by Viktor Bogatko -
SGN Contributing Writer
Vibrant is the best way to describe Tel Aviv's 16th annual Pride Parade last Friday that attracted more than 100,000 participants.
Shirtless Israeli men, colorfully dressed drag queens, and countless partygoers celebrated Pride through central Tel Aviv as many thousands of people took part in the city's annual Gay Pride Parade, the largest of its kind in the Middle East.
In a sea of rainbow clothing and accessories, participants wearing plain apparel were the ones who stuck out the most at this event. 'I should have worn a neon orange reflector!' said one such attendee, who smiled blushingly in her gray shirt. 'I seem to be a clothing outsider here.'
With a Gay scene that competes with all Gay capitols around the world, a stunning beach, spectacular weather, delicious food, and many other attractions, Tel Aviv is the Gay mecca of the Middle East.
The city was voted the world's top Gay travel destination in 2011 in a survey by American Airlines and GayCities.com and hosts the biggest Pride event outside of Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
Thanks to a mayor who understands that equality and acceptance are paramount to the State of Israel, it is only getting bigger every year.
Mayor Ron Huldai decided several years ago to push Tel Aviv's image as both peaceful and pink. He was able to secure about a quarter of a million dollars from the city's tourism budget as part of the plan and vows to make his city a symbol of Israel's hospitality for both the local and international LGBT communities.
'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.'
The annual parade featured a new route that started at Gan Me'ir Park with music, drag shows, and speeches. Specially designed floats, marching groups, uplifting music, and countless participants and spectators marched down Bograshov, Hayarkon, Fishman, and Herbert Samuel streets, ending up at world famous Charles Clore Beach, where a party was held from 3 p.m. till sunset.
It was the most widely attended event of Pride Week, a seven-day Tel Aviv celebration packed with musical events, film screenings, festivals, bar nights and beach parties.
Throughout the week, Rabin Square was alight with rainbow lights and flags and even the streets were painted to reflect the city's thriving LGBT culture.
A participant from the U.S. said the event, unlike many like it around the world, was a far more 'inclusive celebration.'
'At the Chicago parade, you can watch on the other side of the street, but you can't really participate in the actual procession,' she explained. 'In Tel Aviv, the parade is the people.'
While the parade was certainly celebratory, there was also an emphasis on activism. Numerous stalls had been set up along the park's main pathway, staffed by community organizers and activists.
The Mediterranean city's openness stands in contrast to more conservative Jerusalem, just a short drive away, home to some of the holiest sites to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Still, Jerusalem has a thriving Gay scene and an annual Pride parade, though on a much smaller scale.
LGBT Israelis serve openly in the country's military and parliament, and many famous artists and entertainers are openly Gay.
Due to Israel's unique marriage laws, there are no Gay marriages in Israel. All weddings must be conducted through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. The country does, however, recognize same-sex couples who marry abroad and same-sex couples are allowed to jointly adopt.
In many ways, Israel and Tel Aviv are pioneers in the LGBT movement, way ahead of the U.S. on many issues.
Americans are often surprised to hear that discrimination based on sexual orientation in Israel was banned in 1992 or that the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that same-sex activities between consenting adults was legal.
The progress made by Israel's LGBT community is astonishing indeed, especially since the small nation of just over eight million residents is surrounded by some of the most anti-Gay cultures on earth.
In the nearby West Bank, a 1951 Jordanian law banning homosexual acts remains in effect, as does a ban in Gaza passed by British authorities in 1936. Out of fear of such draconian laws, most LGBT Palestinians are secretive about their social lives.
Beyond Israel's borders, for thousands of miles in every direction, LGBT people face some of the harshest sentences, including death, in many African and Middle Eastern nations.
For these people, Tel Aviv is a distant beacon of light representing a shred of hope in a sea of intolerance.
One can only hope the vibrant city's Pride celebration and its devotion to 'openness, pluralism and tolerance' radiate out towards the rest of the Middle East - and beyond.
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