Hundreds gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square late last month, the municipality building shining in the alternating colors of the gay, transgender and bisexual Pride flags.
But this year’s official LGBTQ Pride event in the city featured no tight swimsuits or throngs of ogling tourists, no corporate floats or throbbing music (until pop duo Static & Ben-El took the stage, in a puzzling intermission).
Instead, tipsy revelry and swarming crowds were replaced by a somewhat fanciful 2-meter distancing rule and somber attention as speaker after speaker castigated not just the government for denying the community equality, but elements of the community that have abandoned their siblings in need.
Similar rallies were held in three other major cities – Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva. With its decentralization from Israel’s gay mecca of Tel Aviv, with its exchange of parties for protests, with its calls to shelter those most vulnerable within the community rather than to show how palatable it can be to the straight world, the events highlighted the effect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the country’s LGBTQ community.
The party’s over
Usually, Israel doesn’t observe a Pride month so much as a Pride season. Events, parades, protests and rallies often start in late May and stretch through July; in Tel Aviv alone, city hall holds over 50 events in honor of Pride, not counting the multiple parties hosted each night by clubs and venues. This year, with no tourists, no large gatherings and a hard-hit economy, this wasn’t feasible – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, activists say.
Elisha Alexander, chairman of the transgender advocacy and information organization Maavarim, says many local authorities see a Pride event as a one-and-done deal, but this year forced them to look at things differently.
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“Events are fun, but there are places where you really need to invest more,” he says.
A city council might have a Pride event and check it off the list, but this year they might hold a talk for their welfare department on the LGBTQ community instead. “When you can’t hold events, people have to consider how they’re going to invest in the community in other ways. I see it as a very positive thing,” Alexander says.
Community organizer Kul Kolton admits that this Pride season has been the most complicated to date. Kolton, who uses mixed feminine and masculine pronouns (“I don’t care how you address me, so long as you have good intentions”), works with the local council of the central Israeli town of Yehud-Monosson to strengthen the area’s LGBTQ community. Pride “fell off the central agenda, but became a central component of the local agenda,” he says.
Due to the coronavirus, the center of Pride celebrations has shifted from Tel Aviv to quarantined Israelis’ homes. This can mean hanging a Pride flag in the window, or confronting a homophobic neighbor or friend, Kul says: “Instead of just emphasizing what’s happening in the big cities, suddenly small towns are waking up.”
Tel Aviv has been no exception. Councilman Etai Pinkas-Arad, who holds the LGBTQ portfolio at the Tel Aviv Municipality, says that this year, “We’re putting less of an emphasis on the party and the ‘look how much fun we’re having’ aspect. We need to remember – and we need to remind those around us – that we’re very far from full equal rights.”
Last month, the city became a regional trailblazer by announcing its decision to recognize civil partnerships – a move the government, comprising several ultra-Orthodox parties, shows no sign of ever adopting. Besides its practical aspects, in which registered same-sex or mixed-religion partners will receive the same benefits as those married in the eyes of the state, Pinkas-Arad says “there’s the symbolic aspect of being registered and being recognized.”
While canceling events and parties does redirect the attention of city halls throughout the country, this year’s lack has had a profound effect on LGBTQ individuals.
“Nightlife is activism,” says Reut Naggar, who works on LGBTQ strategy with the Tel Aviv Municipality and runs the online publication WDG. “It sounds like nonsense to go out and party, but for the LGBTQ community, it’s a space where you can be who you are – you’re not surrounded by straight people and forced into that feeling of loneliness.
“That wasn’t there for the last few months. What we did have was isolation,” she adds.
That sentiment is echoed by Avi Soffer, an LGBTQ activist for nearly four decades and manager of the LGBTQ youth shelter Beit Dror. “Everything that happens within the Israeli population happens within the gay community,” he says. But the ramifications of the coronavirus – particularly the isolation and loneliness of lockdown, the return to the family home – have hit the already at-risk community especially hard, he adds.
Due to the gender pay gap, a family of two women already makes less money, Soffer says. If one half of a couple loses her income, the already-smaller sum is cut in half. Elderly LGBTQ people, who were often isolated from society and their families long before the coronavirus, are now facing a dire plague of loneliness. “Everything that happens to the general population is enhanced and magnified,” he stresses.
Naggar says that many LGBTQ people flee their conservative hometowns and unaccepting families for Tel Aviv, or other, more tolerant big cities. Many of those who lost their jobs during the coronavirus crisis had no choice but to move back home, to towns that don’t have the same support system that big cities do.
The most vulnerable
For particularly high-risk groups within the community, the damage was exponential. The transgender community, both in Israel and overseas, faces outsize prejudice. Because of the social exclusion they often face due to the basis of their gender identity, it’s particularly hard for trans people to find work, and many are in a dire economic situation in the best of times.
According to Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry data from 2016 and published last year, 32 percent of transgender people in Israel were consistently unemployed, compared to 10 percent of gay men, 14 percent of lesbians and 5 percent of the general population. If their families reject them as youths, they often find themselves on the street and many, especially trans women, turn to sex work and find themselves trapped in a cycle of prostitution.
The coronavirus “severely affected the transgender community,” Alexander says, adding: “People are living off crusts of bread in the best case scenario; now they’re looking at empty refrigerators.”
Maavarim contacted the health, public security and welfare ministries with requests for help. Many members of the trans community also turned to the organization for basic information: how to handle unpaid leave, and how to deal with medical needs such as access to hormone replacement therapy during lockdown.
