LGBT members of Arab society often encounter rejection from their family and immediate community. The case of P., a young man in his 20s, shows us that even though it may seem that in much of Israeli society homophobia is a thing of the past, there is still much work to be done to ensure that all LGBT people in Israel can live in peace and security.
"Throughout my childhood, I felt that something inside me was different and not right," P. tells Davar in a quiet and measured voice, as he sits on a simple couch next to his counselor from Elem, an Israeli non-profit which provides aid and counseling for at-risk youth. “Around the age of 16, I realized that I was attracted to men. I grew up in an atmosphere where this was forbidden. I remember as a child we visited Tel Aviv, and when my father saw gay people, he would spit out the window."
P. took a long time to accept himself. "It was a difficult process. At first there were bad feelings; anger at myself, hatred towards myself. I was angry at God for making me like this. I was repressing and lying to myself. I tried dating girls from my class, but it didn't work. I didn't tell anyone. I tried to kill myself, I swallowed pills. Luckily, it didn't work. At night I threw up. No one knew about it. My parents didn't notice. I chose to continue my routine and got engaged to a relative."
When did you start accepting yourself?
"I moved to a new branch at my workplace. The manager of the new branch was a lesbian. We got to know each other and I learned about a different way of life; that you can live as a same-sex couple. I have a relative abroad who lives with a man, but no one talks to him."All this time I lived with my parents. I was afraid to meet up with men. The interactions I had were by phone and were cut off, because I didn't have the courage to meet up. At the age of 19 and a half I had a real relationship, because I then had a driver's license. I would sneak out and change clothes in the car. [My parents] really suspected me because of the clothing. My dad pressed and asked if I was gay. Every time they asked me I would fight and shout that I'm not like that. I met a lesbian who was a good friend of mine. She pretended to be my partner and came to my house every night."When I came out of the closet to my mother, she said she always knew and was waiting for me to tell her," he says, a tear escaping his eyes. "My little sister told my mom because she saw the messages on my phone. She accepted me, and they kept it a secret for four or five years."
Why did you choose to come out of the closet?
"I loved someone, and we broke up. I was depressed, and I decided to tell my mother. I needed her support. I took time off from work but didn’t manage to tell her, I couldn’t find the words or the right moment. The next day I went to work, disappointed in myself, and just texted her. I came home and we talked in the evening.
"She just accepted me. We agreed that it would be a secret and she would cover for me. As time went on, the fights with Dad increased. He wanted me to work with him to keep an eye on me. I would lie a lot to get out of the house. After a few months of pressure, he exploded. There was a big fight and he beat me. I pushed him, packed my things and left the house. I walked outside at night, into the street. In the morning a friend let me into her home.
"Then I moved to relatives in another area. They knew and accepted me. Which is not something to be taken for granted. Father called and I didn't answer him at all. Then we exchanged some text messages. I refused to return home. He called the relatives I was staying with. I was scared and left for another place at the other end of the country. I didn't feel safe anymore. I didn't trust anyone. I was afraid that someone would find me, that someone would see me. Even when I was looking for a job, I was afraid to give my ID, lest they find out details. I was afraid that my family would find out and come. I became depressed and suffered from anxiety. For two years I constantly checked that no one was following me.
"I started sleeping on the street, on the beach, in shopping centers. There was harassment. There were offers of sex for money, and that’s where the idea of prostitution started," he says in a quiet voice. "I had a really good friend in my situation, but he was managing to live in an apartment. I lived with him until the coronavirus. Then we left the apartment and returned north. I had no money and no place to sleep. The option of prostitution was real. It was a time when every morning I woke up to a nightmare. But it passed."
What kept you going during the time away from home?
"All this time I believed in myself. I believed that this would be a period and it would pass. I received a call from Elem. I asked friends about Elem, and they all said good things. All my life I had been stable, and working. It was hard for me to ask for help. But I realized that I was getting lost and I didn’t know how I would end up. They just accepted me without judging and without pressing for details. They told me: 'Whatever you want to say, say it'. It gave me confidence to talk about my experience and start a rehabilitation process." P. straightened up a little.
"The space is open 24/7," P's counselor had said, "there is a shower, a bed, and a hot meal. There is an initial conversation. You are not forced into anything. The process is built on trust."
P. continues: "I was afraid to open up to young people. I was afraid to trust. She asked me what my dream was. I had never been asked that. I read articles about gay celebrities. The question pushed me to wake up and say to myself: 'You want to be a father. And you are not on the right track'. I received a disability allowance from Bituah Leumi [National Insurance Institute], and I rented an apartment, initially with roommates. Now I have my own apartment."
"My family are the ones who accepted me from the beginning."
"Today I am in the process of rehabilitation, I no longer suffer from anxiety," says P. "I realized that I wasn’t alone in all of the things that I went through. Many young people don’t manage to get through it. That's why I decided to help other young people. I want to study social work.
"Today I’m not afraid. Part of my family knows and accepts me, and part denies and does not accept me. But they’ve reconciled with it, at least enough that they no longer threaten to harm me. I don't go to visit, because I feel bad there. It brings back memories I don't like; I run away from it and I don't feel like they're a real family. My family are the ones who accepted me from the beginning. All the hard things I went through were because of someone who didn't accept me and didn't give me security. I'm happy, because what I went through made me stronger."
What are you proud of?
"I'm proud of myself, my friends. I'm proud that I was able to accept myself. Those who are in my life, they accept me."
This article was translated from Hebrew by Hannah Blount.
For more information about Elem, visit https://www.elem.org.il/english/