Gay pride week kicked off Friday at Tel Aviv’s Hilton Beach amid a flock of curious tourists and proud Israelis, accompanied by electronic chill-out music. The beach, locally known as the gay beach, sits next to the dog beach, which, on its other side, borders the religious beach, in northern Tel Aviv. The event marks the start of a week of gay-themed events, both social and educational, that culminate in the iconic annual gay pride parade next Friday.

The parade’s main event will be headlined by DJs Offer Nissim and Elliyott at Gordon Beach. The city expects upwards of 100,000 attendees at Friday’s parade, while others estimate the number at close to 200,000.

Admittedly, the parade conjures up images of bronzed-bodied Lady Gaga-crazed flamboyance — something not all gay people identify with or relate to.

Gay pride week 2012 falls under the banner “pride flags countrywide,” an effort to draw attention to the topic of gay rights across Israel, i.e. the social fabric of Israeli society at large, and not just Tel Aviv. The main theme of the campaign, however, is to remind the public that the gay community’s struggle to achieve equal rights is not over, said Adir Steiner, one of the organizers of the week’s events.

“After a year of religious holidays, like Passover and Yom Kippur, this holiday is for me,” said Amer Dacca, an Arab-Israeli gay man from Jaffa, referring to the secular nature of the festivities as well as their inclusivity. ”I feel really excited about it, and my friends are too. It’s a celebration of who we are, and I look forward to it every year.”

Dacca said that he came out six years ago during gay pride in Eilat, and that the parade brings back good memories while working toward a brighter future.

A couple dances at the 2011 gay pride parade after-party at Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

A couple dances at the 2011 gay pride parade after-party at Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Another Tel Aviv resident, Lior Ashkenazi, put it this way: “It’s the most fun week of the year. We get to own the city and have the most fun, without being afraid of offending anyone.” Tel Aviv’s pride week gives a sense of security and belonging.

Yet while the parade is the crown-jewel of gay pride week, not everyone shares the same enthusiasm about the progress it symbolizes. Some residents feel that the civil rights for gay couples, for example, are not where they could be. While the country, and particularly Tel Aviv, has made great strides, they cite not being able to marry in the country, as well as a perpetual fear of attack, as ever-present issues.

“I don’t really feel free to walk around and kiss my boyfriend in public on a regular day,” said Ashkenazi. “And come on, this is Tel Aviv, Israel’s liberal city.”

Others feel that the gay parade is not all its chalked up to be. “It’s not representative of the entire gay community,” one Tel Aviv resident pointed out, adding that the image of nearly naked men and women dancing around serves to fetishize, rather than boost, the gay community. He explained that the parade is fun because it has positive energy but that it lacks substance.

Admittedly, the parade conjures up images of bronzed-bodied Lady Gaga-crazed flamboyance — something not all gay people identify with or relate to. But gay pride week is much more than that: During the course of seven days there are screenings of films exploring gay identity, lectures about surrogacy and gay politics, panel discussions on BDSM and lesbian identity, plays about transgenders and drag queens, music shows, exhibitions, and a variety of other exploratory events that point to the personal battles and meanings associated with gay identity.

Tel Aviv, the Middle East’s gay capital

Tel Aviv was voted one of the best gay cities in a poll in 2011 and was chosen as one of the hottest tourist destinations by Lonely Planet that same year. Recent shout-outs have furthered Tel Aviv’s reputation as a nonstop party: Claire Danes called it one of the “craziest party” places she’s ever visited and 60 Minutes ran a feature on it, portraying it as a modern sin city fueled by a disregard for the stalemated peace process.

CNN also ranked the city as second in the world for its pride week campaign, citing two concerts (June 3-4) by gay rights activist and singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright (who recently generated rumors by unconventionally fathering a child with his friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard Cohen, and making his partner a deputy-father figure).

Thousands attended the Gay Pride Parade 2011 beach party at Gordon Beach, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Thousands attended the gay pride parade 2011 beach party at Gordon Beach, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Indeed, with the intoxicating danger of war lurking in the distance, Tel Aviv is embracing its image as a sexy, glittery stop along the Mediterranean.

Gay tourism is part of that effort. The city is marketing itself as a liberal place where gays are welcome. The municipality estimated that some 5,000 tourists visited the city for gay pride week 2011. This year, they think the number will more than double that.

Shai Doitsh, in charge of tourism for Israel’s Gay Association, said that in 2011 a record number of tourists visited during gay pride, thanks in part to concerted efforts to market the city as gay-friendly. For example, the city’s hotels coordinated with the municipality to offer a range of packages. Excellent parties, he added, were thrown all week long.

This year, the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, otherwise known as Aguda (“the association” in Hebrew) is working with the municipality again to ensure that the city remains a highly sought-after travel destination.

Gay Pride Parade 2011 attendees (photo credit: David Katz/The Israel Project)

Gay pride parade 2011 attendees (photo credit: David Katz/The Israel Project)

Please click here for a detailed listing of gay pride 2012 events (the brochure lists the main events in English as well as Hebrew). For an informal guide to the week’s parties and events, please click here.