Standing on a Tel Aviv rooftop on a Friday afternoon, looking out over the Carmel Market as it gradually emptied out, and at the surrounding office towers, Chris Manning, a slim 29-year-old African-American bartender from Florida, wiped tears from his eyes as he repeatedly glanced down at his iPhone to reread what his sister had posted on Facebook minutes earlier.
“My brother had the amazing opportunity to go over to Israel and play basketball in the TAG2019 games and he went over there and gave them HELL!!!,” her post read, followed by flame emojis. “And came back with the gold!!! I’m so proud of him for staying true to himself and following his first love basketball!! #yougoboy.“
She attached a picture that Manning had shared earlier, showing him celebrating at the Beit Dani Community Center in the Hatikva neighborhood with his teammates — a mix of amateur Israeli and American athletes — after they won the basketball tournament at Tel Aviv LGBT Games 2019. Over the course of the day, they had beat out teams from London, Amsterdam and Paris. This was the second year in a row that Tel Aviv has hosted the event.
“My sister and my mom have been my biggest supporters since I came out,” said Manning, explaining why he was so overcome with emotion. The weekend tournament was one of the most momentous experiences of his life, he said. “I can’t believe I won at the gay games, and that I did it in the Holy Land!” he exclaimed, unable to suppress a smile.
The owners and patrons of Pint, the gay bar where Manning works in Wilton Manors, Florida, had collected money to pay for his trip to Israel to take part in the competition. But not everyone shared in Manning’s tremendous excitement. The vast majority of people in Tel Aviv had no idea that an international event attended by hundreds of visitors was taking place in their city at the end of last month. Compared to the huge pride parades that engulf the city every summer and the enormous Eurovision Song Contest, which will dominate the city next month, TAG 2019, as it is officially known, was notable for its quieter and more intimate scale and a lack of media hubbub.
Very few lesbian and transgender competitors
A single strand of gay pride flags strung alongside the Ramat Aviv pool was practically the only sign that something unusual was taking place there. With a light rain pattering on the roof, and the air inside becoming increasingly stuffy, the competitors — whose ages, builds and athletic ability seemed to run the gamut — either sprawled on lounge chairs or waited quietly in line for their turn to compete. No one appeared to be using the time to browse the gay dating app Grindr.
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“The atmosphere at these games is never sexual, for one thing because a lot of us know each other from previous competitions,” says Neal Thomson, 28, an Indian-British accountant from London's 'Out To Swim' aquatics club who grew up in Dubai. “People like to come to these games because they’re not about cruising and sex. It’s more about friendship, community and sport.” He says the security people at Ben Gurion airport were a little suspicious at first when they saw where he grew up, but their approach changed as soon as he told them he was here to compete at TAG2019. Other visitors with Muslim names were briefed by the organizers ahead of time about what to expect from Israeli security personnel.
At Beit Dani, the stands were nearly empty aside from members of various teams that were eliminated in earlier rounds. There was nothing at all to indicate that this was an LGBT event, except for a lone sign near the entrance and the total absence of any female cheerleaders. Apparently very few lesbian and transgender competitors took part in the games, which were independently organized in Israel and are not associated with the international Gay Games that are held every four years, most recently in Paris.
The focused and determined group of amateur players on Manning’s team were joined by the professional Israeli basketball player Gili Mossinson. Only after the final whistle blew and the medals were awarded to the winning team and outstanding players did the players let themselves relax a bit. They sat on the court and embraced, and some spoke with considerable emotion about how important the games were for the LGBT community.
Most of the participants seemed to feel right at home in Tel Aviv, a popular international LGBT destination, even if it was just a quick first visit. The LGBT community seems particularly adept at fostering a sense of solidarity and belonging even among total strangers who are far from home. Manning’s teammate Jacory Lang, an African-American 39-year-old flight attendant from Chicago, said his gay identity actually helped him feel comfortable in Israel, just as it helps him break down walls of racism back home in America.
“Americans remind you that you’re black at least 10 times a day,” said Lang, proudly sporting two gold medals around his neck. “When I worked at a big American company, there were people who thought I was threatening just because I’m black, and when they found out I was gay, they were relieved. I seemed less scary to them. Sometimes I still have to tell people, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gay.’ The experience of the games and the people I’ve met here have made me feel very attached to Israel and to Tel Aviv.”
