Look Out, Tel Aviv

Israel's Gay Scene Thrives in Unexpected Places

As acceptance grows, the LGBT community begins to shun the undisputed capital of gay Israel in favor of other towns.

Ilan Assayag

Although Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride was celebrated nearly half a year ago, people are still humming the festival’s official theme song, which was presented by a young (and straight) singer, Omer Adam. The song says “Sahtein al Tel Aviv” – which could be translated as “Good for you, Tel Aviv” – and the gay scene there is indeed flourishing. But while Tel Aviv is Israel’s gay capital, there is a growing gay scene in other cities around the country, hosting more and more parties and events catering to the LGBT community.

“Because there is more openness today to gay pride, there is the feeling that this subject has become a social norm outside Tel Aviv as well," says Michal Sher, 31, a member of the executive board of Agudah (the national LGBT association in Israel) and who organizes its weekly dance parties and social activities. "As a result, there is a growing demand for activities for the gay community in other [Israeli] cities. People are no longer afraid to go with their agenda, and this fact is expressed in nightlife activities. There are amazing gay communities in Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem and Haifa, and weekly dance parties are now beginning to become a feature in Kiryat Gat,” he notes.

Avishag Tabib, 26, who produces the weekly Monroe multisexual dance parties at Be’er Sheva’s Grace Bar, cites another reason for the increase in the number of gay events in Israel’s outlying regions, and also describes the process that led her to organize weekly dance parties in Be’er Sheva. “We have learned to take responsibility for ourselves outside Tel Aviv," she says. "I thought that when I turned 18 I would move to the ‘state of Tel Aviv,’ because I am lesbian. But I really love the city I live in, my friends are here and it is important to establish a gay base here.”

“When we began to organize weekly dance parties nearly three years ago, all we wanted was a place where gays could party," she adds. "There was no gay scene and there were hardly any events for gays here. At first, the parties were on Wednesdays, but since they turned out to be so successful we moved them to Fridays. Now the Resident Bar [in Be’er Sheva], which used to put on a drag show at the Grace Bar, is organizing its own weekly dance parties.”

What do you think created this change?

“First of all, Ben-Gurion University attracts new faces to Be’er Sheva. Second, we have a new, young mayor [Ruvik Danilovich] who is sensitive to the needs of young people. Third, we decided to create this place instead of traveling to Tel Aviv whenever we wanted to go out on the town. Besides, I am active in the LGBT organization and we hold meetings in schools. Today, straight adolescents are getting the message that there is a gay community in Be’er Sheva, and they are cool with that idea.”

Assi Nahum, 33, who produces weekly dance parties for the Newton Bar in Haifa, attributes the increase in gay events outside Tel Aviv to the economic situation. “We are today witnessing a trend: Young gay people are returning to their homes in northern Israel, where there are many gays," he says. "In northern Israel, you don’t have to pay NIS 4,000 a month [about $1,140] for a moldy apartment, which is what you would have to shell out in Tel Aviv. Another reason is that Israeli society is undergoing a change. Gays are prominently represented on mainstream media in every field – as presenters of products [i.e., makeup artist Miki Buganim] or judges on reality shows [such as singers Dana International and Ivri Lider]. This development is creating greater openness and turning the whole issue into something that is completely normative. Once upon a time gays had to escape to Tel Aviv; today they can enjoy peace of mind anywhere in Israel.”

There is also a gay awakening in Jerusalem, says Sarah Weil, 29, producer of weekly gay dance parties in the nation’s capital in various contexts, including Women’s Gathering. “We are accepted here,” she says. “Of course, I’m not talking about the ultra-Orthodox. But the secular and modern Orthodox Jewish communities do accept us, and I feel I don’t have to hide who I am. In the last two years, I have begun to feel that there is a demand [for weekly dance parties] and therefore began to organize my own weekly dance parties, which ‘migrated’ from place to place in Jerusalem. The weekly dance parties organized by Noa Maharevsky for Bat Hayam are a big success, and The Video Pub, which openly advertises itself as a gay bar, has recently opened. There is a [gay] awakening and there is a need - in sharp contrast with the situation in the past. At whatever bar I organized a weekly dance party, a different group showed up. At Hashchena, the crowd is different from what you might find at Uganda [another bar]. The impression is that Jerusalem accepts us.”

'Welcoming environment'

Judging from the comments by producers of gay events, there appear to be additional differences - not only in the nature of the events but also in their quantity. “In Tel Aviv,” Tabib points out, “there are parties for subcategories [of gays], which proves that the community is really big. However, from the standpoint of community feeling, there are hardly any parties for gays of both sexes. In Be’er Sheva, homosexuals and lesbians participate in joint events and parties. They want to feel that they truly belong to the gay community and want to create a welcoming environment. The weekly dance parties are also smaller in scope and held in smaller places – not in big clubs, as in Tel Aviv.”

Sher also sees a difference between the weekly dance parties she organizes in Tel Aviv and those held in other parts of Israel where she is invited to DJ. “When I DJ in Be’er Sheva or Jerusalem, the energy level is always very high, because the party is not something that the participants take for granted," she says. "The crowd is very open-minded and ‘without airs’; people don’t do 'club-hopping,' and instead spend their time in the same place the entire evening. I try to import their energy to my parties in Tel Aviv.”

Omer Tubi is also trying to import those outside energies to the dance parties he organizes in Tel Aviv. Tubi, 24, is one of the organizers of the successful Arisa weekly dance parties at the Comfort Club. “We are very proud of the fact that our party is not very Tel Avivian," he says. "I’m from Be’er Sheva, and most of our participants and PR people did not grow up in Tel Aviv. Outside Tel Aviv, the parties are less artificial and more authentic, because there is not the same kind of abundance as you have in Tel Aviv; the parties come from a more genuine place.”

Israel's LGBT community was unified last week as it prepared to organize a protest party after Moshe Abutbul - the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh - spoke disparagingly of gays. In an interview with talk-show host Shai Stern on Channel 10, Abutbul declared that his city had no gay community and that, if there were any, they should be dealt with by the police or the Health Ministry.

In response to those statements, a number of gay organizations and social activists organized a protest demonstration at the Naimi shopping mall in Beit Shemesh. Sher participated in the demonstration. “We organized a party to protest the mayor’s words of incitement," she explains. "It’s important to support outlying cities, so that the people living there don’t have to go to Tel Aviv to feel peace of mind.”

Tubi also enjoys spending time outside Tel Aviv with colleagues and friends. “We go to a lot of weekly GAP dance parties organized by Assi Nahum and Guy Harel at the Bulldog Bar [in Haifa]," he says. "In the final analysis, you have to be rather brave to be openly gay outside Tel Aviv. Gays who choose to stay in the community where they grew up, to study and work there as well as to develop the life of the community there, deserve much credit for their courageous, important work.”

Ilan Assayag
Tess Scheflan