The Youth Bar on Nachmani Street is a special place. Every Saturday night, gay teenagers gather in this residential apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv. The apartment, which was willed to the gay community by a local gay activist, has been a spot for gay teenagers to find companionship and support in a safe, clean, alcohol-free environment, under the careful and caring supervision of an adult counselor.
The Youth Bar is part of the activities of the Israeli Gay Youth Organization, known informally as “Iggy,” after a gay protagonist of the popular mid-1990s Israeli television series “Florentin.” Iggy was the first gay man to kiss another man on prime-time Israeli television. Like Iggy-the-television-character, Iggy-the-organization and its social club helped gay teens see that that they are not alone.
Then, on the evening of Saturday, August 1, a murderer walked into this special place. He opened fire with an automatic weapon, taking the lives of Liz Trobishi, 17, and Nir Katz, 26, and wounding 15 others.
Tel Aviv is shaken. Israel’s gay community is shaken. We did not see this coming. How could we have?
Over the past several years, Israel has itself become a special place for gays. Prime-time broadcasts feature gay personalities nearly evening of the week. “A Star is Born,” the Israeli answer to “American Idol,” has a panel of judges that includes not only myself, a gay male, but also Dana International, a famous pop songstress who happens to be a flamboyant transsexual. Israeli society’s acceptance of the gay community is deep and genuine.
The legal climate in Israel is similarly favorable. The Interior Ministry registers gay couples who get married in Canada or Europe. The courts have given their seal of approval to adoption for same-sex couples. Just days before the attack on the Youth Bar, the head of the national insurance institute declared that as far as she was concerned, gay couples were the same as straight couples in every respect, and thus entitled to the same benefits.
Of course, the situation for Israel’s gay community is not perfect. Since the establishment of the state, there have been ongoing struggles between religious and secular citizens over the character of the Israeli state and society. Increasingly, the rights of the gay community are front and center in these struggles, with leaders of religious parties — in particular Shas — regularly assailing us with horrible curses. But even this incitement can often seem far removed from our daily lives, particularly for those of us comfortably ensconced in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.
Indeed, in the past few years, Tel Aviv has seen the arrival of a new generation of gay youths, many of whom are not interested in traditional gay activism or the organized gay community. Their exit from the closet was often relatively painless — at least compared to the struggles of previous generations. For them, life can be easy and anti-gay prejudice does not necessarily loom large — or at least it hasn’t until now. A moment like this — when blood has been spilled and the Tel Aviv “bubble” has been burst — may well be an awakening for them.
This coming Saturday night, August 8, one week after the murderous rampage on Nachmani Street, there will be a huge gathering at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. In this square, which bears the name of the prime minister who was slain there 15 years ago, we will mourn another sad event. I will be the master of ceremonies at Saturday night’s gathering; I am still weighing what I should say.
On the one hand, leaders of the gay community have been trying to keep things calm over the past several days. It would be irresponsible to assign blame before the murderer is captured and identified. And in particular, we have not wanted to alienate the religious public by pointing fingers of blame in their direction. Instead, we want to allow them to mourn with us.
But on the other hand, even as we mourn, we are also determined. And in Rabin Square, we will stand tall, with our straight friends, and say loudly: We will not cower in fear. The world has changed. Not all of it, not everywhere, but we should remember that the closet is just an old idiom from the past. We cannot go back there, because it does not exist anymore. Not for us, not for me. So as much as I feel anger and pain, I know that like all battles for equality, ours is still far from over.
Gal Uchovsky is a Tel Aviv-based journalist, activist and filmmaker. He was the writer and producer of the films “The Bubble” and “Walk on Water,” both directed by his partner Eytan Fox.