Pride, Prejudice and Trauma |

Israel Celebrates Gay Pride, but Struggle for Equal Rights Persists

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The report on Thursday of the arrest of suspects in the 2009 Bar Noar shootings, coming a day before the Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, brings the community back to the worst trauma it has ever experienced. At a time when we thought we were home free, the killings were a reminder that homophobia still exists, expressed not only in the act itself, but in the comments of support it engendered on the Web.

Reports are that the killings were not a hate crime, but stemmed, as it appears at press time, from a personal vendetta. And yet, the shooting did not target a known individual, but seems to have been sparked by hatred of LGBT people as a group, which various events in the suspect’s personal history seem to have brought about. Whatever the trigger that led to the murder may have been, it seems that the wish not to kill only a specific person but also LGBT as a group cannot be detached from the existence of homophobia as a social phenomenon.

These are the questions that will be bothering hundreds of thousands of people taking part in Friday's march in Tel Aviv, the height of a week of parties and events that attract many people. The slogan of this year’s event “20 years of visibility” does its calculation from 1993, when the first gay public events were held in Sheinkin Park.

That was also the year the first event involving gays was held at the Knesset, initiated by Yael Dayan and featuring Prof. Uzi Even, a leader in changing discriminatory Israel Defense Forces policy. Also in that year, the High Court of Justice heard a petition by flight attendant Jonathan Danilowitz against El Al for refusing to recognize his partner’s right to free airline tickets, which led to the court’s first ruling on the subject of discrimination based on sexual orientation, delievered in 1994.

How is it that these changes came so fast, relatively speaking? To understand, we have to remember that the groundbreaking struggles of gays and lesbians involved participation in two vital institutions in Israeli society − the army ‏(Even’s struggle‏), and family ‏(Danilovich’s‏), the latter a battle joined later by lesbians seeking recognition of their parenting rights.

These fights not only didn’t undermine the institutions of army and family, they validated them. Researcher Ruti Kadish pointed out that the men wanted to be soldiers and the women wanted to be mothers, which are the roles Zionism envisioned for them.

Paradoxically, the status of religion worked in favor of the cause. Because in Israel we can only marry and divorce in a religious ceremony, the need for alternatives created the options of common-law marriages and overseas marriage ceremonies. These developed over the years into solutions for same-sex couples.


In the new millennium, the Foreign Ministry and other agencies pounced on these developments as an opportunity to “brand” Israel as democratic and liberal in an attempt to improve its image. For example, after the 2010 flotilla to Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on people to protest “in places were women are oppressed, homosexuals hanged in town squares, in places where there are no human rights. Go to Tehran. Go to Gaza.” As if progress in LGBT rights can change the direction of the debate over human rights violations in the occupied territories. This exploitation of LGBT rights − known as “pinkwashing” − makes these rights the fig leaf of Israeli democracy.

The state flies the banner of LGBT rights but has no active policy of promoting them and doing away with existing discrimination. To a great extent, this approach became more pronounced after the Bar Noar shootings. In the past, support for the LGBT community came from leftist politicians because it was part of their general human rights-oriented worldview. Now, the universal condemnation of violence against LGBT people allowed the right wing to try to create a liberal image for itself, domestically as well.

Acceptance of the LGBT community in the Israeli mainstream depends on their being good citizens who want to be part of the existing social order. If in the early years of the millennium we saw a lesbian baby boom, now we’re seeing the same thing among gays, whether in joint parenting with women, or surrogacy, for those who can afford it.

As we celebrate 20 years of visibility, we note the huge change for the better in equal rights, freedom and in people’s lives. But we must also ask how the relative success in the struggle for rights in the realm of the family channels LGBT people to normative behavior, and the well-known pressure to enter a family structure − homonormativity − becomes integrated into homonationalism, with gay people, who were commonly perceived in 1993 as a threat to the state, becoming an instrument serving its propaganda.

Still, Friday's parade is important, at least for the large, varied, norm-busting community that will flood Tel Aviv’s streets today with pride.

Participants hold flags during the gay pride parade in Jerusalem July 29, 2010. Credit: Reuters
Community members mourn in the wake of the Bar Noar shooting on August 1, 2009 that killed two teenagers in Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Bar-On