06/26/2015 05:41 EDT | Updated 06/26/2016 05:59 EDT

What I Learned About Pride as a Gay Jew in Palestine

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What is it like to be a gay Palestinian?

An Economist article says you will become an agent for Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, to avoid being outed to your family. The film Out in the Dark says that you will fall in love with an attractive Israeli lawyer who will help you seek refuge in Tel Aviv. A Jew will tell you that Palestinian homosexuals live a life of constant danger, whereas in Israel they would enjoy an open existence. Another Jew overhearing this may retort that Israel uses its promotion of gay rights to mask its human rights abuses against Palestinians. They will tell you to support gay Palestinians by boycotting Israeli products.

When I had the opportunity to go to Israel for a semester abroad, I thought I would try to answer this question myself. Since Palestine is governed by different regional legal traditions, homosexuality is illegal in Gaza but legal in the West Bank. However, LGBT-identified individuals throughout Palestine are not legally protected from discrimination.

As a diaspora Jew I feel implicated in the Israel-Palestine conflict. As a gay person, I seek out people like me. So I wanted to connect with the Palestinian gay community even though I had no idea what it looked like and whether it would accept me. I hoped that even as an outsider I would be able to see the broad contours of gay life in an occupied territory where the lights of the gay metropolis of Tel Aviv are visible but out of reach.

Two months before my final semester of law school, which I completed on exchange in Tel Aviv, I took the bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank. The "Security Wall" flew by me on one side, then the other. In one brief journey I traversed from a Jewish world to an Arab one. Then, I turned on Grindr. The grid of profile pictures perfectly mapped the geographical and religious boundaries of the region. Palestinian profiles were surrounded by Jewish settlers and interspersed with Israeli soldiers. In this virtual conflict zone, harmonious chants at protests are replaced by listing desirable qualities in a mate ("No Zionists!"/"Israelis only"). Territory is annexed or guarded by filtering out profiles by ethnic identity. Stones and rubber bullets are approximated by the "block" function.

I am in a relationship, so my requests to meet up with other gays in Ramallah over Grindr came with this caveat. I explained to the many men I messaged that I was a Canadian exchange student spending time in Palestine. I told some of them I was Jewish. I sent clothed pictures taken from a distance. When I told one gentleman that I had a boyfriend he responded with a picture of himself in a speedo followed by the message "Are you sure you have a boyfriend?"

After one conversation that ended abruptly I suddenly became overcome with fear. What if I was being targeted by someone? What if the location on Grindr revealed where I was staying? What if I sent a message to someone that was read by an intolerant sibling or parent? Was I causing harm to others and myself?

As these fears arose I worried that they were propelled by ignorance. I had been to gay hangout spots in Bulgaria in the same year that the Sofia pride parade was attacked with bottles and rocks and I never feared for my life. Was Ramallah so different? Luckily I was able to open up with one of the guys I chatted with. Like many Palestinians I met, he made fun of my ignorance while comforting me. He reminded me that Palestinians and their government had much more important things to do than seek out gay foreigners on Grindr. Eventually the fears that I had felt, undergirded by years of exposure to Islamophobia as both a white Canadian and a Jew, subsided. I soon found guys who were willing to meet me. All young and bright and trying their best to balance the competing values of Palestinian statehood, religion, family and desire.

Gay life in Ramallah is both nowhere and everywhere. From the university student with limp wrists who unabashedly struts about town to the uber-masculine taxi driver to the young professional from a nearby village, there is a well-connected network that sits just under the public's radar.

Ramallah is a special place in the West Bank where foreigners mingle with Palestinians and social mores are looser than in other parts of the region. Elsewhere, the dispersed gay community is not connected through smartphone apps; being "out" in any way can lead to severe consequences. In Ramallah, there are multiple groups of gay men, each with their own sources of drama. While most hide their sexuality from others, some are open to members of their family and even more so with their friends. Many are in serious relationships; others are just looking for fun. People meet at house parties, bars and on the street. When dancing at a club there is no touching, but there are telling glances. Sleeping arrangements can be a challenge because most live with their families, but everyone seems to find a secluded place. Those few with permits and cars can go to Tel Aviv for a weekend where there are, by comparison, seas of gay men, but obstacles remain: will an Israeli be interested in hooking up with a Palestinian? Can they both speak English (often the only common language) well enough to create a connection?