"The rockets can’t know that you’re gay"
Just as the games took place in something of a vacuum as far as Israelis were concerned, many of the participants were unaware of what was going on in the country at the time. Manning and Lang were already on their way to the games when they first heard about the rockets that had been fired at Tel Aviv from Gaza days before, for the first time in years, causing no injuries.
“I was at the airport when a friend asked me where I was flying to,” says Lang. “I told him I was on my way to Tel Aviv, and how excited I was about the Tel Aviv men I was going to meet. He said, ‘Are you crazy? They’re firing rockets at the city. Haven’t you heard?’ Then other friends started sending me links to CNN. I had no idea. I decided not to open the links and look at the articles. Otherwise, I probably would have canceled my flight.”
“I didn’t have any idea what was happening either. I just decided not to think about it,” says Manning. “My mother told me right before I got on the plane: ‘You have nothing to be afraid of. Go. The rockets can’t know that you’re gay.’”
Morten Petersen, a physiotherapist who came to Israel with two fellow Danes from a gay swim team called Copenhagen Mermates, sat on one of the lounge chairs by the pool, using a big black fan to try to cope with the heat. He also hadn’t heard about the rockets until he was already in Tel Aviv. “And when I heard, I wasn’t afraid. It’s true you can’t ignore the situation in Israel, but it’s not my conflict,” he said. Hi teammates nodded in agreement. “There are conflicts everywhere. Tel Aviv is a safe city, and nowadays, stuff can happen anywhere, in London or Barcelona.”
Forty-year-old Tim van Hauwermeiren, who came to the games with the BGS gay swim team from Brussels, says some team members were opposed to traveling to Israel for political reasons. “We had a discussion about it, and we have some swimmers who are pro-Palestinian and thought it wasn’t appropriate to compete in Israel,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if I thought I shouldn’t come to Tel Aviv.”
He also attended last year’s games in Tel Aviv. “I came back because I loved that it’s a small competition, with an almost family-like feeling. They also arranged an opening event for us at the NYX Hotel with the Belgian ambassador, as well as meals in the city and a final party. You get an intensive Tel Aviv experience. Though I admit I would have preferred better weather.”
The Tel Aviv games are an independent event that does not operate under the auspices of any international federation, and is similar to other games held each year in other cities around the world. The medals awarded to competitors are therefore only of sentimental and not official value. The events at this year’s games included tennis, running, soccer, beach volleyball and ballroom dancing. Participants paid a registration fee and covered their own airfare and accommodations.
Everything is political
One main reason the games received such little media coverage is that this is essentially a private initiative that is only partially funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Israeli Culture and Sports Ministry. The people behind the project are the co-executive directors of the Tel Aviv LGBT Sports Cub — Tal Maoz, the outreach director at an engineering firm who is currently at work on producing a TEDx event about the LGBT community, and Sagi Krispin, who is a lawyer.
Speaking at his home in Tel Aviv, where he put up three athletes including Manning at no charge, Maoz explains what led him to found the games. “2015 was a turning point for me,” he says. “That year I got to visit several important LGBT sports events around the world — in Madrid, Berlin, London and Dallas. I met people who spoke my language and whose lives were very similar to mine, and I decided together with Sagi to open a sports club that would operate LGBT sports teams. A year ago, we started with the international games in Tel Aviv, which are an important part of creating communities and connections between people.”
Every year the Tel Aviv Pride Parade is criticized by some as pinkwashing. Beyond the attempt to build an international community, do you think there is a political element here too?
“[Polish poet] Wislawa Szymborska wrote that everything is political. The air we breathe is political,” says Maoz, in his typically intense manner. “I’m very proud of Tel Aviv. Look, I grew up in a very, very nationalist and Zionist home. I’m very pragmatic, I could solve the conflict in 15 minutes, but our problem is that there is a lot of emotion involved here, which is why I never like to say who I’m voting for or to get into those subjects.”
Do visitors bring up political issues?
“Sometimes, and then I explain things. Look, we’re portrayed in an extremely negative light in the media and we’re not doing a good enough job there. Terrorism is really a global phenomenon today and that’s why I think nobody’s that interested in the Palestinians anymore. It can happen in Tel Aviv or Paris or Bali or Boston or Baghdad. There is terrorism worldwide. When we want to solve the conflict, we’ll do it so that all the parties benefit, but that’s not the issue right now. I tell visitors about how we created a country from nothing. Now I’m stronger and I need not apologize for having to defend myself.”