Out and proud in the Holy Land

As thousands of locals and tourists celebrate Tel Aviv Gay pride, a gay oleh from the UK talks about the importance of being "free in his own land."

Gay pride flag 311 (photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
Gay pride flag 311
(photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
"To be a free people in our own land (Lihiot am hofshi bartzenu)"
As a self-confessed modern Zionist, these words from Israel's national anthem make me happy and proud to be in Israel. 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 the phrase splashed across a huge colorful banner at my first ever gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, I was nearly brought to tears.
The whole concept of being a free gay man in the Jewish state where I chose to live is very 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 set to take place this Friday in Tel Aviv will be full of people who are also happy to be free and proud of who they are. This does not necessarily mean that everyone who is there will be 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 grandparents.
I have attended the pride parade in Tel Aviv for the last two years and I am looking forward to this year's event as I am now a fully fledged 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 disconnected from reality. In a way, I have to agree: We do live in a bubble. But this bubble that we live in is very accepting and those that are lucky enough to enter it can be who they want to be. Though I love the rest of the country and I enjoy leaving Tel Aviv go "get some fresh air," when I walk down the 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 dancing. Being a proud Jew is the same as being a proud gay person, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
For most of my life, I lived in Manchester, a northern UK city which is renowned for its gay life and laid back attitude (the original UK series of 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" which 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. There is no specific street or part of a neighborhood which is designated as a "gay area" and this makes the atmosphere in the city even more liberal because the gay community is not ghettoized.
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 have been officially colored with rainbow flags by the municipality. Add all the flags that have been put out on display by shop owners and residents, and the city has become a colorful expression of freedom and acceptance.
Gay tourists are really starting to discover Tel Aviv and it is quickly becoming a hot spot which rivals all the classic gay destinations such as Berlin, San Francisco and Amsterdam. I have met quite a few gay people who have decided to check out Tel Aviv purely out of curiosity. Unlike the majority of tourists that visit Israel, they do not come for any religious reasons, rather they've heard that the attitude is laid back, the parties are wild and the people are good-looking. This what many gay people want from a holiday and when they find that they can have all this in a place which is supposed to be oppressed by religion and ravaged by war, they are always pleasantly surprised. For me, this is yet another reason to be proud. Proud of the fact that our "First Hebrew City" is an accepting place that welcomes visitors while maintaining its own unique Israeli charm.
Tel Aviv residents and kibbutznikim from the North, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and tourists, gays and straights are all set to take part in Friday's pride parade. This year I will take great pride in joining these thousands of people who will fill the city's streets to rejoice in the fact that we are able to be a free people in our own land.