West Bank gays find social life in IsraelThey fear new wall will trap them where their lifestyle is taboo
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, February 05, 2007
By Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank — In the center of town in a cafe named Stars & Bucks, a young Palestinian who likes to be known as the Diva Nawal sips a bright pink milkshake and checks out the early evening crowd.
"I'm not the only gay person here, but I'm the only one who's out," he says, exchanging silent greetings with two young Palestinian men at a nearby table. "They're also gay, but nobody knows, and you shouldn't approach them."
When the tall, slim, delicately featured Nawal dons the blonde wig, makeup and tight skirts that transform him into a drag queen, he's ready for his performance -- at gay clubs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
A 21-year-old university student with serious professional ambitions, Nawal wouldn't dream of performing in his hometown, where homosexuality, as in the rest of the Palestinian territories, is strictly taboo, sometimes violently so. Last year, a group of gay Palestinians visiting East Jerusalem from the United States were threatened and one of them badly beaten after they announced plans to join an Israeli gay pride rally. The Web site of ASWAT, an organization of Palestinian gay women, says Palestinian society "has no mercy for sexual diversity and/or any expression of 'otherness' away from the societal norms and the assigned roles that were formed for women. ... The Palestinian woman has no right to choose an identity other than the one enforced on her by the male figures in her family and surroundings."
So for Nawal and his friends, the only place where they can pursue a full social life is across the border in Israel.
"I can't be honest about my sexuality with my family because they wouldn't know how to respond, and I respect them too much to want to hurt them," he says. "But the same traditional family values which oppress me in that way also protect me."
Although his mannerisms sometimes attract unwelcome comment in the streets of Ramallah, he adds, "no one will attack me physically, because in our society that means my whole extended family will join together to attack them in return. It preserves a kind of balance."
He does not expect it to continue forever, and knows that after he graduates, he will probably leave the West Bank.
"This is not a free life," he says. "Apart from private parties inside people's homes, the only place where I can really behave as I wish is in Israel. Once they complete the security wall and I cannot reach Jerusalem, there will be nowhere to go. I will have to leave."
He is not alone. Saturday night is Arab night at Shushan, a gay bar in central Jerusalem, featuring a drag show that is part karaoke, part cross-cultural celebration. At the top of the bill is the Iman, also known as the Queen of Sheba, a 6-foot-plus black Palestinian with African roots -- who keeps his sexuality and nighttime drag queen theatrics carefully hidden from his wife and children. The crowd of about 50 this evening is a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, with a spattering of Western expatriates. The deafening music ranges from Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper to Arab divas Diana Haddad and Boshra.
Freddy A., a 27-year-old bisexual Arab from East Jerusalem, a regular at Shushan, is a veteran of the Palestinian gay scene.
"It's very tough being gay or bisexual because Arab behavior is still dominated by Islamic tradition, where it is forbidden," says Freddy, a hotel worker and the youngest male in a traditional Muslim family of eight children. "It's difficult to be with another Palestinian, and because of Israeli-Palestinian politics it's tough to see someone who isn't part of your community.
"I have one friend in his early 20s who was beaten by his family when they discovered he was gay, and forced to marry," he says. "Now he's not in a good situation. He has turned to drugs and drink."
Of his own family, Freddy says, "One of my brothers and one of my sisters know about me. My father suspects, but I have to hide it from him. It would be too hard for my family. I respect my father. I wouldn't want to hurt him."
He, too, finds a certain degree of freedom in Israel.
"I'm in Tel Aviv every weekend. On that side, they don't care. I have two Palestinian lesbian friends whose husbands don't know about them. To get together, they go to a hotel in West Jerusalem," he says.
In Israel, the status of gays and lesbians is more comparable with Western Europe.
As the British gay magazine Attitude approvingly reported in December: "Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset (Israel's parliament) has many openly gay members; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country's army, the Israel Defense Force, has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits.
"Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel's representative, 80 percent of polled Israelis called her 'an appropriate representative of Israel.' "
At Shushan, gay Israelis and Palestinians mix freely and go home together, although Freddy observes that the broader state of Israeli-Palestinian relations has created tensions that didn't exist before.
"Times have changed," he said. "These days I feel the hatred between both sides even in the gay community."
But compared to gay Palestinians who don't make it to Israel, Freddy and Nawal are among the lucky ones, said Haneen Maikey, coordinator of the Palestinian Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Project at a Jerusalem gay center.
"It's actually becoming more difficult for gay Palestinians," said Maikey, 28, whose center organizes a Pride rally every year. "It's a collective and closed community in which some parts are very religious with a small village atmosphere. Every step toward coming out will get you another step back to the closet."
But she questions the sense of belonging that gay Palestinians like Nawal and Freddy feel in the Israeli gay scene.
"At some level, they face racism and discrimination because they are Palestinians," Maikey said.
"There is a hidden discrimination with Israeli partners -- a feeling that I can make sex with you, but I can't be seen out with you," she said.