Last year was a particularly dramatic one in the life of the gay community in Israel. What started with the murder of Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and continued with a host of LGBT-phobic statements by public officials and Knesset members ended with the community’s anti-government campaign. LGBT groups threatened to cancel their parade after a government campaign promoting gay tourism was allocated the enormous sum of 11 million shekels ($2.9 million), at a time when the community’s social organizations are given only crumbs. Under pressure, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon promised to double their budgets, which would also be inserted as official items into the state budget.
A separate storm was evoked by the slogan “Women for Change” chosen for this year’s parade and other events. The slogan was selected after women had been forced for many years to combat male dominance in gay organizations. This is still typical, although to a lesser extent.
Two of the women who managed to break down this barrier and significantly impact the community are Anat Nir and Dana Ziv. The two started out as business partners in the lesbian night scene in Tel Aviv. Today they’re considered part of the gay establishment. In 2009 Nir, then 36 years old, was one of the leaders of a campaign by the Tel Aviv municipality aimed at attracting gay tourism. This led to Tel Aviv being recognized two years later (in a survey conducted by American Airlines and the Gay City website) as the “best gay city in the world.”
Over the last two years Nir has been on the board of the LGBT Association, which promoted the drive to place women as a central theme at gay events in Tel Aviv this year. In 2012 the two partners produced the central stage of the Gay Parade, together with musician Yoav Arnon. They were on the planning committee of this year’s parade as well.
The parties these two have organized over the years have brought in to the circle thousands of new women looking for a good time. They’ve brought to the scene contemporary electronic music, and are considered to be the ones who have made lesbian parties up-to-date and cool. Over the years they’ve invited performance artist Peaches to Israel, as well as D.J. Miss Kittin and other musicians such as Emily Wells from the United States, Planningtorock from Britain, Jennifer Cardini from France and Australian-German artist Kat Frankie.
In 2008 Nir and Ziv decided to do something in the film world as well. They initiated and produced the “lethal lesbian” festival, which served as a first stepping-stone for lesbian, bisexual and transgender filmmakers.
“There’s something absurd about the fact that on one hand we’re a liberal country that brings in tens of thousands of tourists, while on the other hand there is no gay marriage or reasonable conditions for gay adoption,” says Ziv, 37. “As a community we lack all basic human rights. For me, our struggle is about elementary rights. After all, what is the parade about? We as a community want to be seen and accepted as equals.”
As part of the drive to promote women at the parade it was decided that half of the floats this year would be driven by women. For Nir and Ziv, whose women’s flatbed truck was the first to join the parade in 2008, this is a special achievement.
“We wanted to broadcast to all women that here, you too can dance on top of these flatbeds,” explains Nir. “Since we first raised this a few years ago there are women’s trucks every year. In some way we broke through a glass ceiling. Creating different events is changing the parade from within. It’s not just partying and spraying water around, but creating spaces that are suited for children as well. We believe that if women work together the parade’s character will change and more women will show up, since they’ll be able to relate to it.”
Despite the optimistic note, there have been some critical voices lately. For many in the community, both male and female, this week is but another high point of pink-washing, that exploitative action taken by the government, which flaunts the existence of gay rights here while repeatedly striking down bills designed to benefit the community, depriving Palestinians of their basic rights, whether within or outside the community.
To this backdrop there are calls every year for male and female members of the community to not participate in the parade. In recent years there have also been alternative parades, held concurrently but on a different route. In these parades criticism was voiced against the government and the occupation.
Ziv says that “the government constantly uses gay life in Tel Aviv for purposes of pink-washing but I don’t think that’s a reason to cancel gay life in Israel, only to note that any achievement the community has made was obtained after a lengthy struggle. Nothing was given to us a gift from the state. People like to depict Tel Aviv as a paradise for gays, but if it’s now pleasant to live here as LGBTs it’s largely due to the result of a long political campaign waged by the community for many years.
“It’s convenient for the state to seem liberal and see us as a decoration in order to deflect attention from other things that are happening here. Our existence is complex. The fact that it’s easy to live as gays in Tel Aviv doesn’t contradict the fact that less than an hour away there is a brutal occupation. The problem arises when there are attempts to use one reality in order to make people forget the other one.”
Nir is familiar with claims of pink-washing and identifies with some of them. As someone who took part in putting Tel Aviv on the map as a gay city, she says: “When we created that campaign a few years ago, it was done with a few members of the LGBT community who wanted to change things. It was almost an independent act. We turned to City Hall and the Ministry of Tourism and received a small amount of money, which we invested in the campaign. It’s important to realize that the sum we got was in line with what was given to other community organizations.
“I still believe in promoting gay tourism but we can’t allow a bunch of straight people at the Tourism Ministry to put 11 million shekels on the table for promoting gay tourism, painting a plane for another million, while all the community organizations combined only get no more than 1.5 million. That puts us in a ridiculous light. In contrast to our campaign a few years ago, the Tourism Ministry chose yet again to display some shirtless male hulk who feeds into some orientalist fantasy Europeans have, in order to draw the attention of tourists. Civil society in Israel still finds it hard to accept its LGBT members and we want to reach all levels of society everywhere in this country, including religious people, Arabs, traditional people and [asylum-seeking] refugees. For that we need resources.
“Audrey Lorde, the Caribbean-American feminist writer, was quoted as saying ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Dana and I have a dramatic relationship with that sentence. I don’t want to point out what’s wrong with the community since that won’t serve a thing. Obviously there are mechanisms that aren’t functioning well, but on the other hand there are some men who are our partners on this path and in shaping our possible future. They are our allies in creating a different reality.”
To what extent do you see the dance floor as a political arena?
“It’s very political. For example, our gay party this year was called “an opening” [a Hebrew pun on vagina and backside], but it also referred to opening our mouths and our hearts, allowing ourselves to be in that space, to give expression to our lesbian, transgender, bisexual and gender-queer identities, to love ourselves and enable a space in which that love is possible. The name also implies opening one’s legs, expressing the fact that our bodies belong to us. Don’t objectivize it, we’ll use it as we see fit, on the dance floor, sweaty, any way we want to.”
The lesbian night scene has grown a lot, but it’s still minor compared to the homosexual one.
“After traveling around the world I can state that the Israeli lesbian scene is one of the most powerful ones. Over the years it’s picked up in places other than Tel Aviv. All of a sudden there are parties in Rishon Letzion, Haifa, Afula, lots of places. If the criterion is only having a good time then you’re right, but just as there are differences between the two sexes, so are the events women take part in and the extent to which women go out and party are also different.
“We live in a patriarchal world, so changes are gradual and have their difficult aspects, but if one looks at things in perspective, which we have, then what’s happened over the last few years is nothing less than amazing. I can easily draw up a list of 50 women who are active in producing events, and I admire their activities. They are my accomplices. There has been a paradigm shift. It’s like being in a different place.”