You might be surprised, but Israel is much more than what you see and hear on your TV and radio! For instance, did you know that the LGBT community in the city of Tel Aviv is one of the biggest and one of the most famous gay communities in the world? This week, especially because of the upcoming gay parade taking place in Amsterdam, I would like to show you a different aspect of the life in Israel. Via the Skype network I performed an interview with Ronny Chokron, an old friend of mine, who is today’s face of the gay community in Tel Aviv and an artist who is very much involved in the gay TLV scene. I was able to hear from Ronny all about the Israeli gay life in TLV and especially about his alter ego – Nona Chalant, who is a refreshing and an innovative figure in the gay community and in the nightlife of Tel Aviv.
It so nice to see you Ronny, I have been following your work for some time now! For our readers, can you tell me about yourself and about your works of art? What do you do exactly?
“Ok, so my name is Ronny Chokron, I am an art director and a visual artist. I explore any kind of visual art, but my true passion is the ‘art of Drag’, and to fulfill that I work as a fashion photographer and a makeup artist. Through my work I’ve started modeling and eventually found out that I’m a model without gender identity. Together with my passion for fashion I started a project called the ‘House of Nona’. A major part of the project is that I choose Israeli artists from the fashion field, and by using my alter ego Nona Chalant I promote them and their work.”
“Nona is my fashionable alter ego. She is a fashionable figure but she is more than just a model. Nona has her own positions, and opinions, which I cannot have as Ronny in my daily life. Nona models the clothes and the jewelries of Israeli designers, some who are internationally known and famous. Beyond that, Nona always has a political agenda. For example, she was part of a demonstration against the religious institutions that control Israel and prevent marriage of gay people and civil marriage in general. Nona dressed in a bride’s gown, and walked in the streets of Tel Aviv. For the people on the streets, to see a drag bride does something. Nona represents the democracy, and although Israel is a democracy, there is still a need for change in the Israeli society.”
How Nona was ‘born’?
“Nona was born in a photographing project, I was photographing my friends and their alter egos, and it made me start searching for my own alter identity. I found out that my alter ego is a fashionable woman, who is quite different from other drag queens in Israel and the rest of the world; there are not a lot of drag queens who are that into fashion and also use it to make statements like Nona Chalant does.”
How is the life of the gay community in TLV involved in your work?
“I work with everybody, but because I am a gay man, who is also a drag queen, my work supports the gay community and its values. I am very much involved in the community in all sorts of different projects. When I was younger I didn’t have the right people around me who could represent me in the community. As I grew up, I realized that art has a great power to influence and to change, without using many words, only by using visuals. There is something about fashion that everyone can relate to. Nona is very aesthetic, I choose her to be a model, and it is easy to market something that is beautiful as she is.”
Can you elaborate about the Drag culture in Israel? How is it different from the rest of the world?
“The culture here is limited; mostly because TLV is a small city and Israel is a small country. But things are changing and there is an increase in the drag culture, and in the art involved with it. It is not just about men who dress as women; I am talking about a whole culture and art that is becoming more widespread and popular. This rising drag culture is even supported by the city hall of TLV, which last year funded a school for the art of drag. There are other drag queens in TLV, many of them are involved in the night life of the gay community, but I am more involved in the fashion field rather than in the nightclubs and bars. In New York, this field is much more ahead of us, the drag queens over there emphasize the persona, they are people who are artists and this is their art. I am more connected with that scene because me and my crew talk about political agendas, that it is hard to forge and affect many people lives. In the rest of the world the drag culture is less developed, usually it is about a man who dresses as a woman. But either way, for me is it always about breaking the gender boundaries and limits.”
How do you find the gay community in Israel to be? Is it different than 10 years ago?
