Americans have every reason to envy Israel’s enlightened policies toward their LGBT citizens. So it puzzles me deeply when I hear of LGBT groups lending their sympathy to opponents of Israel.
The rights we have been fighting for and still have not fully achieved in the United States, LGBT Israelis already enjoy. I came out in the middle of the last century and witnessed firsthand the persecution and oppression of LGBT people. It was because of those early experiences that I devoted the last 40 years of my life to writing books and articles about our community’s history and progress.
In America, as late as 2003 there were still 14 states that punished gay men under sodomy laws. Israel abolished all sodomy laws in 1988. In America, we’ve been fighting for decades for a law that would end employment discrimination against LGBT people. A few states have passed such laws, but the federal government has not. Israel passed a law in 1992 that protects any citizen (Jewish, Christian, or Arab) from employment discrimination for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
In America at mid-century, lesbians and gays in the military had to be absolutely closeted; they were witch-hunted and given dishonorable discharges if found out. The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that was passed during the Clinton administration was actually considered “progressive”—a big improvement over the old policy—because lesbians and gays were to be booted out of the military only if they drew attention to their homosexuality. Finally now, 11 years into the 21st century, America is getting around to permitting lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military. Our Israeli brothers and sisters have been able to serve openly since 1993, and since 1997 a same-sex partner is recognized by the Israeli Defense Department as a member of the soldier’s family.
When I was doing research for my 2006 book, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, I interviewed an 83-year-old lesbian who had just lost her partner of almost 50 years. Their house had been in her partner’s name and because the partner died without a will, the law granted the house to the deceased woman’s distant cousin, with whom she’d had no contact for decades. My 83-year-old interviewee was left without a place to live. If she’d been an Israeli citizen—whether Jewish, Christian, or Arab—she would be living in her home until her death because lesbian and gay couples have full inheritance rights under Israeli law.
My partner and I have been together for 40 years. Like 18,000 other same-sex couples in California, we got married in 2008. Though all 36,000 of us are still married as far as the State of California is concerned, Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage for all others. Because federal laws don’t recognize our marriage, our legal bond doesn’t do us much good anyway. If we should decide to move next door to Arizona or Las Vegas or Oregon—or almost anywhere else in America—we wouldn’t be considered legally married. We both pay federal income tax, of course, but under the law we get none of the federal benefits that opposite-sex couples receive. In fact, the only result of our marriage with regard to taxes is that we have to pay our accountant triple: once for doing our state income tax as a married couple, a second and third time for doing our federal income tax as two single payers. And if one of us should die, that’s the end of her Social Security benefits for which she’d paid in for more than half a century; the surviving spouse gets absolutely nothing of those benefits.
If we’d lived in Israel, we’d be much better off. In 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of granting spousal benefits to same-sex couples. In 2004, the court ruled that LGBT couples could qualify for common-law marriage status. In 2005, legislation was passed in Israel recognizing all same-sex marriages that are performed abroad.
So there can be no explanation for LGBT groups participating in wrong-headed actions such as the BDS movement that seeks boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Outside of Israel, everywhere in the Middle East, LGBT people are utterly despised under the law. Indeed, official treatment of LGBT people in other Middle East countries makes the bar raids and job losses and police entrapments that we experienced in the 1950s and ‘60s seem like coddling. If a family wishes to rid itself of the embarrassment of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender member by “honor killing” there would be no legal consequences in the area governed by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, or in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Syria.
Needless to say, and as even the Amnesty International LGBT website shows, there’s no Middle Eastern country other than Israel in which lesbian or gay couples can receive spousal benefits, none other than Israel in which lesbians and gays can serve openly in the military, none other than Israel that protects lesbians and gays from discrimination or hate crimes. In Iran and Saudi Arabia we’re put to death. In Syria we’re thrown in prison for three years. In Egypt, we’re prosecuted under lewd conduct laws, and we’re illegal in Lebanon and Libya, too.
After long years of struggle, American LGBT people have finally won a modicum of freedom and justice. Only insane logic or misinformation could justify withholding our sympathies from a country that grants our LGBT brothers and sisters not only the benefits that we enjoy but even more. Why would we work against such a country?