‘Iwas 16 when I understood who I was. My initial feeling was that I was alone in the world. I guess it was also because I didn’t have an Open House to go to,” recalls Yonatan Gehr-Leibowitz, head of the Jerusalem Open House. The Open House is a social and cultural center for the gay and lesbian community in the city, which entered the public domain in the late 1990s.

It has rapidly become a sort of shelter for gays who, like Gehr-Leibowitz, didn’t want to leave Jerusalem because of their homosexuality as so many others had felt compelled to do.

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Founded in 1997, the Jerusalem Open House was a first attempt to enable gays living in the holy city to have a place that would serve as a community, cultural and social center for teens and adults – a kind of a home, especially for those who couldn’t be themselves in their own homes and families. Thus one of the first activities set up was groups for teenagers, especially after several surveys revealed that the highest number of teen suicides was connected to issues of sexual identity.

Another rapidly developing activity of the center revolves around the special needs of religious gays.

Groups are formed, and there are monthly encounters.

There is a deep relationship with some of the most prominent figures in the religious Zionist movement, and rabbis are in permanent contact with the coordinators of this particular group in the Open House.

However, after all these years the Open House has not obtained financial support from the municipality and has had to rely on private donors, mostly from abroad.

Several attempts to change this situation have not been successful. But for Gehr-Leibowitz and his associates at the helm of the Open House, the administration of Mayor Nir Barkat is perhaps the biggest disappointment.

Not only has Barkat avoided all invitations to participate in or publicly support the gay community and the activities of the Open House, but the municipality has also rejected its requests for financial support.

Things have changed a lot since the thwarted plans to hold the World Pride Parade in the streets of Jerusalem in 2005 and 2006. A rare coalition of religious figures from the three main monotheistic faiths tried to stop what they considered “blasphemy” in the holy city.

The reaction of the haredi community was the fiercest.

Their leaders couldn’t swallow that especially when the city was in their hands – with a haredi mayor at city hall – they would have to watch how gays from all over the world would march in Jerusalem. Mayor Uri Lupolianski did all he could; but the law was stronger and the gay community stood united, and it seemed as if the whole city was running out of control.

Then political facts changed the situation completely at the time of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip when massive security measures were invoked by the police (and the government). Some 8,500 police officers were sent to deal with the evacuation of the settlers, and the police said they couldn’t be on two fronts at the same time. As a result, the Open House, then under the leadership of Hagai El-Ad, agreed to hold a smaller parade in June and postpone the international event to the following year. Three men were stabbed at that parade.

But the worst was still to come. The World Pride Parade scheduled for August was canceled due to the Second Lebanon War and the local parade was planned for November. But following a haredi demonstration before the event, severe riots inflamed the haredi neighborhoods from Geula to Romema, with youth rallying and burning garbage cans in the streets. A pride event, but not a parade, eventually took place in the Givat Ram stadium.

These solutions didn’t immediately quell the riots in the haredi neighborhoods, but as the fires in the streets of Mea She’arim were subsiding, it appeared that within the haredi society people began to realize that their protest had a negative effect within their own society; for example, exposing haredi youth to the existence of homosexuality.

BUT THE time for a shift in attitude was not yet ripe.

In 2008, there was a changing of the guard at the Open House. Gehr-Leibowitz, a man in his early 30s, until then the spokesman of the Masorti Movement, stepped in as executive director of the Open House. Shortly after he assumed his position, a dialogue was opened between him, as the representative of the Open House, and a representative of Toldot Aharon, the most extreme sect within the haredi community. It was brokered through a local haredi personality who had good relations with both sides.

“It was made possible because it provided answers to the needs of both communities,” said Gehr-Leibowitz in an interview earlier this week.

“We understood that what the haredim envisaged were the parades in Tel Aviv or in San Francisco – someone had shown them some pictures from there. So we had to explain that we had something totally different in mind. Not anything eccentric or exhibitionist but, in fact, a march to request equal rights as residents. They listened, and a genuine dialogue began.”

Gehr-Leibowitz recalled the details and the atmosphere that prevailed between the sides at some of those encounters.

“At the first meeting, we didn’t shake hands and the atmosphere in the room was very tense, even mistrustful. But as time went on, things became less tense, and we even found points of shared interest, such as smoking. I still remember a scene when we both lit our cigarettes and I stood there, holding the match to light his cigarette. It reminded me of the famous picture of Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein shortly before they signed the peace agreement.”

After a few meetings, the haredi representative requested that no advertising of any sort be displayed in their neighborhood. Gehr-Leibowitz said with a thin smile that he had no problem promising that, and that the parade itself would not even get close to any religious or haredi neighborhood.

“This dialogue, inconceivable just a few months before, was made possible first and foremost because the haredi leadership in this city realized they had a serious problem, much more serious in their eyes than a bunch of gays walking in the streets,” explains a resident who was close to the people who organized the encounters between the two sides.

For Gehr-Leibowitz, his approach and its impact were also a major catalyst for the changes. “I am a true resident of this city. I was born here, I have lived here all my life. I love this city, and I wouldn’t consider living outside Jerusalem. As such, I am well aware of the special character of this city.”

