Last edited: July 11, 2004

Gay Pride: an Otherworldly Night in Jerusalem

CBC News, 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 just ended.

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 flying.

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 straight.”

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 squeamish.

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 homosexuals.

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 territories.

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, indeed.

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