Tel Aviv users of Grindr, the dating app for gays, repeatedly encountered a pop-up ad inviting them to celebrate the absolutely last week of Evita Bar, which closed its doors on Saturday after 12 years. But apparently most of the users of the app, which has drastically changed the way gays communicate among themselves, gave a miss to the opportunity to mark together, in the real world, the end of a place that over the years had become an institution for members of the community.
- Older Israeli gays and lesbians struggle to be found
- Could gay rights tear the bond between rabbis and the state?
- The danger of liberal homophobia
Anyone passing by Evita on Saturday night wouldn’t notice that it was an unusual evening. As on every other evening men in tight tank tops crowded together at the entrance, strong shirtless barmen poured alcoholic drinks inside, and on the half-empty dance floor visitors danced around to the light of mirror balls and to the strains of 1990s music. But the modest departure from Evita was an important milestone for Tel Aviv and the LGBT community: Despite Tel Aviv’s international reputation as a Middle East mecca for gays, the veteran institution was the last gay bar in the city. Not far from Evita the Shpagat Bar has been operating successfully in recent years, but it caters to a more mixed LGBT and straight clientele, and most of the partygoers prefer to attend parties in more than one place.
For many years Evita was an anchor for the gay community, and was particularly popular among tourists. Its format was reminiscent of classic gay bars in European and American capitals, with special evenings for Eurovision parties and performances by drag queens, which may have gone out of style in today’s more open, less insulated atmosphere.
“We had a wild time here, 12 years,” says Shay Rokach, 38, a partner and one of the three founders of Evita. “This place has raised generations of people from the community,” adds Rokach, who for many is the bar’s friendly face. “For many people Evita is the first place they went to, the first kiss, the first love and the place that accepted them without being judgmental. Lots of parents came here visiting their sons and daughters after they came out of the closet. Several mothers of partygoers came here this evening when they heard that Evita is closing, and came to celebrate with us.”
‘More than just a place to get laid’
Rokach’s words are similar to what was said by Dr. Amalia Ziv, head of the Gender Studies program at Ben-Gurion University, already in the early 1990s about the importance of places of entertainment for the gay community: “For us, as lesbians and gays, bars and clubs are more than just a place to have a beer. They’re also more than just a place to get laid. For us, these are places where our identity becomes clear, receives confirmation, takes shape. These are the places where we learn the rules of the game, learn how to speak and read in a new language, are let in on the secret. These are our membership rites.”
The integration of the LGBT community into the straight mainstream and the increasing use of apps for dating have brought with them a significant change in the way members of the community spend time together. Today many gays prefer to meet others through apps, to attend parties or spend time in mixed venues, and Evita may have become a place only older gays – those who yearned to be able to meet freely and safely – can appreciate. However, as Ziv explained, gay places of entertainment, including Evita, are central to the building of the community’s identity, and certainly will now be missed by many.
On Saturday it was evident that for the bar’s regular customers it was a moving, intimate evening. A large guest book was placed in the center of the bar, beneath framed quotations hanging on the walls, and many of those who came wrote their memories.
“Dear Evita, tears are streaming from my eyes as I write,” wrote one of the guests, “Evitoosh is family. A second home. A place where I grew up. Twelve unforgettable years.” The drag queen Ziona Patriot wrote: “Home. Family. Life. I love you no end.”
Although the owners boast of a varied clientele, even on Saturday the presence of women was light. In the past, says Rokach, there were designated nights for lesbians, but it wasn’t hard to see that most of those present at the closing were men in their 30s and older. Drag queen Nona Chalant (Roni Shukrun), who took her first steps at Evita, and in the past two years also put together special nights, came made up with two large tears running down from her eyes. “The tears are already on me, so people won’t say that it doesn’t hurt me,” she says, adding that many people will miss the place. “There’s no other place where you can be every day and feel comfortable, and there’s no ‘selection,’ and it’s all fun, and everyone gladly accepts everyone else.”
This evening, too, Ben Hason, 36, was working behind the bar. He’s been working there since 2009 and a few years ago became a partner. “It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” he says, describing his feelings about closing the place. “I work here every day, and you actually get a second family, in terms both of employees of the customers. It’s a very difficult feeling to lose that.”
No comment on reasons for closure
Both Hason and Rokach refrain from too much discussion of the reasons for closing the place, and only say that the lease had come to an end and it was decided to open another place. “We would have continued for another 30 years, but in this particular place it doesn’t work out,” explains Rokach, saying that the owners are planning to open another place in the future. Hason stresses that the closing is not related to any change in revenues.
Yair Hochner, 41, founder and director of the TLVFest (Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival), came on Saturday to say his goodbyes. He said Evita was the first sponsor of the festival. “The place will be sorely missed, because Evita was more than a bar, it was a community center. A lot of night life, it’s true, but a lot of social involvement too.” Hochner says, “This is the place where we felt best and safest. Even today when you go to a straight place in Tel Aviv, you see the looks of people who don’t understand why a couple of gays are holding hands, leaning their heads against each other.”
Actor Tal Kalai, who is also known as the drag queen Talula Bonet and is a member of the drag ensemble Peot Kedoshot (Holy Wigs), which regularly performed in Evita, says, “Evita always accompanied us, it was the home where we grew up.”
Asked whether apps have replaced the bars, Kalai says with a smile, “The apps may have replaced other things. People do like to go out and drink, and there will be something new. We will survive.”