For once, the pumping music was silenced, the disco ball came to a standstill and the irrepressible partygoers set their drinks down and stood for a minute of silence.
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This was how revelers at one of Israel’s most storied gay bars paid tribute on Tuesday night to the 49 people killed over the weekend in a very similar venue halfway around the world, in Orlando.
Dozens of members of Israel’s LGBT community gathered at the Evita club in Tel Aviv to send a message of solidarity from a community that itself has been hard hit by acts of terror and homophobia over the past years.
“This is the gayest place in Israel,” said a 25-year-old drag queen who goes by the name of Shewanna B. Black. “I came here immediately after the attack, this is the place where I can talk to my friends and express myself.”
On what, on a normal Tuesday at the club, would have been a traditionally boisterous drag night, it fell to this tall, red-haired queen to close a tearful and somber ceremony by singing a heartfelt rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”
Keith Mines, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Israel, noted that there was a “strong bond” between the LGBT communities in the two countries. “In good times and bad times, we are together,” Mines said.
“Fear and hate will continue to tear our countries apart from the inside, but they will always be confronted by a spirit of understanding, respect and tolerance,” he told the crowd gathered inside the Evita. “As dramatic as [gunmen Omar Mateen’s] action was, he has the support of only a very small handful of people while the the support for these victims will be in the millions.”
Imri Kalmann, co-director of the Israel National LGBT Taskforce, drew parallels with other hate crimes that recently targeted the community in Israel, including the stabbing to death of a 16-year-old girl at last year’s Jerusalem Gay Pride by an ultra-orthodox Jew and the still unsolved 2009 shooting at the nearby Bar Noar gay youth center, in which two people were killed.
“It’s no accident that hate crimes against gays are described as homophobic: that is fear, a fear of gays, and a fear that morphs into cruel hatred,” Kalmann said. “The killer in Orlando is the same killer who struck in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: fear. And we have to stand up to him and say that we are not afraid.”
The commemoration was organized by the LGBT Taskforce together with the Israeli branch of the Anti-Defamation League.
“We are honored that the community in Israel is coming together to support our community, and we are fortunate to be here tonight to show solidarity,” said Los Angeles resident Melanie Pozez who had travelled to Israel with her family to visit relatives.
Shai Rokach, who owns the club which was founded in 2004, said that it was important for venues like the Evita or the Pulse in Orlando to continue “to create a positive atmosphere for all, for those who are part of the community or outside the community, to be places where you can truly be yourself.”