West Bank gays more at home in Israel

SFGate.com – Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank – In the center of town in a cafe named Stars & Bucks, a young Palestinian who likes to be known as the Diva Nawal sips a bright pink milkshake and checks out the early evening crowd.

“I’m not the only gay person here, but I’m the only one who’s out,” he says, exchanging silent greetings with two young Palestinian men at a nearby table. “They’re also gay, but nobody knows, and you shouldn’t approach them.”

When the tall, slim, delicately featured Nawal dons the blonde wig, makeup and tight skirts that transform him into a drag queen, he’s ready for his performance — at gay clubs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

A 21-year-old university student with serious professional ambitions, Nawal wouldn’t dream of performing in his hometown, where homosexuality, as in the rest of the Palestinian territories, is strictly taboo, sometimes violently so. Last year, a group of gay Palestinians visiting East Jerusalem from the United States were threatened and one of them badly beaten after they announced plans to join an Israeli gay pride rally. The Web site of ASWAT, an organization of Palestinian gay women, says Palestinian society “has no mercy for sexual diversity and/or any expression of ‘otherness’ away from the societal norms and the assigned roles that were formed for women. … The Palestinian woman has no right to choose an identity other than the one enforced on her by the male figures in her family and surroundings.”