Pink on the Outside, Gray on the Inside / TA's 'Best Gay Destination' Title Masks Ongoing Prejudice

Tel Aviv is not Israel, and life is far from perfect for LGBT people even in liberal, tolerant Tel Aviv.

Mayor Ron Huldai lost no time in celebrating Tel Aviv's coronation on Wednesday as 2011 City of the Year in a members' poll by GayCities.com, with 43 percent of the vote. Huldai even made room on his schedule for a walkabout with a few drag queens.

While members of the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community welcomed the survey results, a number sounded a sobering note - Tel Aviv is not Israel, and life is far from perfect for LGBT people even in liberal, tolerant Tel Aviv.

Bar Noar memorial - Ofer Vakhnin - January 2012
Ofer Vakhnin

The August 2009 gun attack that killed two people at a center for gay teens in central Tel Aviv is still unsolved, and LGBT community leaders cite an uptick in assaults against community members in recent months.

In August 2010 the city council approved the introduction into all Tel Aviv schools of a curriculum segment designed to teach children about sexual identity and orientation and prevent the development of sexual stereotypes. But despite the resolution, this year the program is not being implemented in Tel Aviv.

"It's a step backward," said Irit Zviely-Efrat, CEO of Hoshen, the education center of Israel's LGBT community. She said that last year her organization's program was in three Tel Aviv schools; this year Hoshen has conducted activities in around 420 classrooms around the country, none of them in Tel Aviv.

Zviely-Efrat said that, while Tel Aviv is deserving of its latest accolade, "if the municipality were to spend the same effort and money on LGBT education that it spent on gay tourism, Tel Aviv could be a beacon of light for the entire country in this area as well."

She said that while school officials tell her Tel Aviv is open and liberal, and that the Hoshen program is unnecessary there, "they don't understand that there's a big difference between being between the ages of 14 and 18 and being a young man of 20. For a teenager there's no difference between Be'er Sheva and Tel Aviv when it comes to fear and worry," Zviely-Efrat said.

Hagai El-Ad is executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and he was the first executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the capital's LGBT community and advocacy center. He continues the "yes, but" tack taken by Zviely-Efrat, confirming the great strides made by Israel's LGBT community but also noting what he called the "heights of intolerance" sometimes seen in Israeli society.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) echoes this view and says he receives complaints of discrimination and violence against members of the LGBT community on a daily basis. He even accuses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli embassies abroad of "hypocrisy," of "using the homosexual community for propaganda purposes in order to show Israel's liberal face while blocking, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, all our legislative efforts toward equal rights, especially in the area of coupledom, families and parenting."

Shai Doitsh is the chairman of Israel's LGBT Association, known as the Aguda, and for the past five years also the head of the gay tourism campaign of the Tel Aviv municipality and the Tourism Ministry. He is pleased with the results of the GayCities survey, and says the million or so shekels spent on marketing Israel as an LGBT travel destination has paid off.

"We have an excellent product relative to most places in the world," Doitsh said. "We are among the safest places in the world for the gay community, if not the safest. Tel Aviv is much safer to walk around in than most European capitals. Besides having a great city for tourism on its own, we also have a lively LGBT community that is an integral part of the city, making it the perfect product."

The Tel Aviv municipality said in a statement that it invests great resources in the LGBT community, increasing its support by hundreds of percent in the past few years, and plans to introduce a program being developed by the city's department of psychological services to teach tolerance toward the gay community in Tel Aviv schools in the next school year.