Tel Aviv's Gay Scene
Liberal and hedonistic, Tel Aviv has ambitions to be the world's gayest destinationFeatured October 11 Words by Jamie Hakin/Photo Nitzin Hafner
It's night-time and I'm standing on a beach. In front of me, as far as the eye can see, are men with no tops on, all dancing to a thumping house beat. Tonight is Cheech Beach, Tel Aviv's premier gay beach party, and I'm having the time of my life.
I started off the day at a gay café, continued it on a gay beach, got ready for the evening at my very gay-friendly hotel, kicked off my night at (you guessed it) a few gay bars and now I've ended up at this party.
I stare out over the Mediterranean and a thought flashes across my mind: could Tel Aviv be the gayest city in the world?
This might seem like a ridiculous question if you compare Tel Aviv to, say, London, New York or Sydney. But if you consider the city's size (51.4km2 compared to London's 1,579km2) and its population (404,400 to New York's eight million plus), then I would say in terms of "gayness per capita" (a measurement purely of my own invention), Tel Aviv easily comes out top.
How did this happen? Were you to stop someone on the street and ask what they think of when they hear "Israel", they would most likely say "religion" or "Middle East", possibly "winter sun". "Gay friendly" probably wouldn't appear on the list. What's more, as recently as the 1990s, Israel, with its famously macho culture and religious influences, was leagues behind more progressive countries when it came to gay rights.
What people don't realise is that Tel Aviv has changed radically in the last decade, and it's now a city that gay men and lesbian tourists flock to. During the city's Gay Pride Week in June, organisers estimate that as many as 6,000 tourists arrived for the event - a 25% increase compared with the previous year.
Perhaps surprisingly, the city municipality can take a lot of credit for the raised gay profile (more on this later), but there are also some prominent cheerleaders. One man who has been at the forefront of the city's transformation is Israel's highest-profile gay film and TV director, Eytan Fox. He shot to international prominence in 2001 with his film Yossi & Jagger - a groundbreaking love story between two gay Israeli soldiers.
"When I showed it at a film festival in London," says Fox, "people came up to me and asked, 'How can this be? Isn't Israel a really conservative, religious country?' I was proud to realise that I was part of something. Israel was about to change." And change it has. "There are so many parties now that I can't keep up. It's just crazy how it's exploded," says Fox.
For a relatively small city, it really is astonishing how broad Tel Aviv's gay nightlife is. Spanning the super- hip to the super-cheesy, hip hop to pop music, and clubs for older and younger crowds, Tel Aviv has all tastes covered. Big Boys is for the over-thirties, Beef Jerky is for what's known as "bears" (burly, hirsute men and their admirers) and gay-party promoter Shirazi hosts international celebrity DJs at Tel Aviv's megaclub Ha'Oman. A good starting point is Evita, a stalwart of Tel Aviv's gay scene, or for listings of other clubs, bars and restaurants, those in the know check out the events section of Tel Aviv Gay Vibe's website (telavivgayvibe.atraf.com), which has regularly updated information on what's happening.
If you're not a night owl, there's plenty for a gay tourist to do during the day. "I would start on Sheinkin Street, Tel Aviv's main shopping street, and have breakfast in Orna and Ella [33 Sheinkin Street, tel: +972 (0)3 620 4753]," says Eytan. "It's a beautiful restaurant and all the waiters are cute men. A lot of them are gay and even if they're not, they know how to flirt! Then I'd walk down to the gay beach opposite the Hilton. It's one of the clichés that Israeli men are really handsome, but it's kind of true."
And for women? "There are two beautiful café/ restaurants - one is called Joz ve Loz [51 Yehuda Halevi, tel: +972 (0)3 560 6385] and the other is called Beta & Griga [2 Levontin, tel: +972 (0)3 685 0493]. Both have great food and great atmospheres."
He also mentions the new LGBT Community Centre (gaycenter.org.il) that was set up three years ago in Gan Meir Park. Its cafe has become a hub of Tel Aviv's gay community - a great place to meet locals or enjoy regular events. It's a great resource for information and also one of the places where you can buy a Hot City Pass, which gives you discounts and benefits at gay and gay-friendly businesses all over the city (or buy it online at gayisrael.org.il).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this community centre is that it's been set up and funded by the Tel Aviv municipality. In terms of gay friendliness, this puts it streets ahead of even London, where no such initiative exists and similar community organisations receive only partial government funding, if any at all. It turns out that Tel Aviv doesn't simply tolerate its gay scene and associated tourism, it actively courts it. For instance, the municipality funds the yearly Pride events and the Tel Aviv Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (both in June), and it's recently set up events called the Endless Summer Weekend. These happen three times a year and are weekend-long gay festivals, bringing together the very best of the city's gay life for tourists to enjoy (the next one is happening 8-12 March 2012).
Why does Eytan think the government embraces gay culture so wholeheartedly in initiatives like these?
"I'll tell you, and I don't know if it's something I should say," he says with a note of seriousness. "There are some people who claim the government is using the gay community a little like a fig leaf, to say, 'Look how accepting of minorities we are'. But as a guy who has been working most of his life to promote gay issues through my films, we can't avoid the fact that, thanks to a lot of people, Israel has changed in ways that are amazing. It used to be a very macho culture that could never accept gay people, and through the work we've put in, it's exploded. The Israeli government hasn't made that up."
He points to the major Israeli pop stars who have now come out of the closet - not only young ones, like Ivri Leder (Israel's equivalent to Justin Timberlake), but also national treasures who have been famous for decades, like Yehuda Poliker (Israel's Neil Diamond) and Yehudit Ravitz (Israel's Tina Turner) - without denting their popularity.
"There really was a conservative culture in Israel and now it genuinely celebrates its gay community," says Fox. "That gives me hope that we have the potential to be a better society, and live in peace and love with those who are different from us."