Gays in Israel

Shortly after a United Nations cease-fire ended the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon and the Galilee, gay porn auteur Michael Lucas raised eyebrows and made headlines when he announced his plans to visit Israel and entertain the troops. Lucas, a Jew, timed his visit to show his support for the beleaguered Jewish state: “I am very proud to be going to my home away from home and entertain gay Israelis in a time of war,” wrote Lucas in his “adults only” blog [lucasblog.com]. “People need to see the faces of war,” Lucas added. “I will expose the reality that the people of Israel face right now, especially that of gay Israelis who are targeted by the hate of Hezbollah.” Lucas was true to his word, visiting Israeli troops near the front and entertaining them (and others) in a hard-core “performance” at a gay club in Tel Aviv. Though Lucas’s obvious affection for himself never faltered, and his version of Israel’s “faces of war” (as shown on his blog) left out the female, the old, and the ugly, his feelings for his “home away from home” (and its men) were apparently sincere. Lucas’s good will tour of Israel reminds us that, in some ways, the Jewish state is more gay-friendly than George W. Bush’s America. A sex show like the one that Lucas put on in Tel Aviv, with full nudity and hard-core sex, would not be allowed anywhere in the United States, at least in places that sell liquor. (In Fort Lauderdale, members of a gay nudist club were arrested for simply exposing their asscracks at a local bar.) Even more important, Lucas’s visit to the gay Israeli troops could only happen because the Israeli Defense Force (unlike the U.S. military) allows and welcomes openly lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens into its ranks. Though Lucas’s tour got its fair share of criticism from religious right Israelis, he was not arrested or thrown out of the country, nor were any gay soldiers expelled from the IDF for posing for Lucas’s blog or attending his “performance.” Israel is a land of contradictions. On the one hand, Orthodox Jews dominate the Holy Land’s religious life, and religious right rabbis have been very vocal in their opposition to gay rights and homosexuality. On the other hand, Israeli law is the most GLBT-friendly in the world, outside those of Canada and a few western European countries. In 1998, Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia noted that “Israel is today one of the few countries in the world that guarantees gay and lesbian rights against discrimination in employment and elsewhere.” Eight years later, things have only gotten better. According to the glbtq.com online encyclopedia, “queer activists have managed to gain a legal status and a degree of protection under the law that is equaled in only the most progressive countries.” In 1988 the Israeli Knesset repealed that country’s sodomy law. In 1992 the Knesset went further, and outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1994 the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that forced El Al airlines to grant spousal benefits to the partner of a gay flight attendant; and in 2000 the government granted same-sex partners of Israeli citizens the right to immigrate into the Jewish State. Why is Israel, in many ways so conservative, so supportive of its queer citizens? According to glbtq.com, “some social analysts believe that it is Israel’s embattled state that has prompted government officials toward liberality one some social issues, including gay and lesbian rights. They argue that the Israeli government, viewed as an oppressor nation in many parts of the world, is anxious to demonstrate an enlightened generosity where possible.” I’d like to think that it’s Judaism’s traditional commitment to social justice that inspires the Jewish State’s progressive stance towards its sexual or gender minorities. Recent developments continued this positive trend. In February Israeli teens drafted into the IDF were given the option to volunteer for national service through the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel (the Aguda). In April, members of Jerusalem Open House, the Holy City’s GLBT community center, took part in the annual ceremonies at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. In May the Israeli government proposed that gay and lesbian couples be allowed to inherit each other’s property after a partner’s death without having to make a special court application. Though the recent wars with Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon put that proposal on the back burner, its eventual passage seems assured. On August 6-12, Jerusalem hosted the second-ever World Pride events. (Rome hosted the first ones, in 2000.) The choice of the Holy City for World Pride was controversial from the start: Orthodox Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics joined forces for a change to oppose a common “foe” (us) and Jerusalem’s Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupoliansky tried his best to keep the queers away. But not even the war in Lebanon and the Galilee could stop World Pride, though the World Pride Parade was canceled for security reasons. Out Rabbi Harold F. Caminker, who attended World Pride on behalf of Congregation Etz Chaim (south Florida’s GLBT synagogue) wrote that “it was a unique experience — a week filled with many historical moments that will move our LGBT community forward and contribute to the further building and advancement of our cause.” To Rabbi Caminker, who lived in Jerusalem while a rabbinical student and who has visited the Holy City many times since, “it was thrilling to proclaim that we must make this a free city for people of all tendencies and affiliations.” Israel is not without faults, of course. Its settlement policy and its treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs leave much to be desired. But Israel remains the only stable and progressive democracy in the Middle East, decades ahead of the still-fragile democracies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It is certainly much more GLBT-friendly than its Arab neighbors or Iran, where queers are subject to death or long prison sentences. Gay Palestinians often cross the separation wall that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories to visit Jerusalem Open House, to experience the freedom that they are denied at home. For them, Jerusalem’s GLBT center is truly a promised land. Jesse Monteagudo is a left-handed Cuban Jew and a freelance writer who lives in South Florida with his life partner. Send him a note at jessemonteagudo@aol.com.

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Come Out Come Out

Lots of closet doors are opening like never before — and in places where most gay folks five years ago were too wary of government census takers to acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship. “The closet door is really opening. That’s especially true in the Midwest,” says Gary Gates, author of a fascinating study based on the newly released 2005 American Community Survey — a sort of mini-Census — and the National Survey of Family Growth, both conducted by the federal government. Overall, the number of same-sex couples identifying themselves to the government soared 30 percent in five short years — to 776,943. To put that in perspective, the U.S. population grew 6 percent in that period. The biggest jumps in self-reporting by gay couples were largely in America’s heartland. The survey results suggest that anti-gay marriage drives are having a wonderful unintended consequence: They’re emboldening more of us to stand up and be counted. Six of the eight states with an anti-gay marriage initiative on this year’s ballot — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — saw rate jumps higher than the 30 percent national average.

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