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Freedom and Partying Mix at Tel Aviv's Gay Pride 2012

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Sun, sea, sand and an influx of international tourists -- it could only be Tel Aviv Gay Pride 2012.

Tourists and locals alike packed into the city's Meir Park (Gan Meir in Hebrew) for the final day of Gay Pride 2012. With Tel Aviv declared 2011 world's best gay travel destination by GayCities.com, it was always going to be a spectacular affair. And the day didn't disappoint.

Speeches by politicians and diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who shared a platform with gay rights activists and drag queens, set the tone before gay and straight alike took to the streets to march alongside the parade of exotic, highly visual and colorful floats. Anthems from gay icons blared out of speakers.

Councilor Yaniv Weizman, a member of the LGBT community in Tel Aviv who holds the municipality portfolios for both tourism and gay affairs, was delighted with the international turnout:

"Tel Aviv is the biggest gay city in the world for a reason. There's a strong community life in Israel. It's very open, very pluralistic. We invite people to come and visit."

Israel has become one of the most progressive countries in the world and is recognized as the most tolerant country in the Middle East in legislating equality for sexual minorities and ensuring their civil and personal rights.

Earlier in the day, drag queen Kimberly Swan performed an energetic Madonna dance routine wearing her infamous conical bra through a perfect choreography of "Vogue" as well as other hits. The shaking and shimmying male and female back-up dancers had the crowd roaring.

Swan, who performs in Israel and in clubs in Europe as a choreographer, dancer and actor, was delighted to be part of the festivities:

"It was really an amazing day. I've been preparing for two weeks for the show with this amazing group of dancers. I chose to cover Nicki Minaj as she's a big inspiration to me, as she believes in herself and what she wants to be."

"I'm not going to be on a truck [float]. I'm going to walk the parade with a lot of pride."

Sarah Imhoff, 31 and Eva Mroczek, 31 are holidaying in Israel from Bloomington, Indiana. They're heterosexual, but felt it was important to come and show solidarity. This is not their first pride event. "It's really awesome to see [pride] in Israel," said Sarah. "We're here in solidarity. "It's really international, in ways other pride events aren't," Eva added.

Tel Aviv Pride 2012
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Sharon Segel is a communications associate at The Israel Project, a nonprofit educational organization that provides factual information about Israel and the Middle East to the press, policy makers and the public. (www.theisraelproject.org)