However, it soon became clear to Gehr-Leibowitz that the haredim were in distress: “Their fierce opposition to the international parade was perhaps impressive in terms of what they could do here to disrupt life in Jerusalem, but it also had a terrible outcome they hadn’t foreseen. Their own children were suddenly exposed to problematic words and issues, such as ‘homosexual’ and ‘gays’ – the very issues they had set the streets on fire to prevent. They realized they had a real problem, and this time in their own backyard. I heard about cases of children who came home asking questions like ‘What is a homosexual?” or ‘What does a pride parade mean?’ I even heard about a case where haredi kids started to play ‘the parade’ in the streets of Mea She’arim. Some were the police, others were the haredim demonstrating, and some were the ‘homos.’ It was clear that the haredi community got exactly the opposite of what they had protested to prevent. It was evident that something had to be done, and quickly,” said Gehr- Leibowitz.

According to Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who is a member of the Eda Haredit, the haredim opposed the parade more vehemently when there was a haredi mayor who apparently couldn’t stop it.

“Lupolianski was never really considered part of the haredi society; nevertheless, he represented us, and for the more ‘active’ within the haredi community, it was something they couldn’t stomach. Besides that, at some point they realized that their fierce opposition to the parade achieved the exact opposite result.

They wanted to protect the children and teenagers from being exposed to it, but in fact the kids in Mea She’arim talked only about that ‘parade’ and the ‘toeva.’ So at some point they understood that they had to radically change their strategy, and now that the city is no longer in haredi hands, it is easier for them.”

TODAY, DESPITE all the tension and last year’s violent demonstrations led by a part of the haredi community in Jerusalem around the parking lot opened by the municipality on Shabbat, the gay pride parade is not raising – at least so far – any opposition from the haredi community. In fact, the Jerusalem District Police recently granted authorization to the parade – which will be held at the end of the month – to end up in front of the Knesset building as requested by the Open House.

The parade will mark the first anniversary of the slaying of the two men at the gay youth center in Tel Aviv and will be presented as Israel’s national gay pride parade. (That was the main reason the organizers insisted that the parade conclude at the doorstep of Israel’s parliament.) “The parade route to the Knesset, on the anniversary of the murder, is the proper route to symbolize what the parade is demanding – full equal rights for the gay community in Israel and an end to the incitement, violence and silencing that we experience every day,” Gehr- Leibowitz wrote in a press release issued by the Open House right after the police’s decision.

Today’s relatively quiet relationship between the Open House and the haredim, as well as the police’s improved attitude, is a new experience for the gay community in the city and the Open House leaders. In 1997, with the launching of the center, during Olmert’s term as mayor, things weren’t so easy: Olmert, probably because of his tight alliance with the haredim in his coalition, did not include the Open House among the institutions supported by city hall. Nevertheless, he agreed to allow – and fund – the first pride parade in the city, perhaps also due to the fact that his own daughter had already come out of the closet and thus he had became more sensitive to the needs of the gay community.

During Lupolianski’s term things became worse, certainly regarding the annual parade. And, of course, no funding was approved. On top of that, the attitude toward the sole representative of the gay community on the city council, Sa’ar Netanel (Meretz), was harsh. It included virulent insults and caustic remarks from his peers on the city council in addition to anonymous death threats.

However, the changes at the helm of the city have not yielded any better message. The Open House still does not receive any funding from the city. But Gehr-Leibowitz, though he knows he will have to rely on private donations for a long time yet, refuses to cave in and still expects the municipality to participate in the Open House’s budget.

“This year, since the parade marks the anniversary of the slaying at the Bar-Noar in Tel Aviv, Ayala Katz, the mother of one of the victims, has agreed to lead the Jerusalem pride parade. This is evidently about standing up for equal rights, against hatred and homophobia. We all thought it would be appropriate to have Mayor Barkat lead the parade at her side or at least address the participants with a speech. She invited him personally, but we were all very disappointed by his reply. He sent us a response saying that he won’t be in the city at the time. It’s pathetic. It’s even insulting. As far as this mayor is concerned, we are deeply disappointed. He has been in office for almost two years, and we have not had the slightest gesture or attention from him. It is clear that he is avoiding us, and I think it’s a shame.”

According to a municipal spokesman, the municipality cannot issue funding to the Open House because the organization has not submitted the necessary forms properly.

“The mayor respects the law and the right of any members of the public to march, but he will not be able to participate in the parade. Barkat strongly condemns any use of violence in general and against the LGBT community in particular. The Open House has received support and guidance from the municipality as to how to fill out grant application forms in order that its request will be accepted and [funding] granted. However, despite the help, it has submitted an application that does not comply with the criteria required by the Culture Ministry. Therefore the municipality is unable to support its activities.”

Gehr-Leibowitz responded that despite several attempts to contact the municipal director-general and his assistants for guidance, he never received a reply.

“As for the criteria themselves, it is worth noting that they were written during mayor Lupolianski’s term, aimed to stop any attempt to allow financial support for the Open House,” he says.

Gehr-Leibowitz says he had never had any particular problem regarding his sexual identity, neither in his own family nor outside.

He lives in full harmony with his parents and, for the last eight years, has been living with his partner. They have brought a son into the world through a surrogate in India. It is the only way, he explains, for gay couples in Israel to have children. He admits that in comparison to other countries, including the West, the legal situation of gays in Israel is relatively progressive, “but there is still so much to be accomplished,” he concludes.
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