The 1990s were the great breakthrough for LGBT representation on the silver screen in Israel. With the visibility that began at the beginning of the decade, there was an attempt to present diverse, colorful figures whose sexuality is meaningful but not all they have to offer. From “Straight to the Point,” through Dana International’s first tv interview, to the first gay kisses on television – these are the pioneering moments that paved the way for the Israeli media’s openness to the LGBTQ community
1990: The Song of the Year
Back in the days when there was only one channel in Israel, the music chart show “Lahit Barosh” was widely popular. At the time, singer Mickiyagi was a strange bird. “Tzayri Lach Safam” (‘[Woman] Draw Yourself A Mustache’) was the title track of the album of Mickiyagi’s band, Noar Shulayim. The Israeli audience did not know how to react to Mickiyagi and his high-pitched voice, and the fact that he went on drag in the music video for the song did not contribute to the matter. Though he hadn’t yet come out at the time, the word “gay” was thrown into the air more than once. But all this did not prevent the song from being chosen as the song of the year.
“In a city very close to the devil’s residence/a girl grew up, she was doubtedly a girl, she always was a little boy.” So the song begins, supposedly an amusing curiosity, but for the gay community it was very clear what the song was about. “Over the years she grew up and the male root with her,” says the second verse of the song, “Now in the army she is the commander of a whole unit.” Queerness at its best disguised as an innocent pop song.
1990: Queer lesbian in prime time
At the exact same year, the Pollyanna Frank band released the album “Ein Livchor” (‘No Choice’), and broke out with a lesbian love song sung to “a girl with gorgeous breasts:” It was called “Ziva”. The band’s soloist, Ellyott, who was back then still using her original name, Sharon Ben Ezer, was a true pioneer. Not only was she the first Israeli singer to come out as lesbian, but it was also her quintessentially queer appearance, which in those days was much more “unconventional” than today.
Although the song did not become a huge hit, it still managed to get into the mainstream, so this was the first time on Israeli television that explicit lesbian descriptions were heard such as: “You do me fine, and that what’s important, and your breasts are something gorgeous.”
1992: Ofra Has Arrived
Long before Ofer Nissim (nicknamed in the Israeli gay community as ‘Ofra’) was a name that every Israeli knew, Ofra and her gay friends performed mainly at gay clubs. In 1992 Nissim and his band, (among them you would have found the nightlife personality of those days, Itzik Nini), recorded a song written by gay songwriter and media personality Yoav Ganai. The song was called “Mask” and the band was called the “Drama”. The song became a hit and peaked at number 3 on the radio listeners voting chart.
Straight to the Point (courtesy YouTube)
1993: The first gay character on prime time
The first breakthrough on Channel One was, of course, “Straight to the Point.” The somewhat conservative channel surprised the entire country when it decided to produce and broadcast a complete sitcom whose main character was an out homosexual. True, the straight-acting gay guy played by Rafi Weinstock ended up in sexual tension with his straight female roommate who was in love with him, but hey, at least the main character was gay, and he was not even feminine, an important statement for that period, in which not all gay men are feminine or twinks. To reinforce the message, they added to the series a character of a sissy but straight neighbor.
Unfortunately, the attempt to create an Israeli version of ‘Will and Grace,’ years before the famous American sitcom was created, did not go well with Israeli viewers. Not only was it too early for the audience to swallow that frog, it was simply not good enough (to put it mildly).
1993: Hello, Dana
In the same year that “Straight to the Point” failed, Ofer Nissim recorded a first single with one of his close friends. The parody song “Saida Sultana” became a huge hit, and the video that accompanied it introduced an anonymous girl named Dana. The audience, or at least most of it, didn’t know that the singer was a transgender woman. Following the success of the song, record label IMP, which specialized in dance music, signed Dana and Ofer Nissim together to record a full album, and later that year Dana released the second single, “Dana International (Shoshu Ya Shoshu”), which gave birth to her stage name.
At the end of December 1993, Dana made an appearance on a highly rated talk show, and provided her first television interview in which she was exposed as a transgender woman to the general public. The formative television event caused great pride in the transgender community in Israel, which was then in its first stages and mostly in the closet. A year after the interview was broadcast, Dana grabbed the title Female Singer of the Year in the annual song chart. History in the making.
1996: Drag Queens in prime time
Israel’s first drag band, “Bnot Pesia”, was founded in 1995 by four graduates of the theater department at Tel Aviv University. Their performances immediately became a cult at gay parties, and shortly thereafter, the band members created a complete comedy show and performed around the country. The characters of ‘Bnot Pesia’ (the band named after a iconic bra shop in Tel Aviv) were four sisters: Itzik Cohen, who played Chasida, Elhai Levit who played Chayuta, Boaz Pipe was Ruth and Gil Czernowitz was little sister Etti.
The first and unforgettable television exposure of “Bnot Pesia” was on a prime time late night show, “The Circle” witn Dan Shilon. Their hilarious performance gave them a contract with the cable network to produce short comedy skits that were aired for months between the shows on Channel 3. The peak of the public’s acceptance of the band was that were chosen to perform as an interval act at the Pre-Eurovision song contest in 1996.
Jump to 1:44:25 to watch the Bnot Pesia’s first performance
1997: First gay kisses on the screen
This is the year that the couple Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky came into our lives and changed the face of the Israeli screen forever. Together with Ido Bornstein, they created “Florentine,” the first series to feature “real gays” in the lead roles, ones that had not yet been seen on the screen. Iggy, the eccentric baker, played by Uri Banai and certainly the introverted Tomer played by Avshalom Pollak, provided a different angle to the image of the Israeli gay: flattering and more humane than ever. “Florentine” has revolutionized the real representation of gays on the small screen.
Although the series was very popular and received excellent ratings, the first gay kiss on Israeli television caused a storm both among the viewers and the media, and Channel 2 franchisee “Telad” was even asked to moderate the matter. Later on, “Florentine” also provided us with the first lesbian kiss on Israeli television, as Ronit Elkabetz jumped in as a short guest-starring role in one of the late seasons of the series. When Shira (Ayelet Zurer) and Nicole were seen making out in bed, it may not have made them less straight, but this hot and vibrant scene was unforgettable.
1998 – Dana becomes an international
The choice of a transgender woman as Israel’s representative to the Eurovision Song Contest had indeed led to sharp criticism by Haredi MKs, but Dana brought Israel the first Eurovision victory since Hallelujah in 1979. Everything in this victory is iconic, every feather from Jean-Paul Gautier’s “Parrot Dress” is a symbol.
Winning Eurovision Ms.International became the most dominant representative of the LGBT community in Israel and of the transgender community in particular. “Diva” written by Yoav Ginai and composed by Maestro Zvika Pick was the first Eurovision winner to hit the music charts throughout Europe in years, with an impressive peak at number 11 in the all-important UK chart. But more than anything, the song became an anthem of freedom, joy and pride – both in Israel and globally. Viva!