerusalem has only been holding these parades for three
years now. It’s just dipping a toe into these charged waters. But next year
the Holy City dives in.
That’s because Jerusalem is booked to host World Pride
Day. It means potentially tens of thousands of people will show up here. And
they’ll bring their shekels with them. For a place that moans so often about
its ailing economy, that sort of financial injection would be a boost.
And what of the inevitable controversy that will go with
it? Please, this is Jerusalem. It’s addicted to controversy. In the broad
scheme of things World Pride Day is nothing. But the mayor is getting
And really, he’s going against the trend here. Israel
has proven to be an incredibly progressive country over the years for gays and
lesbians. Years ago, while Bill Clinton was struggling to get full clearance
for homosexuals to serve in the U.S. military, Israel went ahead and just did
it. There are no restrictions on gays in the military here. They do ask and do
tell without second thoughts.
Sodomy isn’t against the law here, but discrimination
of any kind against homosexuals is. And some Israeli courts long ago
recognized the rights of gay couples.
Legal advancements are key, gay rights advocates will
tell you, but equality happens on the street. That’s partly why they put so
much stock in the parades and parties of Pride Day. They want much more from
Israel. Still, imagine being a gay Palestinian. Viewed from across the
checkpoints, Israel must, for them, seem an oasis of freedom.
Because in the Arab world, opening that closet door is a
deadly endeavour. Gay Palestinians simply don’t have any rights. At best
they are harassed, at worst, arrested, tortured, even killed. Some have
reportedly been accused of being Israeli collaborators and executed.
For a few young men and women, the mere rumour of being
gay is enough to put them in danger. Some talk of receiving letters at their
doorstep about the means of execution permissible under Islamic law for
Two years ago, the New Republic wrote of some of the
particular horrors of being a gay Palestinian. It described police squads that
hunt men who have sex with other men. Once caught, some faced Abu Ghraib-like
treatment. Many were forced to stand in sewage water up to their necks. Bags
filled with feces were put over their heads. At least one man was reportedly
starved to death.
There’s no suggestion that any of this has stopped. And
there are similar accounts from elsewhere in the Middle East.
And so Israel, the occupying power, is occasionally the
rescuer. Israeli and Palestinian human rights advocates find themselves
fighting hard to get gay Palestinians out of harms way.
In a few cases, the Israeli courts have granted some
Palestinians refuge because of their real fears of persecution under the
Palestinian Authority. Others have been spirited away to other nations. Many
more have crossed into this country to live here illegally. That’s not a
particularly easy life. There are many stories of gay Palestinians deported
back across the checkpoints into a world full of certain dangers.
Still, dodging the Israeli police and risking jail and
expulsion, they seem to reason, is better than living a lie in the occupied
Looking around the party this night I’m trying to sort
out if any Palestinians have made it. It’s hard to tell, but I’m not sure
that many, if any, are here. And that’s a shame. Because, for a moment, this
feels like a place of no conflict, no worries and no judgments. Otherworldly,
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