The Question Only Mizrahi Queers Can Ask

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Sarit Hadad, one of Israel's most popular singers, who came out a gay earlier this week.
Sarit Hadad, one of Israel's most popular singers, came out a gay earlier this week.Credit: Tomer Neuberg / JINI

“Today I feel like going to the family dinner and telling my mom, did you hear about Sarit Hadad?” says Yael Mishali in an interview before the Sukkot holiday. “It’s like telling my mom, ‘You see?’ I know in the most personal way that [Hadad] did something big.”

Mishali teaches gender studies at Tel Aviv University and at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She is also a queer woman from a traditional Moroccan Jewish home, who even two decades ago performed drag shows based on Hadad’s songs.

“In my course on Mizrahi artists I always ask the class who the ultimate Mizrahi female artist is and the overwhelming majority say Sarit Hadad. There’s something very radical when such a consensual figure, who sanctifies the institution of the family, is the one who presents another family model,” she says.

The coming out of a Mizrahi cultural icon like Sarit Hadad is a watershed moment in the relations between the Mizrahi music industry and the LGBTQ community. These relations have become closer over the past decade, after the success of the Arisa line of gay parties, the Pride Parade clips and the parades themselves, which many Mizrahi singers participate in. Mizrahi music stars like Yishai Levy, Eyal Golan and Moshe Peretz responded that day with messages of support for Hadad, and social media was flooded with supportive comments from the public.

Hagai Uzan, Nasreen Kadri’s former manager, criticized in a Facebook post the media’s part in shaping the Mizrahi audience’s homophobic image: “[T]he prejudices are toward the Mizrahi audience, they said it won’t accept it, they said it was homophobic, that the Mizrahi audience is conservative and it would be an earthquake for it. They said everything but the truth and the truth is that it doesn’t matter one bit to the audience, all the audience cares about is the music. ... The fear of the audience response is the prejudice, and we must get rid of that.”

But even if we look at the Mizrahi community as a whole, we cannot ignore the fact that in many senses it is still struggling to integrate into the hegemonic Israeli society, and that even today it is a courageous move for a young Mizrahi adult to go beyond the bounds of what is normative.

”There’s the part about not wanting to draw attention and to create a double aberration,” says Mishali.

“Many Mizrahi families experience queerness as something Ashkenazi, something Western, as in ‘what are you doing, bringing that into our home? It’s not us.’ That’s why I’m so excited by Sarid Hadad’s coming out. It’s taking such a familiar image, something so ours, so like me, suddenly doing something I thought was the opposite of me. This is the place in which awareness can change and take shape.”

Mishali says coming out is usually more difficult in Mizrahi families. “When you’re a Mizrahi woman, it has certain meanings,” she says. “Compared to an Ashenazi woman it’s like the difference between heaven and earth. You have to conduct two struggles instead of one. I think Mizrahi women are more intimately socialized into values and tradition than Ashkenazi women. There’s something about a Mizrahi family that feels it’s us against the world. You’re expected not to leave the family. Coming out in a Mizrahi family is sometimes seen as going against the family.”

But Hadad chose to come out after establishing her self as a major star, and some of the comments on social media faulted this. On the other hand, Mishali says, “There’s something very understandable and logical in coming out when you feel you have a sympathetic, supportive audience. Apparently Hadad’s choice not to expose her sexual orientation gave her some protection. By the way, we keep talking about her as a Mizrahi woman and she is, and that’s her performance, but she grew up in a Caucasian home” – her family was originally from Azerbaijan – and it’s important to credit that specific culture as well. In any case, it’s hard to imagine she’d have had the same career had she come out early on. If we zoom in to the personal and emotional space of a Mizrahi woman, we’ll see that we internalize those things, public opinion, the opinions of the men in our family, the patriarchy that has been injected into our veins from childhood. Being a Mizarahi woman in this society means a lot of internal noise and internal conflict. I think it’s hard and scary and I’m happy for her that she found the moment that was right for her. She’s not a poster that represents us. She’s also a human being. Now that she can do it I’m glad she did it and it has value. One can ask why she didn’t do it earlier, but if you’re Ashkenazi or straight it’s less appropriate.”

Sarit Hadad in concert.Credit: David Bachar

In addition to wondering about the timing of Hadad’s sensational coming out, many of the comments on social media support her right to maintain her privacy over the years. Celebrities’ choice to keep their sexual orientation private is seen by many in the LGBTQ community as anachronistic or as demonstrating a lack of solidarity. Now that the community is a political, economic power, it has the potential to give people who come out the biggest embrace in the world. But in contrast, the community can also be cruel in its demand to tell this story and to be a model for young LGBTQ people.

“The demand to go public is an Ashkenazi, Western demand, stemming from the thought that all our stories are similar,” Mishali says. “We’ll, like, tell our personal story but it’s expected to echo that one story. Minorities and women have much more to lose by telling that story. People need you to confirm their stereotypes regarding every minority. And if you don’t, you’ll pay a price.

“This whole confessional mechanism that is directed against LGBTQ people and Mizrahim and anyone who is different assumes that something went wrong. When a Mizrahi woman tells her story people want to hear the sleazy, the sensational. And that’s the case with LGBTQ stories. The listening isn’t clean, there’s something that looks for the roots of the feminine, Mizrahi or queer malfunction. In the LGBTQ mainstream this obligation to confess is extremely tainted,” Mishali says.

In many ways the changes and the progress the LGBTQ community has made in Israel both in legislation and on the level of public acceptance are very impressive, especially in regard to the time that has passed since the 1990s. Support for LGBTQ people has become part of the Israeli mainstream’s accepted values. “Being a homophobe is worse today than being a racist,” Mishali says. “But the acceptance is less exciting than people think, part of the change in attitude is mere lip service, people have learned the language of political correctness. There is acceptance, but acceptance is always doing someone a favor, not seeing them as a human being like everyone else. If you’re a lesbian and a gay guy who want to have children we may accept you. But there is formal change and there’s real change. As a gender studies teacher I can say I see the changes taking place much more slowly than people imagine. In academia too, in the gender studies department, people are on the one hand open and fluid, multigender and multisexual, but face-to-face, people still have difficulty talking about sexuality that differs from the norm. In a work interview, for example, obviously you wouldn’t say you’re lesbian, but you would talk about your husband. That’s still seen as hypersexual so you wouldn’t say it in an academic or work environment. Even in my own family I don’t see these changes happening. We may be in another place but being LGBTQ is still far from accepted. People still get beaten up on the street, still get thrown out of their home. It’s not an LGBTQ paradise.”

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