Tel Aviv was draped in rainbow colors Friday, and many of the city’s streets were closed off as over 100,000 revelers took part in the annual Gay Pride parade.
Loud music blasted along the parade’s route, thick with people dancing to the beats and waving rainbow flags. Drag queens wearing heavy makeup, dresses with sequins and high heels bounced along to the music alongside scantily clad men and women.
The city’s Gay Pride parade is the largest event of its kind in the Middle East. Tel Aviv is one of the few places in the Middle East where gays feel free to walk hand-in-hand and kiss in public. The city has emerged as one of the world’s most gay-friendly travel destinations in recent years, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 100,000 people took part. Loud music blasted along the parade’s route, thick with people dancing to the beats and waving rainbow flags.
Tel Aviv’s openness to gays stands in contrast to conservative Jerusalem, just a short drive away. Still, Jerusalem has a small gay scene and an annual pride parade, albeit on a much smaller scale. Gays serve openly in Israel’s military and parliament and many popular artists and entertainers are gay. However, leaders of the gay community say Israel still has far to go in promoting equality.
Officially, there is no gay marriage in Israel, primarily because there is no civil marriage of any kind. All Jewish weddings must be conducted through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad.
Across the rest of the Middle East, gay and lesbian relationships are mostly taboo. The pervasiveness of religion in everyday life, along with strict cultural norms, plays a major factor in that. Same-sex relations are punishable by death in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.
Among most Palestinians, gays tend to be secretive about their social lives. In the West Bank, a 1951 Jordanian law banning homosexual acts remains in effect, as does a ban in Gaza passed by British authorities in 1936.
The procession set off at 12 p.m. from Bograshov Street and passed through Hayarkon, Frishman and Herbert Samuel streets before ending with a party at Charles Clore beach, on the border with Jaffa.
The parade capped off a week of events comprising the city’s annual Pride week.
Long known as a gay-friendly city, Tel Aviv was voted the world’s top gay travel destination for the year 2011 in a survey by American Airlines and GayCities.com.
According to The Daily Beast, some 100,000 gay tourists are expected to arrive in Tel Aviv this year, drawn by the city’s massive marketing push as a gay-friendly, Sabbath-breaking, free-loving hotspot on the beach.
It’s all part of a carefully crafted plan by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who decided several years ago to push Tel Aviv’s image as both pink and peaceful, and was able to secure about a quarter-of-a-million dollars from the city’s tourism budget as part of the plan.
“We are trying to create a model for openness, pluralism and tolerance,” Huldai later told the Associated Press. “Live and let live — this is the city of Tel Aviv.”
On Tuesday a rainbow flag indicating support for the LGBTQ community was raised over the US embassy in Tel Aviv for the first time, according to US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
“For the first time in history,” wrote Shapiro on his Facebook page, “the US Embassy in Tel Aviv has raised the Pride flag together with our American flag. We are proud to join with the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo and its residents in celebrating LGBT Pride Week.”
The Jewish Agency came out on Friday too. Spurred into action by a group of LGBT immigrants in Tel Aviv, the agency, which in March launched its LGBT group “Coming Out, Coming Home,” was joined dozens of other gay-friendly organizations at the annual Gay Pride Happening in Gan Meir park before marching with its own branded banner in the day’s parade. It marked the first time the Jewish Agency would hoist its own banner in the parade.
Debra Kamin and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.