An Israeli ‘open house’ for Palestinians in the closet

Haneen Maikey: It makes me feel that the work we’ve been doing here is paying off.Unnoticed by the crowds walking along the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem, a rainbow-colored flag flies from the third-floor window of Open House, …

Haneen Maikey: It makes me feel that the work we’ve been doing here is paying off.Unnoticed by the crowds walking along the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem, a rainbow-colored flag flies from the third-floor window of Open House, the community center for the Holy City’s homosexuals.

While most of the people working or hanging out inside are secular, ‘hip’ Israeli Jews, some are Orthodox Jews in yarmulkes, occasionally you may see an ultra-Orthodox in untrimmed beard and long black coat, and every week there is a meeting of ten or so brave souls whose lives might very well be in danger if their families, friends or neighbors knew they were there.

These are Palestinians who live in the Arab neighborhoods and villages of Jerusalem.

“What do they talk about here? They talk about how miserable their lives are,” Haneen Maikey, an Israeli Arab woman who is the Open House’s community worker and handler of what might be called its Arab desk, told ISRAEL21c.

The men range from their late teens to early 30s, are both Moslem and Christian, and, atypically for the Palestinian gay population, none are married. None would be interviewed for this article, either, and none are ‘out of the closet’ on their home turf, which is perfectly typical of Palestinian gays.

But their willingness to cross the informal borders dividing all-Arab Jerusalem from all-Jewish Jerusalem and come to Open House give Maikey the hope that they are the nucleus of a Palestinian gay liberation movement. Aside from sharing tales of hardship, the men are also at work with Maikey setting up an Arabic language gay website, a telephone hotline for Arab homosexuals, and coming further out little by little. They are among the Palestinian crowd that shows up for a monthly get-together at Shushan, one of the capital’s main gay hangouts.

“At the last one about 70 Palestinians showed up – there were about 30 I didn’t even know. Things are changing,” says Maikey, 26, who has been working at Open House for three years. “If there are 10 Palestinians coming to Open House each week, next month there may be 11 and the month after that, 12. It makes me feel that the work we’ve been doing here is paying off.”

Between Open House, its ‘sister’ community center in Tel Aviv, the gay-friendly commercial spots and pick-up parks here and there around the country, the annual gay pride parades in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and a fairly indifferent street-level attitude toward open homosexuals, Israel offers a refuge for Palestinian gays.

In their everyday lives at home, they must hide their sexuality because revealing it – or having it revealed against their will – would put them in violation of one of the most forbidding taboos in Arab society. Palestinians exposed as homosexuals are liable to be killed by Islamic or nationalist activists, or by their brothers or other male relatives.

Maikey recalls a case she got involved in a couple of years ago with a young East Jerusalem gay man who “escaped” to Tel Aviv after his family found out about him and threatened him in all manner of ways if he didn’t stop taking up with men. The man’s father and brother searched for him in Tel Aviv.

“I was afraid the fellow would fall into drug abuse or prosititution if he stayed isolated and underground in Tel Aviv, so I urged him to return to Jerusalem and I would try to reconcile him with his family,” she says.

A meeting was arranged between the young man and his father. “The father accepted him. They embraced and cried,” she recalls, adding that the gay man returned to East Jerusalem to live.

But in a couple of months he came back to Maikey with very bad news. “His family had been beating him, forcing him to read the Koran,” she says. Even though the father apparently was ready to accepting his son’s homosexuality, his brothers, uncles, relatives and neighbors were not, and the father could not oppose his whole village.

“A father is not the authority in his family in Arab society. There is no autonomy for the individual inside the family, or the family inside the hamula (extended family, or clan), or the hamula inside the village,” Maikey says with a flash of rebelliousness. And while male homosexuals incite the wrath of Arab society, the existence of Arab lesbians is a virtually unthinkable stain on the purity of Arab womanhood; no Palestinian lesbian has ever shown up at Open House or any other ‘safe’ place Maikey knows of.

Israel is reported to have coerced some Palestinians into becoming informers by threatening to spread it around that they are homosexuals; consequently, a Palestinian gay in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza has to contend with the additional stigma of being an Israeli collaborator, which is also a capital crime in Arab society.

“A Palestinian homosexual who spends a few years in Israel can’t go home again. He’s considered ‘unclean,’ somebody who betrayed his people,” Maikey notes.

While informal Israeli society, including the privately-funded Open House, is a refuge for Palestinian gays, official Israel is just the opposite. Palestinians from East Jerusalem are theoretically free to come and go in Israel – a theory not accepted by all Israeli policemen – but those from the West Bank and Gaza are barred from entering the country unless they have special permits.

Estimates are that some dozens of Palestinian gays live in hiding in Tel Aviv – escaping the threat to their lives in Palestine and ducking arrest in Israel. Those who are arrested get deported back to their homes to fend for themselves – over the protests and legal challenges of Israeli human rights organizations.

For now, the Palestinian gay community exists only in exile, in the country of the ‘enemy,’ and it is being nurtured by sympathetic Israeli institutions like Open House and committed Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – such as Maikey. About 50 East Jerusalem Palestinians come to the city’s annual gay pride parade – either in costume or street clothes. In August, Jerusalem’s gay pride festival is set to be an international event – World Pride 2005, drawing tens of thousands of gays from all over, thanks to Open House’s lobbying of the sponsors – again, despite the intentions of official Israel, in this instance the Jerusalem municipality.

By telephone, by e-mail, by Internet and by word of mouth, the Palestinian gay activists being nurtured in Israel’s capital will be spreading the word to their closeted friends back home to come out and be part of the free world.