3 September 2002

Isn't That Queer

Équipe -Pose ta question!-

After almost 2 years of bitter fighting, trust between Israelis and Palestinians has never been lower. But in a packed, smoky nightclub on the edge of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim district, the gay communities from both sides still bridge the growing divide, breaking down racial and political barriers as Jews and Arabs defy traditional stereotypes and threats of suicide bombers.

While tensions are high in the rest of the country, Laila's remains the only nightclub where Israeli Jews clap enthusiastically side by side with Palestinian Arabs. Does the fact that these revelers are gay, lesbian or bisexual have anything to do with their mutual tolerance? Absolutely.

“Here we don't care where you are from or who you are, Jew or Arab. That's what characterizes the gay world,” says Johnny, a Christian Palestinian Arab from East Jerusalem wearing a tight white shirt and stylish jeans as a Jewish friend greets him with a kiss.

“I have 10 children,” says Simo, an ultra-orthodox Jew wearing a black suit and yarmulke, as he pulls out photos to show Johnny and Amir, the Arabs sitting near the bar with him. “I raise them to believe that all people are the same.”

“No one is prejudiced, you feel very free here,” says Rotem, a 19-year-old Israeli. Simo agrees: “As a religious man … I feel more comfortable to come to this place than to go to a straight place. I love my wife, but I do have a slight attraction to men.” Despite his attraction, Simo admits, “I'm scared to realize my fantasy of being with one.”

Simo, Johnny, Amir and Rotem sit together in the hot dark nightclub talking about their belief in God as Kylie Minogue blares in the background. “I used to be religious,” says Amir, who has a goatee and wears a tight red shirt. “I prayed five times a day at the Dome of the Rock mosque. I tried for two years to be religious [and not gay], but it was a waste of time. I'm proud to be gay and have been for the last 10 years. This is the way God made me.”

But the political reality outside Laila's divides these four. Because of severe Israeli security measures, Palestinians are having increasing difficulty coming to downtown Jerusalem, where Laila's and the Open House, a gay support center, are located. Even those from East Jerusalem, who are considered “permanent residents” of Israel, have trouble passing the newly erected military checkpoints on their side of the city.

Yet despite the checkpoints, many take the trouble to get to Laila's anyway. “Palestinians feel good to come here because they don't get harassed,” says club owner Avi Specter, a Jew from Germany who immigrated six years ago. Specter and his wife, Ann Marie, opened the place because he has “many gay friends in Europe who complained when they visited Israel that there are no gay bars in the city. It was our idea to make this place for all kinds of people.”

The first ever Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade took place last June, attended by more than 4,000 people. Despite threats of attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who opposed having a gay celebration in the holy city, the event highlighted the connection between Jewish and Arab gays and the occupation of the Palestinian Territories—even though very few Arabs showed up. Yasser, 31, a father of three from the Old City, explains why: “The Arabs are scared of being filmed on TV and being seen. Our families don't know we are gay and that we are here.”

A group of 50 women and men wore black shirts with pink writing in Arabic and Hebrew that said “Black Laundry against the occupation, in favor of social justice.” Founded in Tel Aviv last year, “Black Laundry” members directly connect their sexual tendencies with their fight for Palestinian freedom.

“We protest against the festive nature of the pride parade [because they're] doing it while the occupation is going on. Pride is a political thing. We can't celebrate our freedom while other groups are oppressed,” explains Gali, 22, a lesbian from Tel Aviv wearing the Black Laundry shirt and fishnet stockings.

Anat, a 27-year-old lesbian from Tel Aviv and a founder of Black Laundry, adds: “There is a connection between our oppression as lesbians, homosexuals and the oppression of the Palestinians. Since the intifada, the city of Jerusalem is covered with posters and graffiti saying ‘Expel the Arabs.' Yesterday the city was covered with graffiti saying ‘Expel the homosexuals.' I don't want this [parade] to be a fig leaf for the abuses of human rights. A few kilometers from here there are people under siege, people who are hungry.”  

©2002 The Institute for Public Affairs