Pride parade kicks off in Tel Aviv with partyers, protesters

The largest gay pride parade in the Middle East drew hundreds of thousands of revelers and demonstrators from all over to the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday.

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Drag queens and rainbow-clad marchers streamed through the coastal city, posing for selfies and beating drums. Shirtless men kissed on floats blasting electro beats.

“Every day it feels like you are alone in the struggle. It’s empowering to have this event,” said Ofek Grossman, a local gay 21-year-old.

Support for gay rights is increasingly widespread in Israel, where gay people serve openly in the military and parliament. Yet they haven’t attained full equality.

Some marchers carried signs mocking members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious government for restricting same-sex couples’ marriage and parental rights. A group of young demonstrators chanted “homophobia begins in government halls.”

Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties, which wield significant influence over matters of religion and state, oppose homosexuality as a violation of Jewish religious law.

Still, broad cultural acceptance for the community has helped Israel emerge as one of the world’s most gay-friendly travel destinations, with secular Tel Aviv in particular celebrated as a hub of gay culture, in sharp contrast to the rest of the Middle East where LGBT visibility is often not tolerated or persecuted.

“People think we (in Israel) are a sort of war zone,” said Oshrat Itzhaki, 43, adding that it was important for “people to see that there are other things here, and that the gay community is part of the country even though it’s fighting for its rights, and that it’s super fun here.”

Israel’s reputation as an LGBT haven has caused critics to accuse the country of “pink washing,” or using its tolerance for liberal gay culture as a branding tool to conceal its violations of Palestinian rights.

Friday’s celebration, headlined by TV star Neil Patrick Harris, culminates a month of LGBT events across the country and marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, widely regarded as having fueled the fire of the global movement.

Yoni Kozmiski, a 31-year-old tourist from Australia who said he travels the world for gay pride events, described Tel Aviv’s annual parade as “the pinnacle.”

“It’s not a spectator sport,” he said. “Everyone marches. It’s really inclusive.”

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