Ripped men in white underwear, pink bunny ears and black bow ties gyrated through the streets of Israel’s Tel Aviv on Friday along with drag queens and others to loud trance music for the annual Gay Pride Parade — the biggest event of its kind in the region.
The Tel Aviv Municipality said over 250,000 people celebrated at the city’s 20th Gay Pride Parade, an event that draws people from around the world to party at the Israeli beach city that has built an image of an oasis of tolerance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
The turnout was the biggest ever in the parade’s history.
Tel Aviv’s annual parade stands in sharp contrast to most other cities in the region. Across the rest of the Middle East, gay and lesbian relationships are mostly taboo. Pervasiveness of religion in everyday life, along with strict cultural norms, plays a major factor.
Cafes, stores, and lamp posts were decked with rainbow flags across Tel Aviv, with tens of thousands of tourists visiting Israel specifically for the event.
“With all these flags, I already feel at home,” said Jimmy Chan, 39, who arrived from China two days ago. “Seeing this parade in such a religious country makes you feel more connected as a community.”
Perched on high heels and wearing a black skirt which is attached with a rainbow flag, a marcher calling himself Aldifrost, 30, sketched a few dance steps, shaking his long wavy and colored hair.
“Tel Aviv is the big city of gays!” he exclaimed, saying he was attending for the 10th year. “I come here to party and display my drag-queen show.”
Visiting from Germany, Cordelia Lange said that Tel Aviv was “a very vibrant city, it’s a city that embraces everything connected to gays, lesbians, and LGBT, and I think it’s a combination of city at the beach and good vibes.”
Arab Israeli participant Sahreef Awad said: “There’s no difference between anyone, it’s just like, you know, culture, color, nationality, it doesn’t matter, come one, it’s like, we are all people, that’s what matters, love is love, so love wins, yeah!”
The colorful march began at around noon at Ben Zion Boulevard in central Tel Aviv, before proceeding to the beachfront, along Bograshov, Hayarkon, Frishman, and Herbert Samuel Streets before concluding at Charles Clore Park, where the main party was held in the evening.
Kicking off the annual event was Mayor Ron Huldai, who told marchers he was proud to stand in front of them to issue a rallying cry for equal rights. “We will continue to break through the walls of hatred and reach a time when all people are equal in Israel,” he said. “This parade has an extraordinary meaning in the sense that we are here, and we are not leaving.”
Floats moved through the closed streets of downtown throughout the afternoon, including one sponsored by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, and decorated under the theme of “Love is Great Britain.” The UK ambassador to Israel is David Quarrey, an openly gay man.
Police deployed hundreds of officers and volunteers along the parade’s route — and around the gathering areas — to secure the revelers, to direct traffic, and to maintain public order.
American television personality Andy Cohen is serving as international ambassador for the 2018 parade, and Netta Barzilai, the Israeli winner of the 2018 Eurovision song contest, performed at the event’s main stage.
During Friday’s celebrations, a group of pro-Palestinian activists gathered on the sidelines of the parade to protest the “pinkwashing” of Israel’s LGBT community.
Israeli activists carrying black and pink signs accused the government of highlighting its relatively pro-gay stance compared to its neighbors in a bid to downplay its alleged rights abuses against Palestinians.
Israel’s foreign ministry highlights Tel Aviv’s status as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities in its promotional material.
To the sound of percussion, they shouted “stop the occupation!” in reference to Israel’s continued military presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
World’s ‘most gay-friendly city’
Friday’s parade caps off a week of pride celebrations, which featured a glut of rainbow-infused parties and cultural events, that will continue through the weekend.
Tel Aviv places a large emphasis on Pride Week, since it’s a huge draw for international tourists. Tens of thousands of tourists visit Israel for Tel Aviv’s pride week each year.
In a statement Friday, the municipality hailed its status as the world’s “most gay-friendly city” and said this year’s festivities drew record numbers of visitors.
Huldai praised his city for being “a beacon for liberty, pluralism, and tolerance,” and vowed Tel Aviv would continue to “support and celebrate our local LGBT culture and act as a welcoming destination for the international gay community.”