Over the last few years, there has been an LGBTQ revolution underway in Israel, though not one of the usual kind: For the first time, the Arab LGBTQ community has raised its head and begun shaping the political debate. That, in turn, has awakened a conversation in the Arab community, both in Israel and abroad, led by a new generation unwilling to accept the excuses of the past and demanding answers from its elected representatives.
Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t entirely responsible for the split between the United Arab List and the secular Arab parties. The Arab pride community had succeeded last year in shaking up the Joint List. Arab elected officials found themselves at the center of a political storm just as it was just gathering. It exposed the differences between religious and secular Arabs in general and how they related to the LGBTQ community in particular.
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It’s hard to point to any one event that led the Arab media to begin asking difficult questions, but I will highlight some of the important ones.
In 2019, a young LGBTQ Arab from Tamra was stabbed in Tel Aviv by his brothers, prompting an unprecedented conversation inside Arab society: For the first time, many voices emerged condemning the attack – from public figures, intellectuals, journalists, social activists and even religious figures. While not everyone expressed solidarity with the LGBTQ community or even recognized it, it marked the first time that we had been acknowledged in the internal discourse of Arab society.
Next, in January 2020, Maya Haddad, a key figure in the Arab LGBTQ community who grew up in Taibeh and had led protests for women and trans women, was found dead in her home. Then, several months later, Ayman Safiah, a member of the LGBTQ community, an internationally renowned dancer and a resident of Kafr Yasif, drowned trying to rescue a friend. His death made him a hero in the eyes of many.
Ahead of his funeral, reports surfaced that his family had decided on a secular ceremony because Muslim leaders had refused to participate. That is how it ended – Ayman’s funeral was mostly secular in nature and many LGBTQ Arabs were present, which infuriated religious leaders and promoted another fascinating debate.
The fates of Maya and Ayman, together with many others, have sparked a debate about the relationship of Arab society and religion (both Muslim and Christian) to LGBTQ Arabs.
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All this reached a boiling point when some Joint List lawmakers voted in favor of pro-LGBTQ legislation, angering Arab religious leaders. Tensions peaked when Al-Arz Tahini made history by becoming the first-ever Arab-owned company to publicly come out in support of LGBTQ people. The owner, Julia Zahra, announced that the company would fund a hotline for LGBTQ Arab Israeli youth through the Aguda – Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel. The best proof of the need for such an organization was the boycott of the company’s products prompted by Zahra’s announcement.
The Arab LGBTQ community and its liberal supporters now realize that they have reached the point of no return – either we entrench ourselves in the public discourse or simply cease to be. The latter option is one we don’t have the privilege of taking. All LGBTQ people understand this because side by side with our growing public presence, there’s been an increase in hate speech against us. Islamic and conservative figures in Arab society have also entered the discussion as never before, leading to homophobic talk and attacks on members of the community all over the country.
When I came out of the closet at age 16, I entered a vacuum – no one to talk or turn to. My family struggled to cope with it. I felt alone and helpless – all I wanted to do was run away. Not for a moment could I imagine that just around the corner, a few years later, I would discover what most LGBTQ people have a hard time discovering at a young age: I am not alone.
Muhammad Zoabi is an Arab LGBTQ activist in Israel.