“Well, first there is much more awareness of the gay community than before. People are less afraid to come out of the closet, and we even have a representative in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament). There are many people in Israel who are doing an incredible work to achieve human rights and gay rights. The community is getting bigger, and today there are many ‘sub communities’, for example a community for lesbian Russian women, or for gay orthodox men; each of these communities is facing different struggles, and there is still much work to be done. Although there really is a positive change in Israel and in most of the world towards the LGBT community, homophobia still exists, see what happens in countries like Iran or Russia, it is terrible there. Unlike many countries in Europe, Israel is a religious and a militant country; we are all growing up to become soldiers and serve in the army. This very much affects our ability to connect with our ‘feminine side’. In Europe it is different, over there you most likely will not serve as a soldier who needs to defend your state, so you can be whoever you choose to be. The Israeli society is militant, ‘macho’ and also religious; this is a combination which prevents you from developing different identities. As for myself, I am not very feminine in daily life, so it might have been easier for me as a soldier, but it still was a complicated period in my life that I had to overcome.”
What is the main message of your art?
“Nona projects much more power than Ronny. I’m like a different person when I dress and become Nona, I am also very cold and tall (2 meters!). The message I send is that you always need to be who you are, and to always try to break your own personal boundaries and the boundaries of the society. Look at me, I am a Moroccan Jewish man from the peripheries of Israel who at the same time is a model at the fashion week in TLV. This is a dissonance, but it shows that you can really be whoever you want. It is only matter of decision. As Nona, great things happened to me in my life, and it is possible even in Israel. You need norms in order to understand how to break them, this breaking feels great!”
Would you like to send a message to the gay people in Holland/Amsterdam? Take your art out of the closet, dare to be yourself!
“Never stop fighting for a social and cultural change! Like I said, see what is happening in Russia and Iran, if they won’t protest there, the gay people will disappear! Although TLV is very open, there is still long way ahead. The change starts with people like you Ronie who write about me, or with people like me and my art, each of us contributes in a different way, but we need more people! There is still much work to be done to achieve our goal.”
Why is the gay community in TLV so popular outside of Israel?
“The city of Tel Aviv is defined as a free city where everybody can express themselves. This definition allows you to be whoever you are – gay, lesbian, trans, and all the rest. There is a constant development in gay culture, gay cinema, gay beaches and more. Actually the biggest community in TLV is the gay community. It attracts tourists from around the world, so there are a lot of economical interests involved here. The local municipality is very much aware of that, and supports the community and the gay tourism.”
Are other gay communities in Israel so popular and progressed as the one in TLV? What is the situation in Jerusalem for example?
“Like I said, there is more awareness than before, but the community in Jerusalem is much smaller and there are fewer gay clubs or bars to hang out at, so it’s nothing like Tel Aviv.”
There was a gay parade in Jerusalem this year as well right?
“Well it’s not really a parade, more like a big event. There were parades in Beer Sheva, Ashdod, Natania and Hafia for the first time. Many people are starting to notice the communities in those cities and it’s great.”
How do the communities overcome the obstacles and the difficulties they are facing especially in religious places like Jerusalem or other religious cities?
“The orthodox community is against the gay parade. They see it as a provocation, for them it doesn’t make sense at all. In my opinion, it is very important to have those parades; it is increasing the awareness, and helps the citizens to understand us, the people of the community, better. These parades are like holidays, and though the religious population thinks the parades are only sexual, the real agenda behind the parades is political. Sexuality is something you can find in any parade in the world, in Brazil and Spain and almost everywhere. This is the nature of a parade or carnival… the gay parade in Tel Aviv is one of the strongest in the world! It is very important that these parades will continue to take place in big cities in Israel and around the world!”
Any last words?
“I do what I know how to do best. Come to Israel to feel the Israeli gay experience, it is fun, free and open! The Gay Pride is a special day when you can see the fraternity between everybody, young and old, gay and straight…
I welcome the Dutch gay people to join this social network: https://moovz.com/ it originally started as an Israeli project and went to become a global world wild network for gays.”
This was a short glimpse on the Israeli gay community; you are more than welcome to visit the beautiful project of Ronny Chokron, the “House of Nona”, at: https://www.facebook.com/NONACHALANT?fref=ts
And if you want to know Nona better, check out her official video: