Pride Month, 2020 style: Celebrating pride under the cloud of coronavirus

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the celebrations of Pride Month in Israel.

TEL AVIV teems with Pride celebrants in pre-corona days: ‘It was two full weeks of a fun carnival. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
TEL AVIV teems with Pride celebrants in pre-corona days: ‘It was two full weeks of a fun carnival.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Several pride parades were scheduled to take place across the country in June – with the central and most colorful one to be held, as always, in Tel Aviv. Last year’s celebration in the White City drew more than a quarter of a million participants. This year would have been its 22nd parade, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.
The parade was canceled and the many business owners eagerly awaiting the tens of thousands of tourists who normally flock to “the city that never sleeps” for the celebration were deprived of the usual infusion of revenue.
Aguda – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel recently published the first Municipal LGBTQ Index, investigating which local authorities promoted LGBTQ rights over the past year. Not surprisingly, Tel Aviv was at the top.
“For years now, our Pride events have been talked about all over the world, and many tourists – gay and straight – flock to Israel each year for Pride celebrations,” says Etai Pinkas-Arad, a leader of the Israeli LGBTQ community and a member of the Tel Aviv City Council on behalf of Meretz, holding the LGBTQ Affairs portfolio. “Close to 30,000 tourists normally converge on Tel Aviv a week before the parade. People come to have a good time, eat, drink and travel around the country. This celebration has been great for business at local restaurants, hotels and shops.
“Pride Week is just another thing that’s gotten screwed up by the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve been talking with business owners who really count on income generated during Pride festivities, and they’re really feeling the impact from the loss. It’s also so sad to see the empty streets. It’s really incredible to see 30,000 tourists jam-packed into a few streets, hanging out at restaurants, talking in the streets. So many shop owners would hang big pride flags in welcome.”
Is there going to be any kind of program this year?
“Celebrations are going to be much smaller this year,” continues Pinkas-Arad. There were a few events so far, some of which were held virtually, and rallies were held in some of the major cities in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines. “Perhaps we’ll be able to hold a parade at the end of the summer or the beginning of September, but it’s too early now to know how things will be then. Things are changing from moment to moment.”
ACCORDING TO data gathered in previous years, tourists attending Pride Week would spend on average $245 per day in Israel, 140% more than the average tourist. People coming to Israel for Pride Week are a huge buying force, and hotels and restaurants benefited greatly. “Because hotels would be sold out well in advance, short-term rental agencies such as Airbnb also enjoyed a rise in business,” explains Leon Avigad, founder and co-owner of Brown Hotels, a Tel Aviv-based boutique hotel collection.
“Hotels would be full of colorful and fun activity each year,” continues Avigad. “Many commercial entities would rent space in local hotels so they could hold events, workshops and cocktail hours for their employees. We would prepare special drinks in celebration of Pride Week and serve a particularly nice breakfast the morning of the parade. We’d hang up pride flags in the lobby and really make the whole scene feel like a big party. It was two full weeks of a fun carnival – the entire city would be decorated for the parade. Tourists would be feeling very generous and spend tons of money.
“It’s very depressing. COVID-19 has put a damper on everything. We’d love to go back to regular life and host tons of people in our hotels. But in the meantime, no tourists are allowed into the country, and there won’t be a parade this year. Hopefully by next year things will be back to normal.”
Alex Kaplan, marketing manager of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center, one of the most popular shopping centers among tourists, said there might not be a parade this year, but they have designed special pride coronavirus masks with rainbow colors.
 “We’ve stationed two automatic vending machines that sell masks in the mall. For now, they’ve all sold out – more are scheduled to arrive soon.”
According to Kaplan, Dizengoff Center has always been a place where LGBTQ community members feel accepted. “We were the first business center in the State of Israel to be an official sponsor of the gay community and express support for equality among our customers and employees. Some of our stores clearly address the gay community, and a manager at one of our stores is a beloved figure within the community. The gym in Dizengoff Center is also really popular among the LGBTQ community. Our center inaugurated a gender-free bathroom in the building and has hosted many events for the LGBTQ community, free of charge.”
What usually goes on at the Dizengoff Center around the time of the pride parade?
