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In contrast with Western activists, Middle East LGBTs look toward Israel for hope and guidance

‘When a guy from Israel messages us on Grindr we’re afraid to reply.’




Revelers gather at Tel Aviv Pride in 2019 //

The dictatorial regimes in the Arab world have extended their control over Arab societies for decades by suppressing any movement demanding freedom. One beacon on hope remains in the region, but even expressing sympathy for Israel can get you arrested. Tel Aviv is the most tolerant city towards homosexuals in the Middle East and a lot of Israeli Arab homosexuals prefer to go and settle there to escape restrictions imposed in their home communities. One 2014 film, called Oriented , dared to document the lives of three Palestinian gays in Tel Aviv.

Arab feelings toward Israel are as varied as the countries themselves. Few have more admiration for the Jewish state than homosexuals living in oppressive countries in the region. To talk about the feelings of Arab homosexuals in the Middle East towards Israel, I had conversations with gay men and lesbians from Syria, Lebanon, and Iran who asked to use pseudonyms over fears of their identities being discovered.

Fahad, a Syrian gay man in his 30s, told Outspoken Middle East that even mentioning Israel in his home country may land you in trouble. “It is forbidden to say the word ‘Israel’ in public places or on social media if you want to talk positively about this country. Even at home we express our opinions with low voice about this, previously we didn’t know a lot about Israeli society because of the media ban on these topics. But now we see the Pride parties in Tel Aviv and we know that the laws there protect gays. It is a developed country that respects its people, even they helped wounded Syrians who were bombed by the Assad regime.”

“I want to send this message to the Israeli LGBT community, and tell them that we, as a young generation, most of us want to communicate and meet you. We know very well that our regimes are trying to show that Arab society is hostile to you. But our voices are much more than those that direct hate speech to you, and I’m sure that peace is coming.”

As Israel prepares to open the first shelter for Arab Israeli gays to provide safe places for individuals at risk of facing violence in their communities, governments in Syria and Iraq continue to overlook crimes toward the LGBT community. Those regimes often declare unspeakable violence against LGBTs as ‘honor crimes,’ which isn’t punished by laws.

Karim, a Syrian gay man in his 20s, said to OSME: “Look at the closest side to Syria, the Golan, for example. Saher Munther is a transgender woman and she has Israeli citizenship. She can appear on social media and express herself the way she likes. She gave a speech in the Israeli Knesset, and travels with her passport wherever she wants. Can you imagine her fate if the Golan was under Assad’s rule?”

“If you open the dating app Hornet in Damascus or Beirut, you will find a few miles away another community completely different, many guys in their pictures without blur, and it seems that they are living a life full of freedom, these are they gays in Israel,” Karim said

Charbel, a Lebanese gay man in his 20s, told OSME that many are afraid to even communication online with people living in Israel over fears of repercussions from authorities.

“Many Lebanese want to reach a peace agreement with Israel, but no one is able to express that. Hezbollah and its intelligence services control Lebanon’s policy and use weapons to intimidate people. They monitor communications and the Internet. So when a guy from Israel send messages for us on Grindr we get afraid to reply. Israel is our neighbor. There are many Lebanese refugees fleeing Hezbollah’s oppression there. We need to end this war. My dream is to go and celebrate the Pride march in Tel Aviv one day.”

“Now, during the war in Ukraine, Israel evacuated all its citizens from there, without any distinction between Arabs and Jews. I even heard that it had made facilities for students from Lebanon and Egypt. To get out of there, our governments have not even contacted and checked on the students there.”

In the West Bank, the Palestinian LGBT community suffers persecution from both society and the Palestinian Authority. In 2019 the Palestinian police banned the activities of a Palestinian gay rights organization called Al-Qaws, which means ‘rainbow’ in Arabic. The organization has offices in Arab-populated cities in Israel. The staff was threatened with arrest if they entered the West Bank under the pretext of defending the higher values of Palestinian society.

Many LGBTs in the region stand in sharp opposition to Western activists, and their powerful lobbying organizations, who routinely deride Israel and claim to stand with the Palestinian authority.

“Some LGBT defenders in the West claim, for incomprehensible ideological reasons, that they stand with the Palestinian authority with arguments such as ending the occupation. But the hardline society and Palestinian politicians do not welcome these activists, and refuse to put the Palestinian flag next to the rainbow flag considering it an insult to the national flag and a source of shame,” Lawand, a 24-year-old Syrian Kurdish gay man living in northern Syria said.

“These activists should know that if they go to Gaza to support the Palestinian authority they will be killed by the Iranian occupation represented by the presence of Hamas there. And I think they know this fact but they’re advocates of chaos, not peace.”

“Western activists should think about protecting Palestinian LGBTs in the West Bank and Gaza instead of dispersing the demand for rights and merging them with other political issues,” he continued. “We all want peace, bringing terrorism charges to Israel is nonsense, these activists should look at Hamas rockets that kill everyone without discrimination, even Arabs in Israel. Yesterday four Israelis were stabbed in Beersheba, will these human rights defenders condemn it as a terrorism act or do they consider it a heroic act?”

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranian regime has been the most hostile government against the state of Israel. They actively threaten, plot, and act against the country. 

The Iranian regime runs multiple global anti-Israel and anti-Semitism media campaigns to influence different communities inside and outside Iran. But many Iranians, especially LGBT people, do not believe the rumors.  

Many Iranians feel close to Israel and the Jewish community around the world. They cherish their mutual history and the fact that Persian Jews had lived in the territories of today’s Iran for over 2,700 years. During the peak of the Persian empire, Jews are thought to have comprised as much as 20% of the population.

Ashkan, a 32-year-old doctor from Tehran, told OSME he is fascinated by the freedom of the LGBT community in Israel. “I always enjoy the freedom the LGBT community has. Remember that we are from Iran, and we grew up with daily propaganda against the state of Israel. While we were in school, my teacher was telling us that in Israel, teachers kill students in schools if they don’t like them. Almost every hour, there is something against that country on radio and television. But look! There is disgusting content against the LGBT community on state TV and radio channels. They are lying about us and Israel. Unconsciously, the regime made the Iranian LGBT community and Israel allies.”

Maryam, a 25-year-old lesbian from Isfahan, follows Israel’s official pages on social media. 

“In recent years, during the pro-regime so-called revolutionary demonstrations, the regime’s goons burned rainbow, U.S., and Israeli flags together. In their sick brains, the concept of homosexuality was created by Israel and the States. We are named and shamed on state media as ‘the Zionist regime’s sex slaves.’ But I am grateful to know about Israel and its very open-minded approach towards the LGBT community. Recently I started following the official Instagram page of the Israel ministry of foreign affairs in Persian, and I got to learn more about the country. They always post pro-LGBT content. Also, last year when Alireza got killed in Ahwaz, Israeli officials were among the first people who reacted to that horrible news,” she said.  

Arad, a 30-year-old gay man from the northern city of Sari, thinks the Israeli LGBT community is a good role model for its Iranian siblings. “They are next to us. We can learn from them. Historically and culturally, we are very close. We used to be friends, and now we have to learn from them. We have to learn how the LGBT community convinced the traditional part of their society to support them. We have to learn how they manage to get the support of their government to change the laws and be their advocate,” he said.