Social Affairs: A proud position

On the eve of becoming executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, Yonatan Gher spells out his goals for the city and its gay residents

yonatan gehr 224 88 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
yonatan gehr 224 88
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
For Yonatan Gher, "coming out of the closet" will likely pale in comparison to the challenges he is about to face over the next six months. The 29-year-old former Greenpeace activist, who moved to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem three years ago for work, is not only planning to move back to the capital with his partner, but is also set to start a family by the year's end. Next week, he will also take on a job that would have most people shaking in their boots - Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House, the center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) residents of the city, and the organization responsible for running the controversial annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. "The Jerusalem Open House has been very close to my heart for many years," begins the soft-spoken son of US immigrants when asked what prompted him to take a job that could make him the target of intense hatred from large segments of Jerusalem's haredi population. "I come from Greenpeace," quips Gher, who also served as a spokesman for the Masorti Movement in Israel for four years. "I've had very intense experiences, similar to the work we do here. I know what it's like to get hate calls in the middle of the night, and I know how not to be disturbed by such activity, but I really hope that I can change these attitudes towards us." An admirable aspiration, but with parliamentarians in recent weeks blaming the gay population for causing earthquakes, or comparing the gay and lesbian community to bird flu - not to mention religious leaders inciting physical violence against those hoping to march down the streets of the capital with rainbow flags or holding hands with same-sex partners - Gher appears to have a long way to go to change attitudes in a city that, at best, wants them all to move to Tel Aviv. "One of the things I hope to be able to achieve is to change the discourse, especially surrounding the parade," states Gher with conviction. "This parade is not done out of spite or to infuriate other people. My hope is that people will understand this and know that this pride parade is not against them. It actually has nothing to do with them, but to do with rights of residents of this city to march freely down the street." He continues: "We cannot accept that we would not be allowed to march freely because other people's feelings are hurt by our very existence. While there are those who would like to deny the fact there are gay and lesbian people who live in this city - and even live in the ultra-Orthodox community itself - the truth is that we're here. We won't go to Tel Aviv." Gher is optimistic, however, that attitudes towards the gay community and the pride parade, currently slated for the end of June, might have softened somewhat compared to the last few years. While last year's parade was curtailed to certain streets in the capital with a strict ring of law enforcement, and the year before it was scaled back to a closed event at Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, Gher says that this year's march would not be cut down. "Our main objective is obviously to be able to walk from point A to point B, but this year we also want to be able to end the parade with a large event, such as a rally with the whole community," he says enthusiastically. "We want to be able to talk to a large number of our supporters and get out our main messages that residents of this city are part of the social structure and should be able to walk hand-in-hand with their loved ones freely down the city's streets." Limitations and ferocious haredi protests aside, Gher seems confident that his leadership in the next two months will be able to bring about some level of dialogue with more moderate members of the haredi leadership, and that some of the opposition to the rally might be avoided. "I believe that the ultra-Orthodox leadership has a tendency to go from issue to issue, looking for something that they can take a position against," he explains. "Before us, it was immodest dress codes or businesses that opened on Shabbat. Then they turned onto the parade. My hope is that they will move onto another issue and leave us alone." Besides, says Gher, "I think some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership is beginning to realize the disadvantages of the approach they have taken. They've drawn attention to us, and now they have to deal with questions in their own community, like: 'What exactly is gay?' and 'What does it mean to be gay?'" WHILE THE pride parade is what makes the Open House most visible, Gher says that the center runs a wide variety of activities and services "every day of the year." "We have groups for every specific sector - gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, as well as secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian," he says, showing me around the center on Rehov Hasoreg, where rainbow flags proudly - perhaps ironically - hang above the sign for the furniture store, Harmony. Pointing out several computers, which he says provide Internet access to people who cannot gain information on the outside world at home, Gher also says that the center houses a health clinic that runs free, rapid HIV tests, "and we are hope soon to increase the variety of health services to match the needs of the community." Gher claims that over 5,000 people in Jerusalem use the services of the center, which is a non-profit organization funded by donations from some Jewish Federations in North America and private foundations abroad, as well as by some local supporters. Of course, he points out, the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgenders living in Jerusalem is likely to be almost double that number, according to international research, which shows that roughly 10 percent of most populations define themselves as gay. "In [the greater] Jerusalem [area], a city of well over a million we could easily be talking about more than 100,000 who would be in one way or another members of our community. But because many sectors of our society are so closed, I doubt that we will be seeing as many people as that," says Gher. However, on the day of our interview there is a steady flow of visitors to the Open House, representing some of the capital's diverse populations. Most interesting is a small group of young Palestinian men gathered for their weekly meeting, sipping Turkish coffee and eating their lunch, which Gher says is a "story for another time." "It acts as a safe house for many people in the Jerusalem population, including those from the ultra-Orthodox community," he explains. Even though it is called the "Open House," Gher acknowledges that many people who utilize the facilities must do so in a very discreet manner. "It is important that we have the flags outside to show that we are here - downtown - and we have nothing to hide," he says. "However, we are also trying to serve each community's needs, and there are those who need discretion in order to work through their issues and develop their identity, while knowing full well that their families wouldn't be able to cope with such issues at all." Gher adds that in many cases, when families do find out about their child's sexual orientation, homosexuals must leave their homes and their community behind. "We've even been involved in helping people flee the country," he says. FOR GHER, revealing his own sexual identity to his family was "not a big issue." "I was in my early 20s when I realized [I was gay] myself and I had conversations with both my parents about it," he recalls. Born in the US, Gher moved here with his family when he was six months old. He was raised in Jerusalem and studied here before becoming spokesman for the Masorti movement in the late 1990s. "My first interaction with the Jerusalem Open House was when I was working for the Masorti movement," he says. "They invited me to put up a mezuza at their previous center. At that time, there was also the question of whether to include the LGBT community in the Forum for Free Choice and Marriage [a coalition of groups pushing for legislative change to allow free choice in marriage]. I was strongly advocating that same-sex marriage should be included in any legal framework that we were presenting." At the time, Gher himself was "still very much in the closet," and would speak about the issues only in the second person. "I guess in the back of my mind I knew how I really felt and that was why these issues were so important to me," he says. Not long after, Gher joined one of the Open House's youth groups and started to volunteer at the center, helping coordinate the first pride parade, which took place in 2002. He later offered his services as a media adviser and became a member of the board. "I've also helped out by organizing the center's religious activities on festivals and Shabbatot," says Gher. Gher met his current partner at the first pride parade. The two have been together for five years and are thinking about getting married, especially now that they have a child (through surrogacy) on the way. "We would like to do it," he says. "But the only legal way for us to get married is to get on a plane and fly to Canada. It's infuriating that - as citizens of this country - this is the only way we can get married. We would like to be able to get married in Israel, which is the basic right of any citizen in this country, regardless of their sexual orientation." Asked how close Israel is to allowing same-sex marriage, Gher is ambivalent. "As far as legal rights are concerned, Israel is making very good progress," he observes. "However, along with that process, we're seeing a social development whereby the ultra-Orthodox leadership is becoming more and more violent and vocal in its opposition to lifestyles other than ones they would like to see Israel society leading." Obviously, Gher continues, that opposition "has escalated in recent years to a point of contention on whether or not we deserve or have the right to walk down a public street in the city, our city, which is a very unfortunate discourse. But hopefully, I can change that. I want be able to create a Jerusalem where my partner and I can bring up our child in an atmosphere of acceptance," he concludes. "My hope is that more and more people will work with us to bring about that kind of acceptance."