“Last year, for example, we hosted a number of performances,” continues Kaplan. “We prepared 7,000 flags for the pride parade and distributed them to anyone who came by and asked for one. Revenues rose in the days before the parade, as hundreds and maybe even thousands of Israelis and tourists came into the center and bought products – mostly fashion items. Fruit smoothies and health drinks were also extremely popular. Some people even bought daily and weekly passes for the gym. A few years ago, we also had pop-ups and hosted designers who would come and launch new collections in honor of Pride Week.
“The week leading up to the pride parade was always full of happiness, color and an atmosphere of freedom,” continues Kaplan. “But this year, there’s just no happy energy at all. It’s hard to find a reason to celebrate these days. And it’s even more depressing that businesses are doing so poorly nowadays.”
USUALLY, TOURISTS start arriving in Israel about a week before the parade, explains Tamir Rafaeli, who has been managing Goldman’s Court restaurant in Tel Aviv for the past 18 years. “We have always warmly welcomed people from every walk of life and from every country around the world. We would proudly hang up the pride flag. The biggest party would always take place at Charles Clore Park, which would spill out into surrounding areas, including our restaurant.
“There’s no doubt that the city has taken a hard hit economically due to COVID-19, since tourists are not allowed in. We really miss all the tourists. But we’re optimistic that next year will be back to normal.”
Although there won’t be an official parade this year, there is an official song that expresses a message of love and equality for everyone throughout Israel. “Habib Albi” (Arabic for “Love of my Heart”) was sung by Static and Ben-El together with Nasreen Qadri. Tom Laster, heading up LGBTQ issues for Facebook Israel, says the video clip of the song is a hymn about the beautiful mosaic that makes up the community, and it will be displayed on Facebook in an effort to bring people together. “The LGBTQ community is an integral part of Facebook, and we are excited to enable all different kinds of people to be their authentic selves and make their voices heard. Through a collaboration with the City of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the LGBTQ community, we want to give a voice to all different communities and proudly offer them a place even beyond the virtual space.”
In past years, numerous commercial sponsors have supported the parade; now, a number of companies have found other ways to mark the time.
Over the past three years, eBay has been one of the sponsors of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade. This year, eBay held a first-of-its-kind event at its development center on June 23, in cooperation with LGBTech, to raise awareness of the importance of diversity and integrating members of the LGBTQ community into Israel’s hi-tech ecosystem. One of the highlights of the day was a fireside chat that was livestreamed on Facebook with Bradford Shellhammer, GM of eBay New York, who heads eBay for Charity. The interview was moderated by Bianca Lewis, one of the 30 most active leaders of the LGBTQ community.
“Despite the cancellation of Pride Week celebrations this year, eBay would like to acknowledge the LGBTQ community’s struggle for equality in all walks of life,” announced Ishai Froind, eBay Israel’s new general manager. “For us, equal opportunities and supporting minority groups are at the heart of eBay’s founding business principles. We believe in promoting values of courage and proactivity, and that everyone, regardless of religion, face and gender, can be who they are, wherever they are – and certainly at eBay. This year, despite the special circumstances, we’re appealing to every member of the LGBTQ community and inviting you to join Israel’s hi-tech ecosystem and thereby promote the integration of the LGBTQ community into Israel’s technological community.”
Cybereason, another Israeli hi-tech company, chose to celebrate Pride Month in an original way. In the format of a “Pardon me for asking” panel, which took place last month, representatives from Israel Gay Youth, including religious and trans individuals, answered questions and told stories about young people who are unsettled with their sexual and gender identity.
In addition, Cybereason is currently working on a dedicated program geared toward training trans individuals to improve their chances of gaining entry-level positions in hi-tech companies. “Activities dealing with equality, diversity and tolerance for others are part of our company’s five core values, in the sense of uBu (You Be You),” says Lior Div, CEO and founder of Cybereason. “Our aim is to encourage employees from all the different communities to feel free to be who they are and to bring their uniqueness to work.”
Yet the business sector is still pretty far behind in terms of supporting the LGBTQ community, notes Pinkas-Arad. “There have certainly been far-reaching changes compared to years past, when it was difficult to find even one sponsor from a liquor conglomerate, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Israel’s business sector has come as far as Israeli society has in general. For the most part, the business sector has very little connection with the gay community.
“A number of companies have created a relationship, and this is amazing. The potential for improvement is immense.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.