Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade: 'Not an ugly man or woman in sight'
A soldier walks past in the searing heat, dancing with a gun in one hand and a rainbow flag in the other.
Welcome to Tel Aviv -- the city where, today, love knows no bounds.
Around 100,000 people are surging through Ben Yehuda street, dancing to the beat of the annual Gay Pride parade. (The Gay Pride event took place this year on June 7.)
Men in pink hot pants walk side by side with couples wearing rainbow-colored kippot (skullcaps), while dance-fueled floats crawl through the center of this liberal and hedonistic city.
“Before my friends come to Israel for the parade, I get them to write down what they expect the country to be like,” says Shai Doitsch, a spokesman for Aguda, Israel’s national gay organization.
“Then on the final night, I get them to read out that statement. Invariably, they end up laughing because they couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Tourists swell the crowd
An estimated 25,000 tourists are swelling the crowds at this year’s event, a figure that's risen considerably in recent years.
They and native Israelis spill over the sidewalk, cooled by water sprayed from the balconies above.
Babies strapped to their parents wave more rainbow flags, while men with mesmerizing muscles shimmer down the street in vest tops and improbably short shorts.
Along with San Francisco, Sydney and Paris, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s gayest cites (around around 20% of the population of 403,000 people is gay, lesbian or transgender, says Doitsch). But the Pride Parade is a celebration not only of homosexuality but also of the diversity -- of people, food, music –- that make Tel Aviv what it is.
Inclusivity is the name of the game today. Accordingly, a number of Palestinians have braved the checkpoints to travel from the occupied territories to take part in the parade.
“I love Tel Aviv,” says a man who identifies himself as "Mo," who has only just come out to his family.
“To come here and be free to be gay is so important -- something which I can’t have at home.
“In Tel Aviv, we have a gay city, not just areas which are gay. The whole city is gay.”
As Israelis dance with Palestinians, transgender singers entertain the masses, lesbians pose with city police and men stroll hand in hand. The subject of the peace process has, for once, slipped down the agenda.
Jerusalem, often grave, weighed down by history, only makes Tel Aviv seem more relaxed by contrast. In the Holy City, they’re marking Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, with prayers and introspection. But here the parade reminds us that drinking and dancing are pillars of this city’s religion.
'Running around naked'
“Coming to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem is like going from detention after class to being able to run around the school naked,” says Yair, an Israeli visiting the city especially for the parade.
Jerusalem does hold a Pride parade but it's more of a political statement than a party in a city where religious Jews and Muslims alike frown upon homosexuality.
In Tel Aviv, cafes fly the rainbow flag and bars hold gay-friendly nights.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but all we have felt is love,” says Vincent Autin, one half of the pair who made history with France’s first same-sex marriage late last month.
Autin and his partner, Bruno Boileau, were given a free honeymoon in Israel by the local tourist board, with both men taking part in the Pride festivities.
Tel Aviv is an image-conscious city and never more so than today.
There are more six packs at the parade’s beach party finale than at your local supermarket.
Thousands of bodies jiggling to a DJ blasting the sands appear not to share a body hair between them.
“There’s no such thing as an ugly man or woman in Tel Aviv,” says David, who has flown in from London along with 12 friends for the weekend. “Perhaps there’s something in the water.”
But physial perfection isn't the only attraction.
The city is famous for its modernist Bauhaus architecture, the clean-lined functional style that still attracts thousands of admirers a year.
Many travelers are drawn by the city’s lively present. Trendy cafes pop up daily in the artist’s colony of Gan Hahashamal, as do boutique restaurants on the Marina and hummus restaurants on the renovated streets of Yafo.
Yet critics say the city’s materialism and secular, pleasure-seeking outlook risks jeopardizing its Israeli heritage.
“Tel Aviv could be anywhere in the world,” says Mike, who has lived here for 30 years.
“If you want to see the real Israel, go to Jerusalem."
The bacon readily on sale at Tel Aviv delis would certainly have been out of place a decade or two ago, as would the sight of two men embracing.
But Tel Aviv believes it represents the future of Israel -- the thousands of people dancing at the beach party on this day would no doubt agree.