By Alexandra Friedman
In January 2014, the state of Israel unveiled a new Holocaust memorial in Tel Aviv, built to remember the gay and lesbian victims of Nazi persecution. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and the German ambassador to Israel were both present at the unveiling, as well as former Tel Aviv council member Eran Lev, who inspired the building of the monument. Lev explained that the idea behind the monument was “to commemorate those victims of the Nazi regime in a universal way; namely, not only Jews but all individuals.”
Israel has long stood as a beacon in the realm of LGBTQ rights, particularly in the Middle East, where homosexual acts are often illegal and punishable up to and including death. In June 2013 Tel Aviv hosted its 15th Annual Gay Pride Parade, attended by a record- breaking 100,000 people. Named one of the “five most improved places for gay tolerance” by The Independent in 2008, and the “world’s best gay city” in 2011 by gaycities.com, Tel Aviv has become a haven for the LGBTQ community. Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Israel, also hosts an annual gay pride parade.
However, similar to other nations such as the United States, there are certain shortcomings in Israel regarding LGBTQ rights that many feel can no longer be ignored. Recent instances of violence towards transgenders have prompted a broader discussion of both the progress and shortcomings of LGBTQ rights in Israel.
In southern Tel Aviv, a woman recently harassed for being transgender noted that she “wasn’t seriously hurt,” but that the attack was “mostly humiliating.” This violence is not limited to Israeli society. Tel Aviv’s Nir Katz Center for Violence, Discrimination and Homophobia Reports has observed an increase in violence towards transgenders around the world, with 238 transgenders murdered in 2013.
In response to the recent violent incidents towards transgenders in Israel, over 1,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv in a protest that they called “Take Back the Night.” Gila, a transgender advocacy group in Israel, organized the protest, urging the government of Israel to classify attacks like the one that occurred in southern Tel Aviv as hate crimes.
In 2013, the Israel Defense Forces allowed, for the first time, a transgender woman to serve in the army as a female soldier, setting a new precedent for the treatment of transgenders in the Israeli military, in which most Israelis serve after graduating high school.
Among Israel’s neighbors, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, homosexuality is outlawed. According to a 2012 report on state-sponsored homophobia by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) out of the 78 countries that criminalize consensual acts of sex between members of the same sex, five countries make homosexuality punishable by death, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran.
Cyndi Lauper, an American pop icon and ardent gay-rights activist, met with leaders of the Tel Aviv LGBTQ community during a visit to Israel in January. Lauper, whose sister is lesbian, met with Shay Deutsch, the chairman of the LGBT Association. Deutsch relayed to Lauper that the LGBTQ community had progressed, with “more gay and lesbian candidates running for political office than ever before.”
Recent decades have witnessed immense progress in the treatment of the LGBTQ community throughout the world, with countries like Israel and the United States serving as examples for other countries to follow. There is much more progress needed, however, if the LGBTQ community is to achieve the ultimate goal of full equality.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.