De-constructing a City of Queer Borders
By Lily Hoffman Simon
If you were to ask someone to picture the queer community in Israel, it is a fair bet to say that they would picture the group as homogenous, fixed, marginalized. The term queer itself, initially a derogatory label for homosexuals, was reclaimed as an all-encompassing umbrella term for anyone who defines themselves as having an “alternative” sexual expression, emphasizing the uniform oppression of queers. What happened to the complexities of that oppression, and of those identities? What about the places/spaces that encourage these complexities?
Enter City Of Borders, a new documentary following the lives of queer Israelis and Palestinians. The directorial debut of Yun Suh, a Korean American filmmaker who gained interest in Israel/Palestine while working as a broadcaster and reporter in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel, the film demonstrates exactly what is lacking in most of the queer Israeli discourse: Complexity and heterogeneity.
Take Adam, for example. Adam is a secular Israeli settler in the West Bank, where he lives with his partner. Yet, he is a leading activist in the gay rights community. A gay rights activist and a settler? This union of traditionally leftist and rightist values superficially seems like a contradiction. Yet the movie advocates for this complexity, and encourages the viewer to stop looking at Israel as either gay or straight, right or left, and start looking at the complex issues and tensions apparent in individuals’ identities. Isn’t that what the term queer is all about anyways?
City of Borders centres around Shushan, a gay bar in Jerusalem (that has since closed), where a significant chunk of the queer community congregates. This hotspot serves as a uniting force within the otherwise divided Israeli queer community. Where else can a Jewish settler converse, and maybe even make out with, a Palestinian drag queen from Ramallah? At this bar, people do not have to fear oppression; it provides a safe haven for all kinds of sexual expression in the midst of Israeli oppression, especially in a religious and conservative Jerusalem. It also provides a space for identity free from political connotations, where a Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish Israeli lesbian couple can hold hands without fear of judgement. At this bar, coexistence trumps politics.
Outside the bar, however, the seemingly ideal relationships have to contend with a difficult political reality. The bi-racial lesbian couple, Samira (a Palestinian-Israeli woman) and Ravit (a Jewish-Israeli woman), seem so in love, while at the same time rebellious in their “stick it to the man” attitude towards everyone who questions the validity of their relationship. So it comes as a surprise in the context of their relationship, yet not in the context of the usual perceptions of Israel, that at the beginning of their relationship, Samir lost sight of her love for partner Ravit, and instinctively realized herself as “fucking the occupation.” By exemplifying even the hardest politics in the most intimate moments, the movie refuses to let the viewer accept identity, or queer/political discussions, as static.
So the queer community in Israel is rampant with complex identities and internal tensions, but so what? City of Borders is doing something radical, by demonstrating the heterogeneous nature of the Israeli homosexual community, which is an alternative to most presentations. Within the bar, these differences don’t matter, but in greater Israel, these tensions still play a significant role in people’s lives. By extension, the movie is advocating for a complex view of Israeli society and identity. This breaks down the simplified, so often dichotomized, discussion surrounding queer rights, and even surrounding Israel/Palestine.