Gay Israeli Arab Youths Thrown Lifeline Through WhatsApp

No one said coming out in a largely Muslim community was easy, but the group Israel Gay Youth is striving to make it easier with the help of WhatsApp.

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Leaders of the group Israel Gay Youth: Rachel Ben Zur, Ziad Abul Hawa and Ido Cohen, September 2016.
Leaders of the group Israel Gay Youth: Rachel Ben Zur, Ziad Abul Hawa and Ido Cohen, September 2016.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“Hi, how’s it going?” said the WhatsApp message in Arabic that arrived from an unrecognized number. Either way, it sure stoked lots of excitement at the group Israel Gay Youth in central Tel Aviv. The excitement wasn’t because of the words per se, but because someone had summoned the courage to send it.

Everyone in the room rushed to answer it. “I’m a counselor for IGY,” one of them texted back, using the group’s abbreviation, which is pronounced Iggy. “Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

The seconds turned into minutes, and pretty quickly we realized the conversation was over. The excitement in the room vanished as if it had never happened.

Israel Gay Youth launched its WhatsApp hotline last month – it lets Arab young people, whether LGBT or still uncertain, approach the organization anonymously. It has only received a handful of messages, and the senders wrap the conversations up quickly.

“It is not an issue that’s talked about by us at all; it’s taboo,” says 28-year-old Ziad Abul Hawa, who also goes by the name Zizo. He’s not at all surprised by the meager response. “People try to keep away from it as much as possible,” he says.

Originally from East Jerusalem, Abul Hawa lives in Tel Aviv today. He’s a staff member for Alwaan (Colors), which was started two years ago especially for Arab Israelis.

Rachel Ben Zur, 31, is the coordinator of the project. “In Israeli society there’s a wide range of identities that are erased and not expressed, and at IGY we have to give them room and expression. As a Mizrahi-lesbian woman, it’s an important principle that I follow,” she says, referring to Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa.

The staff at Israel Gay Youth have already translated the group’s website into Arabic. They’ve also begun work on an online forum in Arabic. The latest thing is the WhatsApp hotline, which was a great success in its Hebrew version with about six conversations received every shift on a range of subjects, both personal and general.

People participate the annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, June 3, 2016. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

“They include matters of coming out of the closet, questions about sexual and gender identity,” says Ido Cohen, the organization’s manager for digital operations. “And sometimes more difficult cases come in too, of unprotected sex, prostitution and young people who cut themselves. There were a few young guys who triggered the warning signs of being suicidal.”

From East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv

As for Arab society, the road is long and includes coping with issues such as coming out of the closet and sexual identity. “Some people don’t even think there’s such a thing as a gay Arab,” Abul Hawa says.

He married a Jewish man a year ago and says he doesn’t hide his sexual identity anywhere, not even on the Mount of Olives, the neighborhood where his family lives.

“My father asked me when I was 16 if I was attracted to men and not women, so I told him yes,” he says. “He asked me to be discreet, not because he was embarrassed or didn’t love me. He told me: ‘In the end you’ll leave this hole, but we’ll probably live and die here in East Jerusalem.’ We’re in a society that likes to talk; one where honor plays a big role.”

Two years later he told his mother too. “The first thing she told me was: ‘What will people say?’ This is always the first thing that worries us in society. She didn’t care that I was gay, she cared what the neighbors and extended family would say,” Abul Hawa says, noting that they didn’t speak for two or three months – until his brother mediated.

Since then she has helped him organize the wedding and today she’s “even in contract with all my ex’s, which isn’t so great.”

But Abul Hawa seems to be the exception; it’s usually harder for Arabs to come out of the closet. Israel Gay Youth has existed for over a decade. (Disclosure: I volunteered for the organization three years ago.)

But over this period, only a modest number of Arab counselors and members have joined. They’re spread out among the various Israel Gay Youth groups all over the country. The people at IGY are disappointed that their WhatsApp service is far from reaching its target, but at least the message has reached Arab young people.

“On average, some 30 people visit the page of the lesbians and the page of the gays, which is pretty good,” says Mohammed (a pseudonym) on the web pages that also direct people to the WhatsApp hotline. “On average, they spend six to nine minutes on the page.”

“They say they read all the information and think about it,” says Mohammed. Though there are pages geared for the trans, bi and queer communities, the lesbian and gay male pages attract the most interest.

