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Dana International - Queen of the Levant - Artikel aus der Zeitung Ha'aretz vom 3.12.1997
Wednesday, December 3, 1997
Dana, queen of the Levant

Transsexual pop music star Dana

International puts her best gender foward, but is she really breaking sexual barriers in Israel? Orna Coussin explores the phenomenon of this new Israeli hero

How did Dana International get chosen to represent Israel at the Eurovision song contest, and how do you explain the entrance of "The Passia Girls" into the concensus of Friday night television?

"I remember at one of her first performances in Be'er Sheva, she got on the stage in front of 10,000 people," recalled Ofer Nissim, Dana International's personal manager, in a recent interview in the gay and lesbian magazine Hazman Havarod. "It was so scary. She, a transsexual who came from the clubs under the most difficult conditions, without an investor, without a record company? She had to stand in front of that frightening audience, and there were about 20 hooligans screaming "transsexual, transsexual," and she had to smile and entertain the audience and be professional, and she succeeded. It was the last time anybody called her a transsexual. Because the audience respected her. They have respect. She speaks her truth."

Years have passed since then, and now, as Dana International prepares to represent Israel at the Eurovision song festival, she apparently is receiving her final affirmation: Israeli society accepts her. Her success selling records, her performances that fill halls, her choice as Singer of the Year by the Rosh Echad youth magazine Ñ those were all intermediate affirmations on the way to the ultimate one.

This success story is an interesting and important cultural event. Not only is Israeli society accepting International Ñ despite her deviant lifestyle Ñ but it is doing so with genuine affection Ñ just like it accepts "The Passia Girls" every Friday night in its living rooms. Moreover, Israeli society passionately accepts Dana International's mixture of Arab and Western European dance. How is all this happening?

"She is one of the only singers in Israel that has captured both audiences: the gays embraced her because she is transsexual and 'the people,' if you can call it that, embraced her despite the fact she is transsexual," wrote Yair Kedar, editor of Hazman Havarod.

Prof. Moshe Shoked, an anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, is not impressed. He does not agree that "the people" Ñ that is to say, the traditional, conservative masses Ñ easily accept deviant lifestyles. Every society is open in some areas and narrow-minded in others, he says. "When it comes to people like her, it isn't so unusual in the Western world. Drag queens have entered the realm of entertainment in the West Ñ and what happens is, the West comes here. It doesn't mean there is so much social acceptance."

In the relationship between people like Dana International, other cultural heroes such as the stars of the film "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and mainstream society, you can easily see the very clear border between art and reality. As long as it is just on the stage, as long as it is entertainment, it is OK. Transsexuals have always amused us.

But in reality, says Yair Kedar, "the most obvious feature in the attitude of straight men toward transsexuality is resistance and outrage. of all the sexual minorities, the situation for transsexuals is the worst. They suffer the most repression, abuse and often violence. Gays can hide it, lesbians can hide it and they are accepted with more tolerance anyway, but transsexuals are the avant guard of Israel's gay community. Israeli society is, for the most part, hostile toward them."

Dana International, perhaps naively, thinks differently. In an interview with the Tat Tarbut magazine last year she said: "In our world what matters most are money and looks. A homosexual that doesn't look good lives in the dumps. We revolve around sexuality. Transsexuals are always well kept and you can easily identify them. Where a gay gets hit on the head with a bottle, a transsexual gets an indecent offer."

Some say International made a revolution. Society accepts her because she never hid her identity. As opposed to "The Passia Girls," who have always denied belonging to the homosexual community (and Itzik Cohen, a member of the troupe, went as far as announcing recently that he is no longer gay and is getting married), Dana International declares her identity everywhere, without shame. Her honesty challenges a horrified society Ñ and other homosexual artists who hide their identity.

A year ago she said to Tat Tarbut: "Artists can contribute to the gay community more than anyone else. They should put in a good word. What are they afraid of? They say Israeli music is advanced, that we are part of Europe, that this is the music of the year 2000. So why aren't they thinking on an international level? Why aren't they thinking in the year 2000? If an artist can't say what he thinks, where is his truth?"

She has said similarly direct and honest things to other newspapers. "She doesn't try to soften, to occlude," says Yair Kedar. "She has established her image as a transsexual who is also a fine performer, with beautiful dance hits, and she has provocative messages. She keeps the flame going the whole time and doesn't give up any element to become more popular. Therefore she is dazzling. She embodies the relationships of east-west, fringe-center, man-woman, modern, advanced music that is also folky. You can't put her in a box."

If, indeed, she is such a dazzling figure, someone who defies norms, who offers a different model from the accepted, the fact that Israel accepts her is surprising and impressive. But it is too early to be thrilled. "Those types of people do not contradict the usual division between the sexes," says Shoked. First, "they are an exception that only confirms the rule. Even at the carnival in Brazil, a mass event, the most amazing and successful performances are by the drag queens, and still Brazil can not be called very advanced or enlightened." Secondly, "the transsexual is a super-woman. There is not a contradiction or rejection of the usual concept of men and women. Dana and her friends look like the most beautiful women. They don't try to destroy the existing models. The fantasy is perfect. They don't stand there with hairy arms and declare they are different. If they were truly subversive they would appear with open male symbols. They don't."

Shoked says we are far from accepting the transsexual option as another legitimate sexual identity. In North American Indian communities there was such an option, in the figure of the third sex, men who wore women's clothes and had sex with men. Those median roles were institutionalized. But the "colonialist forces, the French and English, suppressed the phenomenon because it contradicted the European religious beliefs. In India there is a caste of men who gradually have an operation to change their sex. They perform a ritual role. In many societies the attitude towards homosexuality is quite different than the Judeo-Christian approach."

The Israeli acceptance of drag queens is very limited. If you limit the discussion of Dana International to the realm of symbols and cultural representation and ignore her qualities as an authentic singer, you can even detect a negative side. Maybe heterosexual Israeli society accepts Dana International and the transsexual or the drag queen as cultural heroes because they choose from the whole range of possible female figures and identities that which is most stereotypical and ridiculous. Drag queens are never sloppy, relaxed, messy-haired, lightly mustached, demonstratively muscular, very fat or very flat-chested. The transsexual or drag queen as a cultural hero is always a woman who could be a ready-made object: big tits, carefully made-up, in a tight dress, naive, sentimental, devoid of ambition except the ambition to please her man, and also a mean, bitter and miserable bitch.

In certain senses, Dana International, as an icon , strengthens trends of misogyny in society. As journalist Yaron Fried wrote in Tat Tarbut: "In all these actresses there is something pathetic, grotesque, ridiculous. Could the whole point here be, pardon me, bad taste for its own sake? And what about all the meanness, the bitchiness, cruelty, sadism? Why does it turn people on so much, and who does it turn on? Is there some truth in the claim drag culture is misogynist?

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