When the academic year opens in five months, a new community initiative will be launched in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva: an LGBTQ “students’ village.” At the start, 15 LGBTQ students will partake.
These students have received stipends and will live close to each other in several apartments in the city’s Gimmel neighborhood. They will share in communal activities and in volunteer work. The initiative’s organizers say they’ve taken steps in order to ensure that the project leads to the formation of a protected community within one of the city’s veteran neighborhoods.
Several organizations are involved in the initiative. The gay students’ fraternity; Aguda, the LGBTQ task force; the National Union of Israeli Students; Perach, the program for social impact, and the Pride House in Be’er Sheva.
Organizers say that if this pilot succeeds, they’ll promote similar projects in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere. “The goal of establishing a students’ village is to strengthen the LGBTQ community in Israel’s outlying areas and its enrichment, by creating a safe and fertile space in the LGBTQ community’s cultural life”, said organizers.
“This will ultimately lead to a situation in which people from this community who arrived in the city as students will not leave so easily for Tel Aviv later, thus strengthening the local LGBTQ community.”
“Our goal with this village is to create LGBTQ centers in peripheral areas of the country, whether it’s a geographical or social periphery. They can lead their lives with pride in these centers, being able to lead creative lives,” says Elad Berger, 28, speaking to Haaretz.
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Berger heads the gay students’ fraternity. He also hopes to make local residents welcome their presence, creating a sense of community among people who study in the city. “When you have a community, you don’t leave it that easily when you graduate.”
According to organizers, the initiative came from the ground. In a poll of 73 LGBTQ students from across the country, 92 percent said that they would be interested in living in a students’ village. As many as 90 percent said that they’d be willing to change apartments for that purpose.
Many of the respondents said that the reason for this was their wish to gain a sense of belonging, and that they were interested in promoting the LGBTQ community. Some said they were looking for a safe space, after encountering discrimination or violence. According to the Aguda task force, 215 incidents that were defined as LGBT-phobic took place in Be’er Sheva last year.
“I’d be happy to study and live in a supportive environment. I encounter a lot of LGBTQ-phobia where I am” wrote one respondent. “One of the reasons I left the university I was in was the attitude to LGBTQ community members.” Another respondent said: “I could easily have gone to other student villages, but in a gay village I’ll be part of a society where I feel I belong, and I can volunteer in areas that are important to me.”
So that the student village doesn’t become an isolated “bubble,” the organizers decided that participants will not live in the same building but in a few apartments on one or two streets in the neighborhood. Their volunteer work will not focus only on issues relating to the gay community but will also be focused on the neighborhood at large.
“In the past there has always been some tension between students and locals in Be’er Sheva; this is a problem that exists also in the gay community,” said Rinat Tzuk-Bazak, director of the Pride House in Be’er Sheva, one of the organizers of the project. “We’ll make sure our finger will always be on the pulse so that things are integrated, not something coming from the outside but something from within Be’er Sheva.”
Berger explains that, “The purpose is not to create an LGBTQ neighborhood, but... an LGBTQ community life within a particular neighborhood, which is not a crime.” He adds: “Just like there’s a religious community that congregates around a certain synagogue, we would want in a certain neighborhood for there to be a gay community that congregates around institutions that are to their liking.”
Dr. Chen Misgav, a political geographer and gender and sexuality researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, supports the move and believes that concerns about creating a “ghetto” are pretty weak.
“There’s potential here for strengthening a community and encouraging local political activism,” he said. “Anyone who knows the urban history of the LGBTQs knows that segregated neighborhoods for LGBTQs were never created from above and certainly never at the initiative of the community, but a historic phenomenon simply rooted in harsh discrimination.”
Aguda director Ohad Hizki believes that setting up the student village is an important step for the gay community in the country’s outlying areas. “You have to remember that even today thousands of members of the community suffer from discrimination, hatred, violence and LBGT-phobia,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the project will help eradicate these phenomena and enable each person to be who they are in every place they choose to live.”