In late November, the local media reported that Tel Aviv officials were set to help Tel Aviv become recognized as the gay capital of the world. Instead of being called the White City - a new name that has helped brand the UNESCO World Heritage Site as a sexy city with Bauhaus buildings - Tel Aviv should rather be called the Pink City. In an article in Yediot Aharonot, journalist Danny Sadeh declared that Tel Aviv tourist industry heads were keen on tapping into the spending power held by this lucrative spending group, who will travel anywhere for a good party. A month later, the issue appears to be little more than pink spin. Deputy Tel Aviv municipal spokesman Koby Barda denied that such a plan exists. "There is no issue. The city encourages people to live the way they want. In fact, the mayor has promoted the gay agenda and supports projects such as Beth Dror, a shelter for gay youth rejected by their parents when they find out their child is gay," said Barda. He emphasized that the city will not be promoting Tel Aviv as the city for gays, explaining that the recent rebranding of Tel Aviv as the White City has done excellent things for the city's image, and the municipality wants to keep it that way. Hotel owners counted more than two million tourism nights in Tel Aviv last year, making 2005 the busiest tourism year ever for the city. "What people do in their beds is not our business," commented Barda. "Tel Aviv has become an exotic, exciting and interesting place where people want to go. We want to be known as the White City, not the Pink City." Eli Ziv, CEO of Tel Aviv's Hotel Association, said that the Yediot Aharonot story was fabricated. "Ninety-five percent of what Sadeh wrote in that article was absolutely not true. Sadeh mentioned ideas that I never told him at all, and in some cases he reported details when I said the opposite," Ziv told Metro. Ziv confirmed that he was in favor of supporting gay groups who want to come to Tel Aviv and will cooperate with them further through publicizing tourism on websites; but beyond that, he has no vision for marketing Tel Aviv as a gay capital. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the prominent chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, was unavailable for comment when Metro called to ask his opinion on the matter. The director of the Political Council for Gay Rights in Israel (PCGRI), a group that lobbies for laws in the Knesset for same-sex marriage and adoption rights, had not heard about any such proposal. The PCGRI director said that whether declared the Pink City or not, Tel Aviv should be recognized as an important center for gays. The city has made tremendous progress for gay rights in the past decade, he said, and is in line with New York, Paris and London. "Other cities in Israel are terrible for gays. They are primitive and conservative," said the director. In mid-December, the municipality approved a NIS 4 million budget for Israel's first homosexual-lesbian center to be established as a municipal institution to provide the community with health and cultural services. The project was founded by Tel Aviv city councilman Itai Pinkas, who has fought for the rights of the city's homosexual and lesbian community since he was elected. Pinkas declined to comment on Tel Aviv becoming the Pink City. Shlomo-Zalman Jessel, a religious family therapist who works primarily with men who seek to live heterosexual lives, has had experience counseling men who were active members of the gay community. According to studies, Jessel has read that unprotected sex among gay men is on the rise. He opines that if Tel Aviv were to become more gay-friendly than it is today, this would invite the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS. "An ex-gay friend of mine was involved in the gay subculture for 30 years in Israel and elsewhere," said Jessel, "and it was what he saw in that culture that eventually convinced him to give it up." The friend, who assumed initially that the Pink City article was a joke, told Jessel that the circuit parties that gay men participate in around the world invite a tremendous amount of illegal drug use and abuse, overdosing, drunkenness and male prostitution. "My friend said that inviting European gay men to Israel will likely triple the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases here, as Israel has very low rates of STDs. He explained that because of the popularity of barebacking (unprotected gay sex), AIDS is on the rise again and people are engaging in highly risky behavior," said Jessel. Residents of the city have conflicting opinions about its gay community. "Personally I'd love the idea of Tel Aviv being the gay capital of the world," said Ines Lebel, a 51-year-old Tel Avivian originally from Argentina. "I'm for the gays having a place of respect and dignity in any progressive and civilized society... and I love to see how the gays and lesbians struggle for their right to exist and be respected for what they are and how they are," she said. "Oy, va voi!" countered Rachel, who works at a tourist information booth in Tel Aviv, when asked what she thought about Tel Aviv becoming known as a gay capital. She was born in the city and does not like the idea that her taxes fund gay events, including the annual parade. "I don't think it adds honor to the city," she said. If gay people want a city of their own, they should go to San Francisco, she suggests. Sandra Van Rompaey thinks that making Tel Aviv a gay capital will only increase the already negative image that the gay community has in some segments of society. She is against Tel Aviv being known as the Pink City. "What might be next? Race-related capitals of the world? A place for the disabled to go? A holiday paradise for blondes? I don't think people seek to distance themselves from the rest of society unless we force them to," noted Belgian-born Van Rompaey. Lauran Hazan, who works for a software company in Ramat Gan, said she fell on the floor laughing when she read in the Yediot Aharonot article that "Tel Aviv and gay people are the perfect fit." All she could see is a corrupt, grubby little man with dollar signs in his eyes, she said. "It's amazing that it's taken this long for the Israel Hotel Association to realize that gay people are a very lucrative segment of the tourism market, but I don't think anyone in their right mind is a 'perfect fit' for Tel Aviv... unless they like three-star hotels with six-star rates, horrendously bad service, constant honking and zillions of other tourists," she said. Tel Aviv might work for gay people, though, because many do not have children and tend to be more adventurous than the family types, she added. The city already has a dynamic gay scene, with a variety of clubs catering to homosexual men and women and an annual Gay Parade through the city's streets that attracts thousands. Ron, 40, an openly gay man who lives with his partner of 13 years in Ramat Gan, is in favor of Tel Aviv's being declared a center for gays, but qualifies that it should be labeled the center for gays "in Europe." If Tel Aviv were considered the Pink City of Europe, he said, it would make him feel as though he were living in a special place, although he does not go out for the gay nightlife much these days. He said that gay clubs charge high cover charges, play extremely loud music, are smoky and begin after midnight. One club, Big Boys in Jaffa (men only, 26+), has better music and caters for an older group of men, said Ron. He knows of three saunas in Tel Aviv - Paradise, Dix Mix and Sauna Citi - that are frequented by all kinds of people. Catering to a younger crowd, they grant price reductions to customers under 24 years of age; otherwise, it costs NIS 80 to enter. "There's a dry and a wet sauna, a dark room, and on Friday nights at the Paradise they have a foam room with lots of action going on in the foam. They have cabins where couples can have sex privately behind a curtain. There is definitely unsafe sex being practiced," Ron said. Tel Aviv, as it stands, has been given mixed reviews in regard to becoming the world's Pink City.