August 10, 2011
Opinion: If you take down Israel, what else goes with it?
I came out into the lesbian-and-gay world in the middle of the last century and witnessed first-hand the persecution and oppression of LGBT people. It was because of those early experiences that I’ve devoted the last 40 years of my life to writing books and articles about LGBT history and tracking our progress as a community. What we have been fighting for and still have not fully achieved in the United States, LGBT Israelis have been able to enjoy with very little struggle. The American LGBT movement has every reason to envy and admire Israel’s enlightened policies toward their LGBT people.
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 midcentury, 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. Although 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 Nevada 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 it puzzles me deeply when I hear of LGBT groups participating in wrong-headed actions such as the BDS movement 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 Web site 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. Why would we give our sympathies to those who deny our LGBT brothers and sisters the freedom and justice that we enjoy? And what insane logic and misinformation would make us withhold our sympathies from a country that grants our LGBT brothers and sisters not only the benefits that we enjoy but even more? Why in the world would we work against such a country?
A version of this column appeared on Advocate.com.