Gay tours: The weathers beautiful, wish you were here

JERUSALEM — Riding the bus to dinner that first night, Russell Lord chose his introductory words carefully, emphasizing each syllable in a slight Israeli accent — softened by traces of a Brooklyn left behind long ago.

"Because of 'the situation,' we're not exactly the flavor of the month," the tour operator deadpanned to those comprising the "Journey of Pride" group. "But because of you all, we are working."

He was acknowledging that these 13 Bay Area women and men had traveled to Israel despite the al-Aksa intifada, which had escalated prior to their departure in mid-April.

This gratitude was an oft-repeated sentiment that the contingent — primarily from San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav — heard from most everyone they encountered, from the concierge to the kibbutznik.

But despite Lord's concern for his industry's sharp decline — the Central Bureau of Statistics reports roughly a 60 percent drop from last year's hotel occupancy rate — he had another special interest in this group: Like him, they were members of two tribes: the Jewish one and the queer one.

Lord — who made aliyah two decades ago — views it as something of a "pink Zionism." Simply put, he's particularly invested in establishing relationships between Israel's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities and those of the United States and Europe, "to build understanding and good, solid connections between us all."

So are Renee Goutmann, the French-born lesbian who was hired to guide this group, and San Franciscan Peter "Pini" Altman, who was again consulted to create the itinerary for the second such gay-themed trip sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and its Israel Center. (The first trip was in 1999.)

Part of their work, then, is to make queer-friendly travel bookings, like arranging meetings with openly lesbian Tel Aviv City Council member Michal Eden, progressive Knesset member Yael Dayan and dinners with the Agudah, Israel's national LGBT-rights organization

"The members [of Journey of Pride] went home with not only pictures of Masada and Jerusalem but with new friends in their address books," said Lord, whose employer, Kenes Tours, supports his queer endeavors (though the management is all heterosexual, he pointed out).

Carving out this niche market seemed a perfect fit then, given his "insider" status and the burgeoning LGBT visibility of the late 1990s — propelled by the overwhelming publicity that Israeli gay nightlife received when transsexual singer Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision song contest.

But the results have varied, both before and after the intifada.

Goutmann led her first queer group seven years ago, also with members of the Reform Sha'ar Zahav, but didn't guide more than one every two years since then. "I sent a letter to all LGBT synagogues in the U.S., more than 30. Didn't get one answer!" she said, noting that she doesn't have contact with non-Jewish LGBT communities who may also be interested in touring.

Since the beginning of the current conflict, however, Goutmann led a group from a New York queer synagogue in addition to Journey of Pride. They are also interested in pulling together a second trip in November. Still, she concluded dryly, "Can't survive on that."

Lord, on the other hand, said that for Tel Aviv's Gay Pride festivities in 2000, "with very little publicity, a few ads, and not too much effort, before I knew it, I had 70 people registered."

But that was last year.

"This year I did the same thing — the 2001 tour includes more sites, more meals, and is 15 percent cheaper than the tour of 2000. I have received lots of wonderful e-mails from people — but — the bottom line of each of them is that 'this is not the time to come to Israel.'"

The violence "brought black clouds to our skies, where only days before the colors of the rainbow were smiling down upon us all," Lord said, using a metaphor for the six primary shades of the LGBT pride flag.

So what is the future for his vision of pink Zionism?

Until "foreigners feel safe about coming here, the tip of the iceberg that we began to see — the gay cruises, the gay groups, the gay individual tourists — will all be put on hold," Lord said.

But throughout the 10-day visit, he, Altman and Goutmann made it known it was a postponement they were each trying to end.

During the Journey of Pride's farewell dinner with the Agudah, Lord asked one San Franciscan about the safety factor.

"Did you feel you were in danger at any point? Did you see any violence?"

"No," she replied.

"Then tell people that when you go home," Lord told her. "The gay community and Israel are desperate for your support."