A landmark event took place in Be'er Sheva last Friday with the first-ever public gay pride event. The event made headlines when Be'er Sheva's mayor pledged his support and 15,000 NIS of city funding. Outraged council members tried to block the city's support and even called on the mayor to publicly declare his own sexual orientation.
Shai Gortler, who interns as an organizer at the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association (also known as the Aguda), along with SHATIL's Youth Organizer Maayan Gerber were instrumental in initiating and implementing the festival which brought out some 800 supporters.
Sponsored by SHATIL's Everett Social Justice Fellowship initiative, Shai began his work at the Aguda about nine months ago. The Everett Fellowship enables students to gain an in-depth understanding of social change organizations and their role in society while affording organizations much needed personnel. Many Fellows go on to professional and lay leadership positions within social change organizations. Shai is one among an impressive cohort of 51 Fellows participating in the program this year.
While Be'er Sheva is Israel's third largest city, it is still peripheral in terms of location and economic development and remains largely inhospitable to the gay community. While even Jerusalem celebrates 10 years of Pride, this was Be'er Sheva's first event. And while this is a big step for the city, Be'er Sheva still will not tolerate an actual pride parade. Maayan Gerber explains that even though resistance remains, "It was heartwarming to see so many young people. It isn't easy being young and gay and confused in Be'er Sheva. It was wonderful to witness the formation of such a potentially large support network."
As for next steps, the Aguda will create a LGBT teen hang-out in Be'er Sheva—an open house for young people in search of support and community. SHATIL and local activists will work toward making the festival an annual event and bringing it 'out' with a high-profile parade. Shai will finish his internship at Aguda and continue to be active in the field. He hopes to help liberate other cities in Israel, and to see the LGBT community work with and on behalf of other marginalized communities in Israel such as Arabs, people with disabilities and manual laborers. "No one is free if not everyone is free," he says.