The invitation was so unexpected, and email scams are becoming so sophisticated, that I was sure this was one of the latter: “The Ambassador of the United States of America... a reception in honor of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community in Israel.”
Well really! How stupid did the sender think I was? Except that it wasn’t a scam, and the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, really did “...request the pleasure of [my] company” at the reception at his elegant Herzliya Pituah home last Thursday.
It was in 1976 that I responded to an ad in the “Personals” of The Jerusalem Post, suggesting support for the gay community. I needed help to escape from the stifling and frightening prison, aka “the gay closet.”
The Society for the Protection of Personal Rights had recently been established – the very first gay-rights association in Israel, probably in the entire Middle East, and then still one of the few in the world outside of the US.
It was there that I took my first tottering steps as an openly gay man. It was there that for the first time in my life I met gay men and women who were already comfortable with who they were. It was there that I discovered that I wasn’t alone, wasn’t sick, wasn’t a criminal and wasn’t destined for a life of despair. I learned that I too was entitled to human rights, even though I was one of the mostly-still-hated 10 percent.
Did I mention the stifling closet? Only 12 years later I was already ready to sue my employer for workplace discrimination against me simply because I am homosexual. My partner and I (we’ve been a couple now for 33 years) discussed strategies before I went to court: first the Tel Aviv District Labor Court, then the National Labor Court and finally the Supreme Court. My employer lost at each level and today my name stands on one of 10 most important Supreme Court cases (at least the last time I checked at the Supreme Court Museum). Talk about gay pride.
But that’s not the reason Ambassador Shapiro invited me.
PFLAG (Parents & Family of Lesbians & Gays) is a US-based self-help organization I once encountered on a trip to the US. My own family was ultimately very supportive, even though their Orthodox religious background had placed them in a quandary. But I knew from many friends that many families struggle and suffer terribly when a child/sibling finally comes out of the closet. I saw the necessity for, and was instrumental in, founding Israel’s version of PFLAG, called TEHILA, a Hebrew acronym for Support for Parents of gay/lesbian children.
It is no exaggeration to say that the now 20-something volunteer-based organization has saved countless families from collapse, not to mention lives. (Over 30% of teenage suicides are gay, even though they comprise about 10% of the population.) I was deeply honored to be able to accept the invitation on behalf of the hundreds of TEHILA volunteers, nameless they shall remain, and I was deeply honored to be at the reception last Thursday, rubbing shoulders with parliamentary dignitaries from a range of political parties, representatives (including at least two ambassadors) from other embassies, religious leaders, and some of the great movers and shakers of Israel’s vibrant LGBT community.
The theme of the ambassador’s words as he addressed the guests resonates: “Gay rights are human rights; human rights include gay rights.”
I asked the ambassador why the US embassy had initiated the event. He said, “Today is the eve of IDAHO – the International Day Against Homophobia. It is an appropriate day to fulfill a new US State Department policy of outreach, worldwide, to the LGBT community.
Military policy in America followed Israel’s, after President Barack Obama cancelled the pernicious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that forced gay military personnel into the closet. Israel is a world leader in gay rights, thanks to the vibrant, active LGBT community, and we are delighted to host you to honor your human rights activism.”
In his eloquent speech the ambassador reminded us that in almost 80 countries around the world, homosexuality is still considered illegal and that “throughout the world, human rights defenders are fighting for these very rights, and it is a credit to Israel and to all of you that here those rights are secure.”
Being gay itself is not a matter of pride. I did nothing to “achieve” that status – it was bestowed upon me; I don’t know how or why. But coming out of the closet is a matter of pride and dignity. “Gay pride” is simply the opposite of gay shame, of gay fear, of the gay closet. Being gay really is not a matter of “pride,” just as being tall, having red hair or being able to wiggle one’s ears is not either.
Your own neighbor, sister, father, daughter or boss might be homosexual, but you just don’t know it...
yet. Ambassador Shapiro and his gracious wife, Julie, marched in Tel Aviv’s pride parade last year “...and we intend to support the community and march again this year,” he added.
The party was a ball. I’m 68, and this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to an embassy reception in my own right. I hope to live to see the day the US recognizes the right of single-sex couples to marry. Israel is far, far ahead of most states in the US, and even of most Western nations as far as protecting the human rights of the LGBT community. I might even live to see civil and single-sex marriages become legal in Israel.
Then it will have all been worth it. That will be our gift to coming generations. In the meantime, TEHILA’s volunteers do marvelous work in restoring the dignity, pride and self-respect of LGBT people and their families, and in helping LGBT persons to belong, proudly, to civilized society.
The writer is the author of a new book, “Flying Colors” (Books.at.Basel, 03-5467405) about his youth in apartheid South Africa and his experiences as an El Al flight attendant. He also established TEHILA – a self-help organization for parents and families of gay men and lesbians.