This spring, two important chapters in the surprising story of Israeli gay and lesbian politics concluded. In the mid-May elections, the leftist Meretz Party failed to snag enough votes to seat the first openly gay Knesset candidate, a Tel Aviv University chemistry professor named Uzi Even. Twelve days later, transsexual pop diva Dana International relinquished her crown to this year’s winner of Eurovision, Europe’s cutthroat, high-kitsch music competition, in which an estimated 100 million viewers watch contestants from twenty-five countries perform pop songs and choose the winner through phone-in voting.
Even and Dana International are central characters in what looks like some modernized, badass Bible tale: he the gruff, pragmatic, deep-voiced, gray-haired gay Ashkenazi, a soldier-scientist-scholar who has swapped war stories with President Ezer Weizman and fought for political rights for gay men and lesbians; she the tiara-toting, Gaultier-wearing, outspoken young Yemenite woman who started as a working-class man named Yaron Cohen doing Whitney Houston drag in Beersheba and wound up a singing sensation and national heroine, turning gender stigma into a badge of honor. They don’t have much contact with each other, and they aren’t friends. But together they summarize the dramatic, rapid coming-of-age of Israeli sexual politics.
Watching those politics is like viewing the United States in a funhouse mirror. Over the past decade, Israel has quietly placed itself among the most advanced countries on gay civil rights. “We made a total revolution in the law,” says Menahem Sheizaf, head of the Agudah, Israel’s main gay and lesbian organization, who also runs one of the largest lobbying firms in Israel.
That’s not an exaggeration. The Knesset decriminalized homosexuality in 1988 and prohibited sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace in 1992; in 1993 Knesset member Yael Dayan initiated a subcommittee on lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, and the Israel Defense Force established an antidiscrimination policy; in 1994 a High Court of Justice decision required full spousal benefits to the same-sex partner of an El Al Airlines employee; in 1997 the Tel Aviv Military Court recognized Adir Steiner as the legal widower of a male officer, and the High Court ruled that a program on homosexual youth canceled by the Education Ministry be broadcast on educational television; and in 1998 the Civil Service Commission granted pension rights to same-sex partners.
In the United States we’ve had decades of Stonewall, gay lib, rainbow flags, Ellen and Will and Grace, marches on Washington, gay ghettos, lesbian music festivals, corporate sponsorship–and there is still no federal antidiscrimination protection for people who are not heterosexual. Homosexual activities are still criminalized in many states, and same-sex partners are nowhere near on a legal par with opposite-sex ones.
In Israel, however, despite a decade of legal wins, the first national-scale Israeli Gay Pride Parade wasn’t until last year. “I cannot say that the gay community here started as a courageous fighting group,” as Dayan, the principal straight fighter for gay rights, puts it. “Here it went from top to bottom,” says Even, who made a media splash with a dramatic coming-out speech in the Knesset in 1993 and who with his partner, Amit Kama, has been one of a handful of poster children for gay and lesbian rights. Gay people in Israel have made huge legal strides while remaining, until the last couple of years, a tiny dot on the cultural map.