For some gay youth, return to community centers is too scary to contemplate

Youngsters also fear being forced out of the closet prematurely.

Israel's gay activist and support community is hard at work calming and comforting gay youth following Saturday night's deadly shooting at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv, as members of the community rally together to show support. A teenager and a young adult were killed and several others were wounded after a gunman opened fire in the basement room where gay youth were gathered in central Tel Aviv. Liri Avrahami, manager of the gay youth forum at the Hebrew Web portal Tapuz, said the reaction of gay youth was essentially one of anxiety, and many posters to the forum expressed fear for their personal safety. "I think yesterday's event is simply terrifying!" wrote one user. Others said they were frightened, scared and in shock. "They're afraid to come to Tel Aviv, and specifically, to attend gay youth events," Avrahami told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "They say they don't intend to return to the community centers or even to just hang out in the mall in Tel Aviv. They're plain scared." Usually, gay youth from all over the country flock to such centers in Tel Aviv, but many now feel those safe havens have been compromised, said Avrahami. The fact that the gunman is still at large only exacerbates the fear of being targeted. Some gay youth are nervous not only about being attacked, but also about being forced out of the closet prematurely. "In essence, they're afraid they'll get shot and their parents will find out and judge them," Avrahami said. Resources like Tapuz's forum are important because youth use them for non-judgmental advice and support. "At first, a gay youth thinks he is an odd bird and that he is crazy, and on the forum he sees there are others like him," Avrahami explained. In addition to inviting people to talk online, posts on the Tapuz forum encourage users to call hot lines and to visit centers that are staying open specifically for this reason. Avrahami said they had been telling gay youth with these fears that they should not be afraid to venture out, but she had been advising them to travel in groups. However, many are still anxious about being associated or identified with the gay community. Callers are also contacting other organizations with similar concerns, said Oded Katzman, a board member of the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, also known as "The Aguda," which runs the call center Someone to Speak With. Katzman said callers are asking for support, offering help and checking that it is safe to venture outside. The center is telling them that police say it is safe to go to gay venues. In fact, the Aguda is in the process of organizing a demonstration next week. Even though there are concerns, Katzman said many callers are not as much afraid as they are in shock. "It was inconceivable that something like this could happen in Tel Aviv," he said. "It's an openly gay city where homosexuals could walk hand-in-hand and show their homosexuality if they want." For a support group like the Israeli Gay Youth Organization (IGY), this anxiety and confusion may have significant ramifications. Avner Dafni, an IGY general manager, explained that it took a while for the organization to establish a rapport with the gay youth community and to set up a place where they felt safe and comfortable meeting to discuss their feelings. "We feel like this trust was broken and shattered by the shooting," Dafni said. "It went directly to the heart of our activities, to the ones who need this place the most." The IGY is organizing meetings for gay youth with psychologists, offering several mourning forums and trying to provide whatever means of support they find necessary. However, many members of the community are initially reluctant to attend. Dafni said, "When we ask them, their first reaction is, 'Is it safe? How do I know that it is going to be safe?'" The organization is also in constant contact with gay youth, including victims of the attack, via the phone and Internet. A number of call centers nationwide are keeping their lines open longer to accommodate an increase in calls. The phone has been ringing non-stop at the house of Yael Ben-Yosef, a counselor for the parent hot line at Tehila, a gay support group. This is not unusual, Ben-Yosef said, because when an event that involves the gay community hits the news, it usually triggers an influx of calls. Ben-Yosef has been hearing from parents who suspect their child might be gay, parents whose child came out of the closet suddenly and parents who have a hard time accepting their child's sexual orientation. "Parents worry. What will be with my child? How will he live alone?" Ben-Yosef said. In the aftermath of the shootings, a few parents are asking specifically about safety issues and the like, but most call for information and advice. And while the reaction among some of the young community is one of shock, dismay and fear, others refuse to be cowed. "I am standing at a street corner near to where the shooting happened, and there are a thousand people here. They are waving gay pride flags, wearing IDF uniforms, the shirt of the scouts and they are determined not to be afraid," Katzman said. "No, I cannot say that they are afraid at all." Abi Goodman and Elan Miller contributed to this report.