Rainbow banners lined the street lights, stop signs and poles. Deafening music pulsed. Temporary kiosks dotted the sidewalks selling beer and wine; young men pushing shopping carts sold bottles of water. Barriers closed off certain roads to cars and busses and police with florescent yellow vests patrolled on foot. Endless swarms of people filled the streets, some strolling, others café sitting. Men embraced men. Women embraced women. Men dressed like women in sequined dresses and high heels. Everyone smiled.
Last Friday, Tel Aviv hosted its 15th annual Gay Pride Parade, and it seemed as if the entire population of Israel was in attendance.
When a couple of friends told me they were heading to the parade, I asked if I could come too. This year, over 100,000 spectators and participants were expected, including 20,000 flying in from Brazil, England, Russia and beyond. A native northern Californian, I’d never attended the LGBT parade in San Francisco and decided it was time to witness it myself. More than that, though, I just wanted to see another side of this country. A mostly, albeit not wholly, secular population of openly comfortable homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites and cross dressers who are not visible in my daily suburban life.
The parade’s official start time was 1pm at the corner of Ben Yehuda and Bugrashovso after parking the car a little before noon, my friends and I began to head south. Two men locked arms, one with a yellow t-shirt, a faux leather dog collar with spikes around his neck, black leather shorts and laces up the side with a sticker on his behind saying “spank me” in English and the other in black suspenders and a pair of handcuffs. Two men dressed in tight, bright pink bottoms and fitted black tees marched by, as well as two big and burly men dressed in the all-American red, white and blue whom we stopped to take pictures with. Visiting from Cologne, Germany, the couple walked hand in hand, smiling for any camera, posing with anyone who asked and proud.
Since we were hungry and wanted a reprieve from the sun, we stopped in a raw, organic vegan restaurant called Taste of Life near the parade’s starting point. Sitting on the second floor with a breeze cool enough to appease us, we ordered a seitan wrap, lentil burger, carrot and ginger juice and an almond shake.
Atypical of Israel, the parade began on time. A roof-less bus with open sides kicked it off with bodies pulsing and throbbing to loud music, a mix of American and Israeli disco-y tunes, while throngs of spectators cheered them on, trailing behind it. People came out of every corner of the city, watching from rooftops, hanging out apartment windows, standing on terraces, awnings and ledges or dancing atop oversize recycling enclosures.
My friends and I devoured our food and watched from afar, grateful for the view. After the first bus passed, occasional trucks and random vehicles followed; there were no spectacular floats or people in clear formation. To me, it was more of a march than a parade. An hour later, content from our meal, we opted to enter the scene.
The streets were littered with confetti and empty bottles, an urban mess. People of all ages, sizes and shapes walked, stood, sat on curbs. One man pushed a woman in a wheelchair holding hands with her partner walking alongside her. Young parents rode bikes with little kids or pushed babies in strollers. An older woman smoking a water pipe sat in the doorway of an apartment building with what could have been her children and grandchildren. We walked north, among the crowd, as it wound its way west toward the beach, where the parade petered out and turned into a party hosted by Israeli born supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Looking south toward Jaffa, I held up my camera as high as I could to snap the unbelievable number of bodies en masse, crammed between the hotels to the left and the Mediterranean to the right.
Sweat dripped down my back as the afternoon sun penetrated deeply. My hat and sunglasses and light, long-sleeved blouse were my vain attempts to protect my skin. At the corner of Ben Yehuda and Ben Gurion, we stopped in a shaded park and sat on a bench just to watch. Two young bare chested men each wearing a slinky electric blue thong and blue sneakers stopped and posed for anyone who wanted their pictures. They looked like a modern-day version of Adam covered with lycra rather than leaves. A young woman dressed in shorts on her bottom and shoes on her feet walked by, unashamed, perhaps even unaware of her dangling breasts.
Anything goes, I thought. Just a few hours before the start of the Sabbath, which is governed by laws and limitations, I was in a part of Israel with people who had tremendous pride, many of whom knew no boundaries. It was eye-opening and good.