Out and proud in Tel Aviv

This year I took great pride in joining the thousands of people who filled the streets to rejoice in our ability to be a free people in our own land

“To be a free people in our own land” (Lihiot am hofshi be’artzenu)
As a self-confessed modern Zionist, these words from Israel’s national anthem make me happy and proud to be a citizen of the Jewish state. I have heard the phrase many times since making aliya three years ago, as well as during my very Zionist upbringing, but when I saw it splashed across a huge and colorful banner at the most recent gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, I was nearly brought to tears.
RELATED:Tens of thousands kick off Tel Aviv's annual pride parade
The whole concept of being a free gay man in the Jewish state where I have chosen to live is important to me.
Seeing rainbow flags waving together with Israeli flags is a strong expression of what I like to call “national pride.”
The Gay Pride Parade that took place this Friday in Tel Aviv was, as always, full of people who were also happy to be free, and proud of who they were. This does not necessarily mean everyone there was gay; far from it. The pride parade celebrates freedom of expression, and is attended annually by families with young children, straight friends, straight couples and even proud parents and grandparents.
THIS YEAR’S parade was my third in Tel Aviv, but my first as a fullfledged resident of the city that never sleeps. People often accuse Tel Avivians of living in a bubble, disconnected from the rest of the country and from reality. In a way, I have to agree: We do live in a bubble. But this bubble is very accepting, and those lucky enough to enter it can be who they want to be. Though I love the rest of the country and enjoy leaving Tel Aviv to get some fresh air, when I walk down its streets, filled with open-minded young people, I feel like I belong. I love that on this year’s Independence Day I went to a gay club and danced traditional Israeli folk dances. Being a proud Jew is the same as being a proud gay person; the two are not mutually exclusive.
For most of my life, I lived in Manchester – a northern UK city renowned for its gay life and laid-back attitude (the original UK version of the popular gay TV show Queer as Folk was filmed there as a result). I never felt as free there as I do here in Tel Aviv, though. I think it is much more acceptable for a gay couple to walk the streets holding hands in Tel Aviv than it is in Manchester. Like many other gay-friendly cities, Manchester is famous for its designated area, commonly known as “the village,” that provides a safe haven for the city’s gay people. Tel Aviv does not have this kind of area – but then, every part of Tel Aviv seems to be gay-friendly. That the gay community is not ghettoized makes the city’s atmosphere even more liberal.
Walk down any street in central or south Tel Aviv and you are more than likely to see a rainbow flag flying proudly from one of the apartments. In the lead-up to this year’s pride events, many of the major streets in the city were decorated with rainbow flags by the municipality.
Add all the flags on display by shop owners and residents, and the city became a colorful expression of freedom and acceptance. This is my kind of town.
Gay tourists are starting to discover Tel Aviv, and it is quickly becoming a hot spot to rival classic gay destinations such as Berlin, San Francisco and Amsterdam. I have met quite a few gay people who decided to check out Tel Aviv purely out of curiosity. Unlike many tourists who visit Israel, they do not come for religious reasons; rather, they’ve heard that the attitude is laid back, the parties are wild and the people are good-looking, and they want to get in on the action. This is what many gay people want from a holiday, and when they find they can have all this in a place which they have heard on the news is oppressed by religion and ravaged by war, they are always pleasantly surprised. For me, this is yet another reason to be proud.
Over 5,000 overseas tourists traveled to Tel Aviv especially for this year’s event, and I was happy to see so many people waving their own national flags along with the Israeli flag and the traditional rainbow one. It gives me hope that Israel can become a center of acceptance that people respect all around the world. To hear so many different accents and meet people from all around the world who chose specifically to come to the city I love, in the country for which I would do anything, gave me a sense of pride similar to the day I made aliya, or the day I had my swearing-in ceremony in the army. If we really want to be accepted in the world, we must continue to show the world how accepting we are of our own citizens.
Tel Aviv residents and kibbutznikim, Jews and non- Jews, Israelis and tourists, gays and straights all took part in Friday’s pride parade. This year I took great pride in joining these thousands of people who filled the streets to rejoice in our ability to be a free people in our own land.
The writer is the Lifestyle Editor on jpost.com