Being openly gay in much of the Middle East is illegal and, in several countries, can be life-threatening.
Israel’s gay pride parade is the only gay pride parade in the entire Middle East, drawing hundreds of thousands of people each year. The Associated Press named Tel Aviv as one of the world’s most gay-friendly travel destinations.
Jonathan Elkhoury knows firsthand what it is like to be gay in the Middle East. Elkhoury spoke at the Ohio Union Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by Buckeyes for Israel.
Born in south Lebanon to a Greek Orthodox family, he currently lives in Israel and is active in the LBGTQ community as a gay rights advocate.
“It was easier for me to go and be myself in Tel Aviv and not be afraid of being seen or of looking too gay for some people and being beaten up because of it,” he said. “I am not afraid of going to a bar and being myself. The Israeli society is very accepting of gays.”
Elkhoury said his family was forced to leave Lebanon in 2000 when they began to fear for their lives. His father was a member of the South Lebanon Army, which fought against the terrorist group Hezbollah during the Lebanon War. The SLA was supported by Israel, but once Israel evacuated its forces, members were offered safety in Israel.
Elkhoury’s family escaped to Israel and has been living there ever since.
Also present at the Buckeyes for Israel event was Idan Simchony, who is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow for OSU Hillel. He is of Iraqi, Spanish and Moroccan descent and is also gay.
“In Tel Aviv, you can be transgender, bi, queer, you are free to be whoever you want to be,” Simchony said. “You can have any identity you want and nobody cares. The Israeli gay movement is huge.”
He said he encourages gay youths to come to Israel and see the movement for themselves before judging it or forming an opinion.
“There is a one-of-a-kind, gay-Arab party called Arisa in Tel Aviv. It is the only one in the Middle East, and they play Arab music all around, and gay people, hundreds of people, come every month to Tel Aviv to hear it. It is Arab lyrics, Arab singers, it’s amazing,” Simchony said. “It is so unique. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where this kind of thing could ever happen.”