Queering the Holy Land: decoding and discovering

"human rights, it's pride" photo via Alex Franco

"human rights, it's pride" photo via Alex Franco

There’s much to love about Paris—the sights, the food, culture and history literally around every corner. But there’s much to dislike—the prices, the tourists, the ever present mingling smell of urine and fresh bread, which my friend once aptly described as reminiscent of a bakery’s bathroom. So after three years of living in the City of Lights, I accepted a job offer to teach in southern Israel. From a city of 2.2 million, I moved to a town with a little over five thousand. I traded one of the queer capitals of Europe for what essentially amounts to a luxury trailer park in the desert. What it lacked in architecture and museums, it more than made up for in savage beauty and opportunities to contribute to low-income communities. It would also be another marker on the map, the third country I’d lived in since graduating college four years ago. I expected adventure; what I didn’t expect, however, was to have my ideas about queerness challenged as I struggled to find dick in the Holy Land.

Being queer constitutes a learned set of gestures and codes. It acts as a language, honed in secret, passed from the knowing to the non. It’s survival instinct; it’s history; it’s secret and yet, with the ever increasing popularity, commodification, and accessibility of queer culture, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s what allows a gay man to clock another in a bar in Kansas, the same strategy that alerts a trans woman to her sister who just walked into the same bathroom. It allows us to feel less isolated, to signal that we are, despite our own fears, not alone.

Being queer abroad, this is both true and somehow not. There are of course the more obvious bearers of queerness—the effeminate faery, the stone-cold butch—and the more apparent haunts, but beyond sequins and flannel (poor indicators of sexuality, reductive and easily co-opted by Urban Outfitters) I found myself bereft of clues. Listening to the inflections of someone’s voice becomes confounded by a language with pitch accent, such as Swedish, and how do you ask someone who doesn’t speak English to spill the tea without actually implying that you would, in fact, enjoy it if they wet the table cloth? Queerness has become (or created, or adopted) a language of its own, but it still must channel much of itself through conventional speech. How endlessly difficult then, how tirelessly tiresome, so find one’s self surrounded by foreign tongues (which, I assure you, is not as fun as it sounds).

Still, certain things shine through despite the language barrier. Not expecting to find other queers in the desert of southern Israel, I was surprised when, upon meeting one of my coworkers, I knew him instantly to be part of the tribe (the LA by Night t-shirt and camo jeans might have had something to do with it); he told me later that one of the math teachers was a lesbian. And my students, before I even walked into class, had asked another teacher if I was gay (how desperately I wanted to ask them, how, how did you know?) During a staff meeting at the end of the week, a friend leaned over and told me one of my students was gay, and I should keep an eye out for bullying.

photo via Alex Franco

photo via Alex Franco

“But how do you know?” I asked, wondering if my own teachers had had this conversation, convincing myself they hadn’t, because how could years of torment and torture have passed unnoticed?

“Can’t you tell?” She asked me in return, perplexed.

And why couldn’t I?

I was, at least, not alone in my obliviousness. Three separate coworkers, upon learning I wasn’t married, asked if they could set me up with “a good woman who would make a good wife.” I lied, showing them a picture of my best friend (blessedly, accursedly far away) in Sweden, and told them I was waiting for someone. Thank goodness they didn’t ask if she was Jewish! I could not help but wonder: what about me was so obvious to students aged 11, 12, 13, but so opaque to people nearly twice my age? Was there some generational clue? Is being queer that much more present now than twenty, thirty years ago? Or is it that the markers that keyed in my students went completely unnoticed by my older coworkers because when they were growing up being queer just wasn’t an option? Maybe they never looked (or had to look) for the indicators that myself and others have long since trained ourselves to spot, because people like me existed more in an imagined possibility (seedy bars in Tel Aviv, or worse—America) than in reality.

All this begs the question: is queer culture universal—are we, as queer men, women and everything in between, fundamentally the same, or do the unique circumstances of our upbringing, the specific cultural artifacts from which our background is constructed, shape our behaviors and understanding of ourselves as queer individuals? Certainly, time and place dictate to what degree one may express one’s queerness. A teen discovering their bisexuality in San Francisco in the late 2000’s will enjoy more freedom than say a youth in rural Georgia. This disparity between regions is only magnified on an international scale. While variances always exist between urban and agrarian centers, to compare the life of a queer person in Paris to one in Kingston (or Beijing or Dakar or any number of places) would be to fail to recognize the privilege those in the States (and most other Western countries) are privy to.

An awareness of this privilege is not only what stops you from approaching the two men holding hands in Oman, but also from taking a man’s hand yourself. It’s why Tel Aviv Pride attracts tens of thousands from around the world, while a similar event in Be’er Sheva was shut down by the city council, and a young woman was stabbed to death two years ago at Pride in Jerusalem. It’s how Israel can boast over 60% support for same-sex marriage while two of the three countries it borders still imprison homosexuals (not to mention the countries in the Middle East—Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—where homosexuality is punishable by death). We complain about dick pics on Grindr, while the same app is used by government agents in Egypt to entrap unaware gays. Yet despite our vast geographical and cultural differences, we ultimately want the same thing: the dignity and respect due to us. We want what anyone wants, regardless of nationality—to be treated as human beings.

Living in Israel, then, meant my being one with contradictions, to come out again and again, only this time in a new language. It’s like learning to walk in heels (notoriously difficult to do on sand). But it is also an opportunity to experience a wider, richer version of the world, to meet brothers and sister whose life experience so mirrors my own while the details sparkle with the brilliance of difference. It is to realize that the fight for equality, for dignity, is not an American issue, but a global one. Despite my own shortcomings and linguistic faux-pas, my own understanding of queerness will be deepened by my time abroad. And while I might never discover how to dish properly in Hebrew, I can be secure in the knowledge that there are men and women out there willing to help me try.

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Alex Franco is the queer son of an immigrant and a southern belle. He hails from Atlanta, GA, and now teaches English in southern Israel.