It’s a brave new world of male and female out there. The growing phenomenon of openly transgender people has challenged all sex-segregated institutions from schools and universities to summer camps to restrooms.
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In some ways, Israel has been on the cutting edge of transgender pride since pop star Dana International not only stole the local spotlight but became well-known across Europe when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998.
But in some parts of the country, it’s still a struggle for individuals who have changed their gender or are somewhere in the transition process to find their place. At the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism - it’s literally impossible. This fact hit the spotlight on Monday when a high-profile Israeli transgender fashion and costume designer named Kay Long brought a friend visiting overseas to the Western Wall.
Long identifies as female and looks female. She was modestly dressed, but at 6 feet 7 inches - that's two meters - she is also extremely tall. When Long tried to enter the women’s section of the Wall, she was approached by one of the women who monitors the holy site - the ladies who thrust a piece of cloth at you if you dare approach the Wall with bare shoulders - and was told her that she couldn’t enter.
She posted a photograph of herself in front of the Wall on Instagram and Facebook and wrote: “A dilemma. I got to the Wall with a friend visiting from Madrid from a young age they teach us that if we put a note in the Wall, the prayer that we leave there will come true. On the women’s side they wouldn’t let me into the Wall because I wasn’t a woman. On the men’s side, I couldn’t go in because I didn’t wear a kippa and because I’m not a man . besides which, I don’t feel comfortable on that side of the wall anyway. All that was left for me to do was to take a photograph and say a prayer from afar. But God is everywhere and loves us all.”
The post went viral on social media and the supportive comments and likes came flooding in, with supporters outraged at her inability to access the holy site and protests against those who monitor it and comforted Long with comments like “Don’t worry, God hears everyone’s prayers and doesn’t care about their gender.”
One wrote in English, “As a trans person who is going to be moving to Israel, and feels such a connection to the Western Wall, this story had me crying. I am so sorry for what you experienced.”
But not all of the reactions were unequivocally supportive - some described Long’s presence at the main plaza of the Wall maintained by the Orthodox-run government authority as a “provocation” and urged her to respect the customs of the site. “If an ultra-Orthodox guy walked into a gay nightclub, it would cause the same provocation,” one commenter wrote.
Long said she was taken by surprise when her story was picked up by the media. “I didn’t expect it,” she told me when I got her on the phone to ask her about the experience, but added that she welcomed the publicity.
“I know there are a lot of young people who feel and live like I do. I know who I am - I have a lot of self-confidence - but so many young people don’t have the confidence I have, they have to live with disappointment and embarrassment. Maybe seeing me speak out helps them also, it is important because some people think in Israel that equality exists for everyone, and it isn’t true.”
One Facebook comment suggested, interestingly, that the best thing for her to do would have been to visit Robinson’s Arch, located at the southern edge of the Wall and accessed separately. This is the area where Women of the Wall are regularly urged to hold their prayer services - also viewed as a “provocation” - so as not to offend the Orthodox worshippers in the main plaza.
But Long said she had little in common with Women of the Wall, who are fighting for the right to worship as a group and read from the Torah at the Wall.
“Look, I’m not religious. I don’t pray; I’m not someone who prays. I went there as a Jew who wanted to write a note and put it in the Western Wall and to show the site to my friend who was visiting from Spain. If people think I went as a 'provocation,' they are wrong. Trust me, if I wanted to be provocative I know how to make a fuss. I would have come dressed like a real drag queen.”
But the case of Long and Women of the Wall do have an underlying principle in common: the question of whether any phenomenon that doesn't fit in with the ultra-Orthodox authority’s view of what is appropriate must be banished from the Western Wall, or whether the site indeed belongs to all Jews.
This incident cuts even deeper than Women of the Wall. Kay Long wasn’t asking to flout Orthodox custom at the main Western Wall plaza in any way, shape or form. She was merely asking to be there. And refusing to allow her to do so is a clear violation of her rights as an Israeli citizen, a Jew and as a human being.