Keeping their pride

Despite opposition from all sides, WorldPride 2006 organizers promote a message of tolerance.

gay pride flag 88 (photo credit: )
gay pride flag 88
(photo credit: )
Only one month remains until the controversial WorldPride, a weeklong celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride. The event, slated to take place in Jerusalem from August 6 through 12, has been called by organizers Jerusalem's Open House "the largest civil rights demonstration in the city in years." But this year's WorldPride has also succeeded in arousing the opposition of many Jerusalem residents and officials, as well as uniting, in their opposition, leaders of the city's Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. Particularly galling to some is the pride parade, which will be the public highlight of the event. Last year's gay pride parade, which, according to the Open House, drew some 10,000 participants, was marred by violence when a haredi man stabbed three of the marchers. So far, Mayor Uri Lupolianski has (unsuccessfully) tried on three occasions to bar this year's parade. In addition, City Hall has blocked funding to the Open House in past years, an action the courts have repeatedly ruled against. Just last month the municipality was ordered to pay the Open House NIS 350,000 from the city's cultural budget - funding to which the Open House was legally entitled and which it had been denied. The city was also ordered to pay NIS 30,000 in court costs. The mayor has stated that the city will appeal this decision. Amid all the controversy, however, the Open House is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the program for WorldPride. The event will include the parade, as well as an array of conferences and events designed to "bring to light the diversity and achievements of the LGBT community." This will include a multifaith convocation with the participation of a gay Catholic priest, a lesbian rabbi and the world's only openly gay imam, as well as straight clergy. There will also be a conference devoted to issues of health in the LGBT community, a youth day with a visit to the Knesset (which aroused the ire of MK Otniel Shneller of Kadima), a conference on human rights with a solidarity rally at the security barrier, a beach party sponsored by the Tel Aviv municipality and a large Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service at Beit Shmuel. In addition, participants will enjoy various cultural events around the city, such as an LGBT film festival at the Cinematheque and LGBT art exhibitions in private galleries. The Open House has raised $300,000 for WorldPride from private donors and foundations, mainly in the US. But this money is only for events organized by the Open House and does not cover the film festival and the art exhibitions, which are being funded independently. According to the WorldPride Web site (, the Open House is a grassroots, LGBT activist organization founded in 1997 that is working "to make Jerusalem a place where people can be free to seek self-fulfillment." It provides direct services to the LGBT community as well as serving as an advocate for social change. The cities chosen for WorldPride events were selected specifically because of their religious significance. The first WorldPride was held in Rome in 2000, and WorldPride Jerusalem will be the second international event. "Most of the resistance to our movement is from faith-based arguments," says Noa Sattath, chair of the Open House, who will become the Open House's new executive director following WorldPride. Speaking in accent-free English, which the native born Jerusalemite claims she learned from "watching TV," Sattath notes that the first WorldPride "started an interesting discussion in the Christian churches about the place of LGBT people in religion. I am sure that WorldPride Jerusalem will have the same effect. We are not against religion or religious people. A lot of our members are religious. But we want to confront some of the religious public with the reality of LGBT existence. We want to reclaim the language of faith and morality, to show we have an equal place in these spheres. I would like to point out that Jerusalem is the most religious city in the world with a LGBT community center." She sees the WorldPride Jerusalem march as being different from other gay pride marches in other cities. "In Jerusalem, we will be holding a demonstration of values and not sexuality. Blatant sexuality was never a part of our Jerusalem marches and will not be this year. We invite all those who share our values of pluralism, tolerance, social change and freedom of speech to join us." Nevertheless Sattath notes, "It is very important that despite the violent language of some of our opponents, we remain focused on non-violence. We are taking measures to learn about non-violent resistance and making every effort to ensure that WorldPride passes peacefully and quietly." This includes working with the Jerusalem Police to try to ensure public order and safety. Last year, preparations that included allocating some 800 police officers and a helicopter for the gay pride march still could not prevent violence. With WorldPride hoping to attract a larger audience than last year (gay pride in Tel Aviv has been canceled this year to encourage participants to take part in WorldPride), Sattath maintains that the Open House "is taking security very seriously." But a representative of the Jerusalem police said at a meeting of the Knesset's Interior Committee that the security establishment was still weighing the possibility of canceling WorldPride. "We at the police are collecting information. There are a lot of threats to be considered," he said. "Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter was being briefed about the possible threat. In the coming days we will make a decision." At press time, no decision had been released. Several National Union-National Religious Party MKs said at the session that they will try to stop the events by going to the High Court. Nonetheless, the Jerusalem district police spokesperson's office told In Jerusalem that "the minute the route is approved by the appropriate authorities, we will begin our preparations." Since all WorldPride events are free and there is no registration, Sattath says that it is difficult to accurately estimate how many people will be taking part. "However, we do have more than a dozen groups coming. The rest will be people from both Israel and abroad arriving as individuals," she notes. With hotels already booked to capacity for August, the Open House is now trying to arrange home hospitality for some participants. "WorldPride will give a boost to tourism in Jerusalem," Sattath continues. "I don't have exact figures in terms of dollars and cents. But we will be transforming the city's image from one of conflict to one of tolerance." WorldPride will also emphasize the mixed nature of the city's LGBT community - Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. "We have the largest LGBT outreach in the Arabic-speaking world here in Jerusalem," Sattath relates. "Every one of our events will have a Palestinian speaker and there will be events in Arabic as well. However, several events in Arabic will be closed to the public. This is because many of our Palestinian members are still in the closet and, while there is huge media interest in the Palestinian LGBT community, our first obligation is to protect our participants." With respect to cooperation with the municipality, Sattath points out that: "The municipality has never cooperated with us. We are legally prepared to face the city. We have legal backing and the precedents for holding this event whether the city supports us or not. I hope we will not have to go to court again. But if we do, we will win. We are prepared for all possibilities with the city." The municipal spokesman's office did not respond to IJ's request for a statement. One of the logistical problems stemming from the lack of dialogue between the city and the Open House is determining where to begin and end the march. "We have to start and end somewhere with a lot of space," says Sattath. "Since we are interested in a central route in town, there does not seem to be an alternative to city parks. The municipality is the body that licenses the use of its parks. We are talking to the police about this problem." The 29-year-old Sattath admits that being gay in the holy city is much tougher than in Tel Aviv. "But I was born in Jerusalem and I have spent my whole life here. I came out of the closet at age 21 and joined the Open House's youth program. After a while, I decided that I wanted to give back to the organization some of what I had gained. So four years ago, I joined the executive board and two and half years ago, I became chair. I know it would be easier in Tel Aviv, but I insist on my right to live as a lesbian in Jerusalem." Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.