Nicky Blackburn
April 15, 2007, Updated September 13, 2012

Mideast Piece co-founder John Leonard in Dizengoff Circle – ‘We’re engaging gay Jews and Arabs in open dialogue about their lives and the similar struggles they face.’

Matt Lebow and John Leonard wanted to do something different. Fed up with traditional gay Internet sites that offered only crude and X-rated material, the Israel-based students decided to create a new web site that would combine their fervid interest in the region’s handsome men with a bit of culture, a dash of political activism and human rights, and most of all peaceful dialogue with other gays throughout the Arab world.

The answer was, a new web site where pictures of bronzed beautiful ‘pieces’ from Tel Aviv’s beaches rub alongside entries on Passover, Arab-lesbian demonstrations in Haifa, and the sexual exploits of a gay Turkish blogger, called Turkishboy.

“Gay Jews and gay Arabs have a great deal in common,” 28-year-old Vermont native Lebow explained to ISRAEL21c. “They face similar challenges all over the world. When you share similar struggles and a similar identity, there’s no reason not to work together and build a community that offers mutual support.”

As the site’s mission statement announces: “Gay Jewish Israelis and neighboring gay Arabs have more in common than, say, a gay New York City Jew and a homophobic Salt Lake City Mormon in the US. We must focus on what unites us, instead of what divides us, i.e., a great ass, nice arms, killer smile, etc.”

Since it opened some 10 weeks ago, the site has already managed to attract 100,000 viewers, and, adds Lebow proudly, its first advert. This is no small achievement, particularly since the only advertising is word of mouth.

Lebow and Leonard, both from the US, arrived in Israel about one and a half years ago. Lebow, who has a background in the non-profit industry and public relations, came to focus on religious studies in Jerusalem, while Leonard – a 29-year-old Christian from North Carolina who worked previously as a curator – enrolled himself in an ulpan in Tel Aviv and began learning Hebrew.

The two began thinking about a new web site in the wake of the problems surrounding the annual Jerusalem Pride parade and event which drew strong condemnation from the city’s orthodox Jews. They were also inspired by Jerusalem Open House (JOH), a gay organization that runs an outreach program designed to help gay Palestinians and Arabs who have been rejected and threatened by their own society.

“Being gay in Arab countries is often taboo. It’s really dangerous,” says Lebow. “We wanted to create a place where they could express themselves freely and see that other people share the same experiences they do.”

“We’re engaging gay Jews and Arabs in open dialogue about their lives and the similar struggles they face,” says Leonard. “There is no other blog doing this work, and certainly few gay blogs of any nature with the kind of diverse, frequently updated content we offer.”

Diversity is definitely the key at Mideast Piece, where the original content includes anything from gay Middle Eastern news and personal perspectives, to items on culture, activism, human rights, and tourism.

There are plenty of photos, listings of gay blogs throughout the Middle East and a long resource list of help lines and gay organizations in Israel and the neighboring Arab countries. The site is updated twice a day, and everything is amply illustrated with pictures of lovely hot men, including one of a macho Israeli soldier holding a white cat, entitled Lucky Pussy.

The humor on the site is immediately apparent. “Mideast Piece aims to unite people around the world through shared adoration of that most sacred and bronzed of species, the Middle Eastern man. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Druze, these desert men are more valuable than any Saudi oil well,” the site states.

It goes on to add: “Soldiers are hot. They should not be killed in war. They should be trained – strenuously – and put on display for all to lust after. That’s Mideast Piece.”

At present there are only two Arab bloggers posting items on the site, one from Turkey and another from Dubai, but Lebow says he plans to carry out a targeted campaign in the coming months to add more Arab bloggers and readers.

Most of the 100,000 visitors to the site are currently from North America and Europe, though a spot check of visitors at 11am on March 21 revealed that the site also had online readers from Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Australia, Africa, and the Nordic countries.

Lebow’s goal is to create a community of two dozen bloggers, and he is already in contact with an Iraqi blogger, but he admits that this will take time. While being gay in Israel is accepted and laws pertaining to their rights are among the most liberal in the world, it is a very different experience in neighboring countries.

“Gays in Arab countries live a very underground existence,” explains Lebow. “Their governments often shut down gay sites, and being openly identified as gay in some countries can be tantamount to death. It’s very shameful in these societies. As a result it’s hard to find these people.”

In the future, Lebow envisions a time when Mideast Piece can host conferences for gay bloggers throughout the Middle East.

“We want to create more than just a web site,” he explains. “We want to have a conference where everyone would come together, including Israel, and take a stand for something together that doesn’t involve hate or war.

“The Israeli-Arab conflict is always made out to be the be all and end all of every problem in the Middle East, but human rights are also a very important issue,” he continues. “We all face discrimination from extremists and this should be our rallying point. We want to create a site that has a message and that tries to accomplish something alternative. We know that we can’t bring peace, but perhaps we can create a dialogue and kind of link up that way.”

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