Gay youth group reaches out to Arab minority in Israel

‘In Jaffa, some people think being gay is a disease,’ says Arab counselor for Israel Gay Youth.

By Yarden Skop | Apr. 24, 2015 | 7:26 PM
Reprinted from Haaretz Website

Revelers wave rainbow flags during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv June 13, 2014

Revelers wave rainbow flags during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv June 13, 2014. Photo by Reuters

The Israel Gay Youth organization will be operating an Arab-language website as of this weekend, as part of its plan to work with gay Arab youngsters. This is the first time since the organization’s founding 13 years ago that it has approached the Arab minority.

The organization also plans to open Arabic-language forums for teenage boys and girls who need help and guidance regarding their sexual identity.

“One of our main challenges is working with gay Arab youth,” says the group’s CEO Ran Leabel. “We want to create a place that Arab youth can choose to be part of. We won’t blur their Arab identity but try to give it weight and space.”

The organization at first attempted to set up an Arab speaking group, but after recruiting guides, its leaders reached the conclusion that the ground had to be prepared first.

“From our meetings we learned that in Arab society, there isn’t a lot of discourse on the gay issue,” says Leabel. “So at this stage we’re not opening a group, but have translated our site, so that at least the information will be accessible to Arabic-speaking youth. We’re also setting up forums in which Arab-speaking guides will provide answers.”

One of the two Arab counselors who have been working with Israel Gay Youth for the past six month is Anton, who asked that his full name not be published for the sake of his parents, who know he’s gay but could face antagonism if their community knew, he says.

“I was a member of the Orthodox Scouts movement in Jaffa, and when I came out of the closet at the age of 19, they kicked me out,” says Anton, 22.

“The Arab community has fears that don’t exist in other communities, especially among teenagers who want to come out of the closet or have doubts about their sexual identity. Even in Jaffa, which is seen as more progressive, the gay issue is totally suppressed,” he says.

“Our society knows it exists but it isn’t spoken about. My family is wonderful, they took it hard when I came out, but they didn’t turn me away from home. I found it harder to deal with the social oppression in Jaffa. Everyone knows everyone else, so when someone declares himself to be gay, everyone knows about it and his person’s parents feel shame. It’s sad,” he says.

Anton says Arab gay youth have no sources of information about being gay, hence the importance of the assistance Israel Gay Youth can offer. “Until the age of 18, I thought I was the only gay person in the world,” he says. “I was completely cut off. We didn’t even have sex education at school. I went looking for a boy who had left our school, and I was told he was gay. I met him, he was in an art school and he introduced me to the community. Until 12th grade I never met a gay person or went to a gay party.”

The other counselor taking part in the project asked not to release even his first name because his family doesn’t know he’s gay. He is 32 and grew up in one of the Arab towns in the Triangle.

One of the reasons he didn’t join the organization earlier was its Zionist image. “But today I feel even more Zionist than the Jewish guides,” he says jokingly. “I don’t think there’s anything so Zionist in the organization’s activity that could be a problem for an Arab member.

“I want to help these kids, answer their questions, because I had no one,” he says. “I didn’t know what gay was and no one to talk to me about sexuality, a condom and the most basic, important things.

“I think we need a separate group for Arabs, because their mentality is different,” he continues. “Most of the families don’t live in Tel Aviv. The families in the north don’t know what gay is. In Jaffa, too, some think being gay is a disease. Our education is very different from the Jewish one. There are many in the closet and have to learn how to live like that, unlike Israelis who come out from the age of 12 or 13.”

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