When I left Ramallah for Tel Aviv, there was no need to go on Grindr because the community found me. Tel Aviv's gay culture is so prevalent that it became the main point of reference with every new person I met. When exchange students figured out that I was gay, they would say "Of course -- that's why you came to Tel Aviv!" When I requested a mentor at my university with an interest in art and theatre, I was matched with a gay student who liked shopping and tax law because the matchmaker assumed I was gay.

The promotion of Tel Aviv's gay culture tugs the city across the Mediterranean and places it firmly within the circuit of Western gay capitals. As a result, Israelis and foreigners envision the West Bank as a province of Saudi Arabia or Iraq; the most conservative regimes become a proxy for the values of every Arab country. I remember speaking to a woman living in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank overlooking Ramallah. In the same breath that she discussed her relationship with Palestinians she mentioned that "these people" were pushing homosexuals off of tall buildings. A clear reference to an execution by ISIS in Syria and a dangerous insinuation that this is the norm in the Arab world.

Being in Ramallah reminded me of what I had learned about gay life in Toronto in the 1970s. At that time Canada and the West Bank were in a similar phase: gay sex was legal but gay culture was deplored. Even though many queer-identified individuals at that time hid their sexuality, there was a small but thriving subculture. Before the parades there were picnics.

What was different about Canada was that gay activism could thrive without being eviscerated by comparisons to other countries where gay rights were more established. Although Toronto's gay subculture was not as deep and diverse as those in London or New York, it was never condemned by those places as being utterly hostile to queers.

I left Ramallah full of moments where I felt like I was part of a blooming subculture. There were movie nights, pool parties, long evening walks and car rides where everyone was free to express themselves despite everything that ensures homosexuality in Palestine remains proscribed. In Tel Aviv, these stories were no match for the overarching sentiment that Palestine is a place where gays are shot, forced to withdraw from their family or flee. Not even the story about the guy in the speedo could convince people otherwise. Palestinian gay culture was measured against the opulent sexual displays from Tel Aviv Pride -- a scale that is wholly inapplicable to an occupied Arab territory -- and the joy that I felt in those moments with my friends was disregarded.

When India decriminalized gay sex in 2009, Anand Mahadevan suggested that India should not follow the path of gays in the West but instead use its own Hindu traditions to create a gay culture inspired by its indigenous history (in 2013, gay sex was recriminalized by India's Supreme Court). While it goes without saying that Palestine's gay community must also forge its own path, in spite of being in the direct shadow of its occupier's LGBT-rights rainbow, for Palestine to do so we must recognize gay pride even in circumstances where it doesn't seem possible. If we think Pride is not for people who may face danger because of their sexual orientation, we become blind to moments of unbelievable courage and genuine happiness experienced by the majority of queers around the world.

For everyone who celebrates this week in Toronto, Pride is a recognition of this country's endorsement of sexual freedom but it will also be a reminder of the challenging issues that remain unresolved -- the criminalization of HIV, the maltreatment of transgender individuals and LGBT people living in poverty.

Pride is inevitably a conflicting emotion because choosing to be proud of one thing is also a choice to not be proud of something else. Although gay Palestinians may not be proud of how their culture treats homosexuality, the people I met are proud because they accept themselves for who they are. This is the nucleus of pride that can be seen clearly across borders, with or without persecution, occupation or inequality.

So what did I, as a gay Jew, learn about being a gay Palestinian? I learned that Pride is not a parade -- it is a feeling. And whether it is expressed overtly or covertly, it is felt. If we validate that feeling in all of its forms, pride will continue to be a universal force that both combats homophobia and celebrates triumph.


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