Alon Elbakri, 15, came out of the closet about a year ago when he told his mother that he was gay.
"All my life I've been attracted to boys," he said. "I'd go to gay sites on the Internet, but I kept fighting myself, saying 'I like girls,' even though it wasn't true. Last year, in eighth grade, I underwent a change and realized that's what I am."
Nor is Elbakri exceptional: A survey conducted by Dr. Gay Shilo of Tel Aviv University indicates that the average age at which Israeli gays come out of the closet is declining. The agonizing that plagued most gays until a few years ago now mostly ends during high school.
"We're witnessing a social change," Shilo said. "At the end of the 1990s, the average coming-out age was 22. Today, it's 16."
Today, Elbakri will join tens of thousands of gays, bisexuals and transgenders at Tel Aviv's 11th annual Gay Pride Parade. The white city will turn pink as the parade, financed by the municipality, sets out at 1:30 P.M. from the gay community center at Meir Park, after a happening and an international gay tourism fair in the park.
Massive traffic jams are expected, as several city thoroughfares will be closed to traffic for the parade, which will be guarded by police, Border Police and civil defense volunteers. Bograshov, Ben-Yehuda and Ben-Gurion streets will be closed to traffic from 11:30 A.M. to 5 P.M., as will the streets leading to them. The parade will proceed from King George St. to Bograshov St., Ben-Yehuda St. and Ben-Gurion Boulevard and finally end up at Gordon beach, where a huge party with singers and DJs will be held from about 3 P.M. to sunset. The event will culminate in five simultaneous gay marriages.
Shilo, the head of research for the gay youth movement IGY, recently completed his doctorate at TAU, on the consolidation of sexual inclinations among gay youths. "Gay boys and girls mostly start feeling different from their peers between age 10 and 13," he said. "But the time between feeling different about themselves and deciding to categorize themselves as gay is getting shorter."
One reason why teenagers are coming out sooner is earlier sexual development among both gay and straight teens, Shilo said. Another reason is the growing exposure to gay boys and girls on television and the Internet. The latter, in addition to various forums and informational sites, also provides gay dating sites.
Shimi, from Lod, came out of the closet at 16, on the eve of his brother's wedding.
"I got really drunk at the wedding and told my sister I was gay," he said. "The next day she told everyone. They [my family] don't accept it at all. I've had a boyfriend for almost two years and it's very difficult for them. They say I must drop it, that I shouldn't seal my fate at such a young age. I'm not optimistic about them. They've known for two and a half years and it's not getting easier. But I tell them this is how things are and they must accept me for what I am."
Shimi's class, in contrast, took his sexual identity relatively well, though he is the only outed gay in the school.
"Even those I expected to be the most homophobic are okay with it, and when I tell them I have a boyfriend, they ask me questions like 'who's the man and who's the woman,'" he said.
Bar, 17, of Nes Tziona, was also surprised by the ease with which his sexual inclination was accepted at school.
"At school everyone knows, and I'm really happy about it," he said. "I expected people to harass me or make nasty comments, but it didn't happen."
All the teenagers interviewed for this article agreed that the increased number of gays on television programs was the most significant factor in their social acceptance.
"I think it's much easier to come out today," said Shimi. "The environment is terribly exposed to it. There isn't a TV program that doesn't have a gay on it. Straights are beginning to see all kinds of celebrities as people and less as gays."
But Shilo warned that gay youngsters' problems are far from over. In religious or conservative communities, such as Ethiopians or immigrants from the former Soviet Union, coming out at a young age is still not very common, he said. Moreover, the increase in young people coming out of the closet has led to homophobic outbursts that increase gay's distress.
Some 80 percent of the youths who participated in the IGY survey said they have often been called "homo" as an insult in school, and 23 percent said teachers have called them homophobic names.
Bar no longer cares what the teachers think of him. "Once the teacher said, 'one day, when you have a girlfriend...' I smiled and said: 'Why don't I see that happening?' The whole class laughed, but the teacher didn't understand," he said.
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