TEL AVIV — I read the lists and saw the surveys proclaiming Tel Aviv to be the most gay-friendly place this side of the Emerald City. I’m paraphrasing here, but travel guides usually characterize Tel Aviv as gayer than a Neil Patrick Harris pool party.
I’ve had the good fortune to visit plenty of LGBT-friendly utopias, and I couldn’t imagine Tel Aviv snatching the title, tiara, and sash away from locales such as San Francisco, Berlin, or Amsterdam as the place to go for gay.
Well folks, it’s time to set out a plate and a fork, because I’m about to eat my words.
Tel Aviv is, for lack of a better description, super gay. It could even be characterized as post-gay. Most urban centers have a concentrated epicenter affectionately called a gayborhood or a gay ghetto. Tel Aviv doesn’t need to bother with such a dated concept.
“Everything in Tel Aviv is gay, inherently gay,” said Leon Avigad, who owns two very chic boutique hotels with his partner Nitzan Perry. “The people are creative, open-minded, liberal, accepting, and daring. Tel Aviv is very open to new forms of art, new musical styles, everything is very accepting.”
The long-standing rule of thumb is that 10 percent of the population is gay, give or take. The estimate by officials in Tel Aviv is 25 percent of its population is gay. I’m no Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, but according to my remedial math ski lls and the calculator on my iPhone, if the population of Tel Aviv is 420,000, that means 105,000 people in the city identify as LGBT.
This was not what I was expecting, but I love a good stereotype-shattering trip as much as I like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
Tel Aviv exists in a secular bubble. Shabbat is observed beginning at sundown Friday, but the folks here are so ready to make merry that even though the roads empty of cars, the clubs are jammed and there are even some open restaurants. As soon as the sun goes down on Saturday night and the stars emerge, Shabbat is over. Stores and restaurants reopen and stay open late.
I walked for miles along the sunny beaches that circle the city and saw same-sex couples holding hands. I glanced across the street and there were two women pushing a smartly dressed tyke in a stroller. In the other direction a party boy had his face buried in his phone making plans for a night of hedonism.
Perhaps hedonism is a good place to start in describing my experiences. I came elbow-to-elbow and cheek-to-cheek (you can go ahead and pick which cheeks) with Tel Aviv’s carnality shortly after I arrived. It was an ordinary Wednesday night, yet the weekend had unofficially begun. At a gay dance party called Dreck, the crowd didn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and the evening wasn’t in full swing until about 2 a.m. There was no apparent reason for the thump-a-thump-a-thump of the midweek electronic music except that it’s fun to stay out very late. It’s far less enjoyable to wake up the following morning with glitter stuck to your scalp and the smell of vodka oozing from your pores.
“It’s like this all the time,” Guy Leitersdorf, the developer of an app that tracks the club scene, told me matter of factly.
Leitersdorf laid out an itinerary for me, and between the jetlag and the late nights I was struggling to stay vertical by the end of the trip. I began to wonder if the mandatory Israeli military service included training for party endurance. There are a few gay specific clubs, but most of the scene involves attending a weekly gay dance party at an otherwise heterosexual club. Each night it’s a new party, a new theme, and a night that can go to 4 a.m. or later.
As the weekend approached, the parties truly blossomed. I was repeatedly told I needed to return during the massive June Pride celebration, which brings together an estimated 180,000 locals and tourists.
That’s almost half the city. I heard laments from the women I chatted up that it’s impossible to find a single, heterosexual male in Tel Aviv in June.
“It’s usually the best time to get out of town,” said a clearly disgruntled — and single — Rachel Perutz.
Man cannot subsist on parties and falafel alone, so I spent my days exploring the city’s diverse neighborhoods and enjoying a bit of cafe culture. Tel Aviv is a small city and easy to traverse on foot if you bring comfortable shoes and sunscreen. When I mapped out any location it always seemed to be a 15 or 20 minute walk. There is also an impressive bike share program which makes it easy to buzz along the ocean promenade or the tree-lined bike path that cuts through Rothschild Boulevard.
The essential Tel Aviv experience is an architecture tour. I generally avoid group tours the same way I avoid using the word “meninism.” But the best way to make sure you see the 1930s German-influenced Bauhaus architecture, and get a sense of its importance here, is to find a knowledgable guide and join a tour. Try the Bauhaus Center tour on Fridays at 10 a.m. (about $17) or the free Bauhaus tour offered by the city on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m.
Tel Aviv has the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world in various states of restoration and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also has a unique and booming restaurant scene that reflects the Mediterranean climate, Middle Eastern roots, and European-influenced chefs.
Aside from the old city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv is a young metropolis, so don’t come for history. However, you should come for the local produce at Carmel Market, cocktails in the hipster ’hood of Florentin, shopping at Jaffa Railway Station and Old Tel Aviv Port, and the lobby bar scene at places such as the Norman and Hotel Montefiore.
Did I mention there’s a thriving gay scene?
The question I posed to everybody I met, even the octopus of a man whose hands seemed to be everywhere but on his own cocktail, was why the gays had flocked here? One of my favorite theories involved the Eurovision Song Contest. Israel’s entry into the 1998 edition was the Tel Aviv-based transgender singer named Dana International.
A more plausible explanation may be that Tel Aviv is the most gay friendly city in the Middle East. It’s a welcoming destination for residents of less hospitable territories. The government funds the massive Pride celebration, along with the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center. The center hosts a gay parents support group, a queer cinema workshop, painting lessons, a kindergarten, a medical clinic, performance space, and nearly any other service you can imagine.
The day I met with Avihu Mizan, the center’s cultural events coordinator, I tripped over children’s shoes that littered the halls as he apologized for the screaming horde of kids playing on the second floor. They were at the center for afterschool programs. Gay life in Tel Aviv isn’t all parties and skimpy bathing suits at Hilton Beach. There is a gayby boom happening here, and there are plenty in the LGBT community who have no interest in staying up until daylight.
But I was very interested in these rave-ups. At the Penguin Club, I stumbled across a party called 1984 with a mixed gay and straight crowd. This edition was dedicated to David Bowie, which seemed fitting given his penchant for playing hopscotch with identities, sexuality, and musical genres.
“Hey babe, let’s go out tonight!” the stylishly attired and sweaty pack yelled along to Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” It was the siren song that summed up the ethos of my week. Voices raised, fists pumping in the air, they sang with conviction. This was escapism at its finest. It was as if Bowie had written the song for this moment.
“You like me, and I like it all. We like dancing and we look divine.”