Transgender Teens Get Warm Embrace at Knesset Session

‘I don’t remember a scene ever like this in America,' U.S. activist Marsha Botser says.

Judy Maltz

It’s not every day that Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum sit around a table visibly moved to the point of tears. But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday morning when a group of transgender Israelis shared with them their personal, and often painful, stories.

Mainly high school students, these young Israeli activists were invited to attend the inaugural session of the newly elected Knesset’s gay forum, a coalition of parliamentarians who support LGBT rights. Aside from the religious parties, all the political parties serving in the current Knesset were represented at the jam-packed session, also attended by leaders of gay rights advocacy groups.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog stopped by for a few minutes so that he could personally address the group and express his support, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent an emissary to read a message in his name.  That emissary happened to be Amir Ohana, an openly gay Likud activist, who barely missed getting into the Knesset in the last election.

The new chairman of the parliamentary gay forum, which plans to focus its agenda this year on transgender rights, is first-time parliamentarian Yoav Kish of the Likud.

Kish announced at the session that he had just submitted a bill that would equate violence against transgenders with hate crimes.

Earning the loudest round of applause was Marsha Botser, a prominent transgender activist from the United States, who was invited to address the forum.  Botser is here on her first visit to Israel as part of a mission organized by A Wider Bridge, a North American pro-Israel LGBT organization.

“I have testified quite a few times before in the U.S. legislature, but I don’t remember a scene ever like this,” Botser told Haaretz after the session. “For me, being able to speak at the Knesset was a life-giving, stunning and daunting experience, not to mention having folks from my community speak out so powerfully.”

Botser, the founder and co-chair of the Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle, has served twice as co-chair of The National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce in the United States as well as on the board of directors of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. She said she had received many emails from gay activists in the United States urging her to cancel her visit to Israel.

“I told them I was out to find out the truth about what’s happening, and this was really a discovery trip,” she said. “I would say the word ‘complexity’ is what best describes it.”

A Wider Bridge, which promotes exchanges between North American and Israeli LGBT activists, is holding a three-day conference in Israel this week, in cooperation with The Aguda, the Israel LGBT organization, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The conference is meant to coincide with Gay Pride events, which open this week.

Following the Knesset session, Arthur Slepian, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, remarked: “I think we have just seen an exceptional conversation in the Knesset. It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening in the U.S. Congress – an event where you get to hear these amazing voices of transgender teens who don’t want to be victims.”

The tears would be flowing again later in the day, when the 100 or so conference participants arrived at Yad Vashem, where they were treated to a special gay-themed tour. During their two-and-half-hour visit to the national Holocaust memorial, the LGBT activists heard from Alice, their knowledgeable guide, about Freddy Hirsch, an openly gay German Jewish educator who perished in Auschwitz, and Anna Trauman, a Jewish woman who committed suicide to avoid deportation, leaving behind a poignant letter to another woman believed to be her lover. They learned about the forced impregnation procedures that faced lesbian women under Nazi rule, and they were directed to a particular photo in the Hall of Names, believed by Alice to be that of a transgender woman.

Visibly moved, they ended the visit with a special mourner’s prayer for their departed “brothers and sisters.”

LISTEN: The theme of Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade this year is transgender rights. So, what does it feel like to question your own gender identity? To find yourself in-between the masculine and the feminine?

Surat-Shaan Knan shares his journey of self-discovery with TLV1 Radio and explains where his trans-masculine and liberal Jewish identity intersect.