JERUSALEM (AP) — Shirtless Israeli men, colorfully dressed drag queens and others partied Friday through central Tel Aviv as tens of thousands of people took part in the city's annual gay pride parade, the largest event of its kind in the Middle East.
Tel Aviv is one of the few places in the Middle East where gays feel free to walk hand-in-hand and kiss in public. The city has emerged as one of the world's most gay-friendly travel destinations in recent years, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 80,000 people took part. Loud music blasted along the parade's route, thick with people dancing to the beats and waving rainbow flags. Drag queens wearing heavy makeup, dresses with sequins and high heels bounced along to the music alongside scantily clad men and women.
Tel Aviv's openness to gays stands in contrast to conservative Jerusalem, just a short drive away, home to some of the holiest sites to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Still, Jerusalem has a small gay scene and an annual pride parade, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Gays serve openly in Israel's military and parliament and many popular artists and entertainers are gay. However, leaders of the gay community say Israel still has far to go in promoting equality.
Officially, there is no gay marriage in Israel, primarily because there is no civil marriage of any kind. All weddings must be conducted through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad.
Across the rest of the Middle East, gay and lesbian relationships are mostly taboo. The pervasiveness of religion in everyday life, along with strict cultural norms, plays a major factor in that. Same-sex relations are punishable by death in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.
Among most Palestinians, gays tend to be secretive about their social lives. In the West Bank, a 1951 Jordanian law banning homosexual acts remains in effect, as does a ban in Gaza passed by British authorities in 1936.