Many young members of the trans community were stuck with families that are not wholly accepting of their gender identity, or are still fully in the closet, leaving them with no outlet for understanding or validation other than the internet, says Lee Arnon, an educator and performer who volunteers as a guide for young trans people at Israel Gay Youth (IGY).
Arnon, who uses they/them pronouns, says that before the pandemic, some youngsters would only leave their home to attend IGY meetings. Those were moved to Zoom. Kids who joined the meetings from their family homes had to reconcile their need for a community with the fear that their parents might overhear them.
For some trans youth, Arnon notes, the coronavirus crisis was a mixed blessing. The lockdown gave some of the kids they work with respite from an outside world that doesn’t understand them. “They didn’t need to ‘pass’ [as the gender with which they identify] in the public space,” they say. “They didn’t experience the harassment, physical violence, rude questions and having to correct people on a daily basis.”
Tel Aviv Municipality, which offers services to the trans community through its LGBTQ center, gave direct aid to trans women in need, including food deliveries, Pinkas-Arad says. In other cities, that aid is rare, if available at all.
But Soffer says LGBTQ people in general, even if they have access to them to begin with, tend to avoid turning to local government for help because of the homophobia or transphobia that pervades the system, even if it’s unofficial. “The trans community is always the weakest link, especially for women, especially for sex workers,” he says.
There was a time, Alexander notes, when gay men and trans women were met with the same slur by straight society. “Part of the gay struggle for equality forgot where it came from,” he says. “In time, as the gay and lesbian community started to gain more mainstream acceptance, they’ve focused on issues that are important, but they aren’t a matter of life and death – dealing with marriage, for example, and more symbolic things, while other segments of the community are more concerned with fighting for their lives.”
Last month’s rallies across the country seemingly testified to this. The speeches in Tel Aviv shunted aside issues like surrogacy and marriage, and gave a broad platform to the transgender community. In her fiery speech, model and actress Stav Strashko accused gay men specifically, and the community as a whole, of abandoning transgender women like herself in the fight for acceptability and integration. At the beginning of the LGBTQ struggle, she said, trans women acted as surrogate mothers to gay boys thrown out of their homes. “So how did we become your sidekicks?” she asked. “Come on, bring us back up the social ladder!”
Nizar Helawy, who manages IGY’s Alwan program – a cluster of groups for Arabic-speaking LGBTQ youth – says the pandemic has compounded what Alwan and the guides he works with see as “disaster season.”
The summer, starting with Pride month, brings with it euphoria, experimentation and pressure to come out of the closet, Helawy says. For LGBTQ youth, and Arab LGBTQ youth in particular, this can have disastrous consequences. The pressure remains, but the coronavirus crisis replaced the euphoria of Pride parades and seas of tourists with lockdowns with families. This left them vulnerable and depressed, he says, and has pushed some back into the closet for the foreseeable future.
But that’s the best case scenario, Helawy says. “There are a lot of kids in my groups who are sex workers. They haven’t been home for a long time, they’ve been bouncing between houses and shelters. On the night of the lockdown [in mid-March], I got a lot of calls from kids who found themselves on the street, including young Palestinians who escaped from the territories,” he recounts. “They were staying with friends, but with the coronavirus situation they found themselves homeless.”
Since the quarantine began, he says, shelters in Tel Aviv and Holon (a suburb south of Tel Aviv) have been at full capacity.
When public services are available in Israel, Helawy explains, Arabs in general “don’t know how to ask for them, or that they’re entitled to rights.” This is true of LGBTQ Arabs as well, and especially the trans people among them. A disproportionate amount of trans women working in the sex industry are Arab, he says, and Arab trans women are at “the very, very, very bottom of the hierarchy.”
In the United States, Pride marches took place in the shadow of the murder of George Floyd while in police custody and the rising Black Lives Matter movement, returning the country’s LGBTQ community to its roots: the Stonewall riots, which were a direct response to police violence. Helawy says Israel’s LGBTQ Arabs were less affected by this than by another recent event, also cited by the community’s Jewish activists.
The suicide last month of Sarah Hegazy, a 30-year-old woman who was jailed and tortured in Egypt after raising a rainbow flag at a concert and then found sanctuary in Canada, shook the community. It triggered debate about the growing influence of conservative religious groups in Israel’s Arab society, Helawy says. “It’s sparked a lot of conversation. On the one hand, you’re thinking, ‘Maybe this is the start of something.’ On the other, you have your hand on your heart and saying, ‘This should never happen again.’”
Naggar believes that what’s currently happening in the community is the continuation of a positive trend toward introspection, both within the community as a whole and on the individual level. “Suddenly there were Zoom meetings on crucial and burning issues within the community,” she says, and these events were open to the disabled, those who have yet to come out, and to other community members who couldn’t attend parades and events in the past. “I feel like the community grew up a little,” she says.
Across the board, all the activists interviewed reported more mobilization within the community to help those in need during the lockdown, whether by ramping up donations to organizations that dispense aid or by organizing groups of friends to deliver meals to people on the brink.
But they also noted that there’s still a long way to go.
Kolton chose her words carefully at the end of our interview: “Until the LGBTQ community understands that keeping people alive is more important than bringing a child into this world…” he said, before correcting himself: “Until the LGBTQ community understands that preventing suicide…”
After a moment, Kolton finds the right message. “Until the majority of the community stands by the minority within it that needs it most, to me, the community won’t be on the right track.”