The mass protest organized by the Israel’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in July 2018, which received tremendous public support, was a harbinger of change. Of course, there is still plenty of work to do, and the LGBT community’s struggle for acceptance is far from over.
Last week, Hoshen, a nonprofit involved in LGBT education and PR, carried out a special initiative called “Yes, In Our School,” in which celebrities who are straight went back to their own high schools to raise awareness.
“Our goal is to send straight people back to their high schools to engage in discussions with students about the moment their attitude toward the LGBT community changed,” explains Tamar Yahel, CEO of Hoshen. “This program relies heavily on the participation of straight people, since we believe they can play an important role in our struggle.”
Have the schools been cooperative?
“Unfortunately, Hoshen is engaged with only 20% of schools around the country. Two years ago, we began receiving funds from the Ministry of Education, but only a small number of schools have principals who are courageous enough to invite us to carry out our workshops with their students. More than once, we’ve seen teachers or parents voice their criticism of our initiative. If you walk around the halls of Israelis schools, you’ll still hear kids calling each other ‘fag’ or ‘homo’ all the time, and many LGBT students suffer from ongoing physical, verbal and sexual violence at school.”
ONE HOSHEN participant, Liron “Tiltil” Orfali, who was a winner on the TV show Survivor and currently works a taxi driver, came to the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, where he attended high school 30 years ago. As I stood with him just outside the front gate of the school, he broke down crying in front of me.
“You can’t imagine the awful memories that are flashing in front of my eyes right now,” he says to me. “I had ADD and my teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I’d been thrown out of another school and arrived here in ninth grade. I grew up in Nahalat Yitzhak, which was not a great neighborhood. When Hoshen contacted me, I jumped at the opportunity to come back here and maybe make a difference. In fact, I’m quite honored.”
What was it like when you went to school here?
“Well, I’m 44 now,” continued Orfali. “In my time, if someone took a shot on the basketball court, but missed the basket, the guys would all call you a ‘Homo’ or ‘Koxinel.’ I admit, I would use those terms, too. I didn’t know any better. That’s just how we talked.”
When did you first understand and accept that some people were homosexual?
“When I first began working for the TV station as a driver. That’s when I began to be exposed to these types of ideas. It took a while for me to change my way of thinking regarding the word ‘homo,’ from the way kids would use to curse each other with in school, to understanding that we’re talking about real people.”
I ENTERED a classroom together with Orfali, where we found 12th graders in a literature class. They were excited to meet him and listen to his stories, including the first time he experienced a homosexual encounter (not what you think). He uses humor to engage them and get his message across.
“Soon after I’d begun working,” Orfali told the students, “I was put in charge of driving the casting director of a reality show. We’d talk a lot during those rides. He’d tell me about his boyfriend and I’d tell him about my family. One time, as he was getting out of the car, he gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought to myself, ‘What would people say if they knew this had happened?’ I was scared at the thought of it. I wasn’t very open-minded at the time – no one in my home ever spoke about homosexuality. But I’m really happy that my world has expanded and that I now have friends in the LGBT community. They’re regular people, just like you and me.”
One of the students then asked Orfali, “You say you’re liberal now and that you’ve changed so much. But how would you react if your son came to you one day and told you that he’s gay?”
“What I meant is that if my wife decides to hang out on the beach in a skimpy bikini, I’m not okay with that,” Orfali clarified. “But what people do in the privacy of their own homes has nothing to do with me and does not harm me. If my wife walks around half-naked publicly, that’s not okay. If my son were to come to me and tell me, ‘Dad, I’m gay’ well, then I might yell and break some dishes, but he’s my son and I will help him and support him until the day I die. I will do everything a father can do for a son.”
Another student asked Orfali whether he thought Gay Pride parades should be held in cities outside of liberal Tel Aviv.
“I think it’s great that they hold parades to celebrate their pride, but I’m not a big fan of all the ostentatiousness and radical activity that goes on at them.”
AT THIS point, the 12th graders begin debating among themselves whether Gay Pride parades should be held in Jerusalem, too. Orfali offers his opinion, saying that he doesn’t think it’s necessary, at which point a student exclaims, “But a girl was stabbed and killed during a Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s still too early to give it up.”
Another student interjects, saying that he’s grown up in a family with two gay fathers and two gay mothers. “It’s extremely difficult for me when everyone around the country makes derogatory comments about my family. In my mind, it’s even more important to have pride parades in Jerusalem, since we have so much more work to do there. Here, in Tel Aviv, it’s considered pretty normal.”
MOSHE HAJAJ, a volunteer from Hoshen who had also been participating in this discussion, told the class his own coming-out-of-the-closet story. He concluded by telling the students, “Statistics show there’s been a decrease in the number of homophobic incidents in cities all around Israel. This proves that as awareness increases, people feel less threatened. The LGBT community is slowly becoming an accepted part of society.
“But we have a long way to go,” continued Hajaj. “In 2018, there was an increase of 54% in homophobic incidents, most of which took place in Tel Aviv. There are still so many kids who are mistreated at school. Pride parades are an extremely important tool for us to spread awareness and exhibit progress in our struggle for acceptance and equal treatment under the law. You young people are our future leaders. Society will change only if you take action.”
“A while back, a flyer printed by Hoshen included my name among its supporters,” Orfali added. “And then something really interesting began to happen. I began getting all these obnoxious messages from people I knew from the old neighborhood, such as, ‘What’s gotten hold of you? We thought you were one of us.’ I started to realize what was going on. They were upset that someone like me, who talks and dresses like them, who grew up with them, is suddenly going around supporting those other people. They asked me questions, like, ‘What, are you gay or something now, like your new friends?’ Sooner or later, they’d always come out with the clincher: ‘But it’s written in the Torah that it’s forbidden.’”
All of the students, sitting on the edge of their seats, were eager to know how Orfali had responded. “I told them, ‘Everyone has their own way of believing.’”
One of the students retorts, “But you said that when you were in high school you weren’t very tolerant of gays. If you could go back in time, what would you do differently? How can young people today promote greater tolerance?”
“Everything’s easier today,” responds Orfali. “There’s so much information on the Internet and support from social networking groups. When I was a kid, we didn’t know anything. All we knew was what our parents told us. First of all, it’s important to no longer use the word ‘homo’ as a way of putting each other down. I pray that the day will come when this word is no longer used in a derogatory fashion. When I was a kid, I thought being gay was the worst thing in the world. Today, I’m very proud to have gay friends.”
When Orfali was asked if in recent years he’s ever come across someone who he’d insulted during his younger years, he recounted the following anecdote.
“There was a boy in my class who was really nerdy and he’d get bullied all the time. It turns out that over the years he did really well at work and was appointed CEO of his company. One day for work, I was asked to drive to Beersheba to pick up a box. As I walked into the office, I saw this same guy who we used to make fun of in school. Thankfully, I don’t think I ever said anything mean directly to him, but I belonged to that group of friends that teased him all the time. As I stood there staring at him, my mouth went dry. He didn’t say anything to me, just stood there staring back at me. He was a CEO and I was a taxi driver, and my legs began to shake. All he said to me was, ‘Here’s the box’ and then he turned around and went back into his office.
“What I want to get across to you by telling you this story is that what goes around comes around. If you insult someone, the past can come back to bite you one day. So, try not to insult or hurt people. Change isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Take the city of Tiberias, for example. It used to be a rundown, backward town. But look at it today – it’s amazing.
“Everyone can make a change.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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