“On the transgender page, based on what we see, people are looking for information on how to have an operation in Israel too,” Mohammed says. “This is very interesting because they’re young people.” He says half the visits to the site come from the Palestinian territories.

Six to nine minutes, 30 people a week; these are the numbers that stir hope, but they’re still very far from the goal.

Mohammed is also originally from East Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv. He works at a high-tech company in the center of the country and is still not completely out. “My gay friends in Jerusalem know I’m gay, and there’s a sort of understanding; I won’t out you and you won’t out me,” he says.

When he was 23, he began the process of self-acceptance, and recently he came out to his brother, who accepted it with understanding. “In the last two years I really began to accept it completely – to say that it’s actually a blessing to be gay and I can’t imagine myself straight,” Mohammed says.

He still hasn’t told his parents. He describes his family as secular, but immediately corrects that to “Muslim secular.”

“I didn’t grow up in the sort of family that says ‘we have to give the LGBT community rights, and they exist,’” Mohammed says. “That’s something you don’t talk about. I had to deal with it alone for many years.”

Facebook fracas

And what about the future? “The minute I have a partner, someone I know I want to live with till the end of my days, there’s no way they won’t know about it,” he says.

For now he’s careful not to reveal his real name, and he’s not the only one among the Arab IGY volunteers who are keeping things under wraps. Anton, 24, lives in an Israeli Arab city. He has volunteered as a counselor for the past two years and simply uses his first name.

He told his parents he was gay when he was 16. He says their response, as Christian Arabs, was relatively good. Three years later, when a picture of him kissing a man was posted on Facebook – “within an hour the entire city had the picture” – it was harder for them. “They were very angry with me – why did you tell the entire world? You’re embarrassing us now,” Anton says.

“And then I told them: ‘It’s hard for you? What can I say, I deal with it every day.’ And it really was a difficult period. I sat alone a lot of the time, without family, without friends.”

Since then the situation with his mother has changed significantly. “She helped me translate [on the website] from Hebrew to Arabic, and even laughed about it: ‘It’s 2016; I’m helping you.’”

But the relationship with his father is more restrained. “Still, in the last year he has more connected with me and sometimes asks: ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘What’s happening?’” He prefers not to bring a partner or a date home. “I’m not looking to stick it in their faces,” he says, adding that he tries to be considerate.

The incidents that Anton has to deal with outside his home are much tougher. He says he counsels a 16-year-old from a Druze village in the north, and the kid is always being harassed in school about being gay.

Meanwhile, a 19-year-old from the same area is undergoing sex-reassignment treatments.

“He talks to me once or twice a month, and I devote time to him so he can unload,” Anton says. “I tell him: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll grow up, get into college, and then you’ll be able to breathe. Just a little longer.’ But how long can you tell him ‘just a little longer?’ The kid’s about to explode. It’s hard for me to hear him crying all the time.”

But the difficulty in reaching out into Arab society doesn’t end here. “First of all, we’re part of IGY, and however much IGY loves and accepts us, the organization is funded by the state,” says Abul Hawa, who has been active in the group for about a year and is also something of a politico.

But not only Arab youths are afraid to turn to the organization. He says other Arab and Palestinian LGBT organizations such as Aswat (Voices) for Palestinian gay women or Al-Qaws (Rainbow) – the first Palestinian LGBTQ organization – are unwilling to cooperate with any Israeli or Zionist organization, not even with IGY.

“On the one hand, you can understand why they don’t want to cooperate. On the other, it’s very upsetting and annoying,” Abul Hawa says. “The world isn’t only ideology; there are more important things.”

Despite all this, if there’s something that irks Abul Hawa it’s attributing the fear of coming out to Arab society. “There’s a little bullshit there, because violence against coming out of the closet exists everywhere,” he says. “It happens with Jews, Christians – in every corner of the world.”

Abul Hawa says the violent incident he remembers best didn’t take place in East Jerusalem but rather in south Tel Aviv’s gay-friendly Florentin neighborhood.

“I was at a party with a friend, and a few men came, asked us if we were gay, and in a second, even before we answered, they beat us up and broke my glasses. We left there hurt and went to the hospital. It happened in Tel Aviv, not in an Arab village or town.”