Back in England....
Having survived my reckless trip to New York, where I could easily have ended up dead at the hands of a crazy stranger in a sleazy hotel room – but didn't – I returned home to find things the same as I'd left them. That is to say I still had the same life that I had before, in spite of my exciting time out, coming out, in the Big Apple, discovering myself and who I am.
As an aside perhaps, I have to tell you that anyone who claims there is no God is lying. He is there, but not in those happy-clappy churches or austere places of worship. He is in the gritty streets of cities where those who are at the lowest point in their lives or in search of solace, might find Him. The lucky ones, like me, will pull through, God might reach out through a stranger's kindness or a fleeting smile from someone in the crowd. Such encounters can change a life. But it takes a leap of faith to get there in the first place. My rash trip to New York had proved to me that part of the responsibility in changing our lives does in fact lie with ourselves and our will to take a chance, even if it seems risky...
I had pushed on through a difficult few years, experienced the lowest of lows and heartache, collecting scars on the way - and just about made it back into the light.
Many don't get that chance and the world is a poorer and less beautiful place because of the ones who left too soon, often beaten down by the prejudice of those who would rather see them perish than admit that individuality and difference can be the best thing in the whole world.
Intolerance - and missionaries again....
During the time that I was targeted by missionaries, I witnessed vile reactions from them to anything gay. There was a real hatred towards homosexuality and a very vocal and irrational intolerance of gay people. The twisted interpretation of scripture that these people preached was manipulated to justify their prejudice and fuel their own fears. It was precisely due to this propaganda, which is still rife in these cultish pseudo-religious groups, that many young gay people committed suicide. Although I escaped from the clutches of that nasty world, my heart sinks when I think of those who didn't. And how many people were pushed into 'straight' marriages through fear of being outcast by those who they thought cared about them. Personally I have a very big problem with those who set out to preach their dubious morals to others. That 'be like us or be sent to hell' message is vile. Playing on the fear and insecurities of the vulnerable and scared, it is so far away from the truth and so very very cruel.
Off to Israel, Jason in Jerusalem (and Tel Aviv)...
So, anyway, after New York, it was time to begin living as a gay man in my world and hopefully on my terms. This was going to be the most difficult time of all in some ways because, even though I was ready, some people around me would not be ready to accept the man they had known for over thirty years suddenly coming out as a different person. So to many of those in my life, I remained firmly in the closet with the door closed, only coming out in the dark hours after the sun had set.
I dipped my toe in the local scene, had some awkward encounters here and there but decided that I had more lessons to learn before emerging as a fully transformed 'butterfly' and that these lessons might best be learnt away from home.
That's how I found myself in Israel. Coming out was certainly involving a lot of travel....but at least I was doing it on a budget.
My Grandmother knew Israel well and had often urged me to visit. A courageous and amazing woman, not content with seeing images of people suffering on the news, she had in her 70's packed her bags and set off for Israel to work as a volunteer in a hospital for several months. I realise now that she must have known I would benefit from seeing a diverse society where everyday life was lived on the edge of danger – but ultimately successfully. A metaphor for my life at that time perhaps.
The time felt right. I had read that Tel Aviv was very gay friendly and so I made the first of several visits to that vibrant city. Initially I was still very self-conscious, so I would walk up and down the long streets past gay bars and clubs without going in. I also travelled to Jerusalem where, perhaps ironically, I found a rare inner peace in that troubled city. It was a time of tension in Jerusalem, in the street outside my modest hotel there had been a bus bombing a week or so earlier and there were still signs of the attack in the damaged pavements and roads. In the Old City I was challenged by a very angry man in the Arab quarter, an unsettling confrontation which was only diffused by another man who realised I wasn't a threat but just a bewildered tourist in the wrong place. Everybody was eyeing everybody with suspicion and on occasion tension flared into loud confrontation. If there was a gay scene in Jerusalem then it was well hidden. So, as is the tradition, I wrote a prayer on a small piece of paper, pushed it into a crack in the Western Wall, then got on the bus and headed back to Tel Aviv.
Surreal life in the park, Dana International and finally home....
Independence Park in Tel Aviv, not far from the Hilton hotel, is well known as a gay meeting area. It is a surreal place, Orthodox Jewish families glide along the paths on sociable walks in the park, while gay men sit on benches overlooking the sea – or meet and mingle in the bushes... Despite the apparently sleazy gay underworld in the undergrowth and the stark contrast between two very different lifestyles, the gay scene and the Orthodox world managed to exist alongside one another with some kind of tolerance in spite of their differences. I found this refreshing, it seemed at least on the surface that worlds could collide or co-exist without causing a whole load of fall-out. And that resonated loudly with me. My two worlds were in the process of colliding and I had no idea what to expect.
Not having learnt any lessons from the dire Malibu Hostel experience in NYC (see my earlier post), I had again booked a budget hotel for my trip to Tel Aviv via the internet because, well, it was an affordable option in what was quite an expensive city. But this time it worked out very well. The Hotel Ami was surviving, just about, being squeezed in between the brash developments of Crown Plazas and Radissons near the sea front in the city. A slightly crumbling, shabby exterior and a dated but comfortable interior made for a pleasant and central base from which to explore. The staff were friendly and I got to know them quite well over three stays in as many years. I always felt they knew about me and my journey and they smiled at me and were kind. Kindness really does mean so much.
One day I plucked up enough courage to spruce myself up as best I could and take a trip to the nearby Independence Park. I'd read all about it prior to my first visit. It was, as I mentioned earlier, the place where gay men would meet. It was famously, I was told, the place that Israeli transsexual singer Dana International had frequented prior to becoming an international Eurovision sensation, the first transsexual to win the legendary song contest back in the 1990's. Dana was a real ground-breaker and, very importantly, a signal from Israel to the world that it was a country where LGBT people would be welcomed.
I'll save the tales of my encounters in the park for another time (or a book!) but suffice it to say that it was an enlightening experience.
Every evening I would email my friend T (the chap I met in New York) from the computer in the hotel lobby. He was now one of my best and most trusted friends. He told me that he was living his own life vicariously through me which felt like quite a responsibility on my part but actually my life was turning into a real roller coaster so I knew he would not be disappointed.
My meetings with gay men in Israel were interesting. It is estimated that 25% of people in Tel Aviv identify as gay, so the scene is lively, diverse and visible.
But I did have to return to England....
Back home again and still not out to most family and friends, I was reluctant to be too visible too soon. So I went back online. The internet was awash with gay 'dating' sites. Although I was very much out of my comfort zone, it was what I had to do in order to meet people. I was not yet part of the 'scene'. And very many of us weren't. Looking back, I realise that there were thousands of scared gay men out there, locally, who were just too afraid to be seen.
I was not going to be one of them. I didn't want to be scared for the rest of my life. The time had come to show my face.....
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