Older Israeli Gays and Lesbians Struggle to Be Found

Older people in the LGBT community often suffer ageism and homophobia at the same time. They’re banding together in groups, but for the men it seems a little bit tougher.

Dafna Aviv and Dalia Itamar, a lesbian couple, May 2016.
Yanai Yechiel

Half the members of Keshet Hazahav (Golden Rainbow), a group for gay men 60 or older, were once married and have children. The assumption is that compared to bachelors in this group, the men with children are less lonely. But for Oded Tzuri, this isn’t necessarily true, certainly not for him.

Tzuri is a teacher and former kibbutz member. When he was younger he married a woman and they had four children. At the end of the ‘90s he came out. Ostensibly his straight years should have provided him with comfortable support in his old age, but his divorce created deep rifts, and his family shunned him.

“Last year I was immobilized for six months after having spinal surgery and a long rehabilitation process, and the whole time my family was barely there. Since then I’m pretty limited and have a hard time doing basic things,” he says.

"When friends ask me if it was worth it to get married and have children, I don’t know what to say, because my bachelor friends don’t have to contend with wistfulness and the knowledge that former relations have been severed. On the other hand, since I came out of the closet I haven’t found another partner, so I’m completely alone.”

The group has been followed for a year by Idan Shirazi and Shiri Shuminer from the Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. As with previous research, they found that the family support system has been replaced by an alternative network of friendships.

It’s no wonder then that the members of Golden Rainbow seek to bring in more older gay men unaware of the group’s existence. But this isn’t easy; the group has been meeting for 10 years and has a hard time expanding beyond 25 guys.

Psychotherapist Dr. Ruth Litwin set up the group Beshela (Mature) nine years ago, intended for lesbian women over 45. The group now has 160 members, and Litwin estimates that for 75 percent of them coming out followed lives of marriage with children.

She too believes that an ostensibly straight past is no guarantee of a comfortable old age, especially for women, who are often less secure financially. But Litwin believes that in terms of romance and sexuality, women, at least those in Beshela, fare better than their male counterparts.

“You see women who are 55 to 80 years old lovingly accepting their changing bodies, their new sexuality,” Litwin says. “With men it’s different and more painful. There are women who take it harder, but if you’re willing to be open to it, finding a partner is possible. Overall, love is thriving in our group.”

The needs of aging members of the LGBT community are attracting attention after many years of neglect. Part of it can be seen in a 2011 article based on interviews with 13 male and female gay people over 60, “Aging with Pride in Israel: An Israeli Perspective on the Meaning of Homosexuality in Old Age.” There, Orna Meri-Esh and Israel Doron explain that the loneliness of older gay people stems from social constructs that create a dependence on children for the care of older people.

In another 2011 article on relationships among elderly gay people, the authors say the community suffers from three types of exclusion – ageism, exclusion based on sexual orientation, and exclusion based on the combination of age and sexual orientation. After all, they’re shunned by younger gay people.

The repulsion felt by younger people is the central motif in “Golden Boys,” Revital Gal’s elegiac documentary that followed Golden Rainbow meetings for two years. The film was screened at the recent Docaviv film festival and is being shown again at the LGBT film festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Forced back into the closet

Occasionally the idea of a designated institution for elderly gay people surfaces. So far no private organization has risen to the challenge, due to worries about profitability. It doesn’t appear that the state will pitch in either.

People working with these issues say there’s a need because aging members of the community face difficulties in a heterosexual world. They often don’t feel free to express their sexual orientation with professionals.

Many feel the need to conceal their orientation when they enter long-term care facilities. Others worry about being discriminated against or humiliated by staff or other residents due to their sexuality.

Tel Aviv city council members Mickey Gitzin and Etai Pinkas have thus launched a program that links volunteers with elderly gay people. The volunteers, who are often straight, meet once a week with members of the community.

In another initiative, volunteers help with tasks like filling out forms, getting a ride to a doctor and going grocery shopping. Also on tap is an on-call team for emergencies. Volunteers are being recruited and Pinkas believes that the program will show that many elderly gay people need assistance.

Prof. Doron, a University of Haifa gerontology specialist who co-wrote one of those 2011 articles, recently published a piece on the rights of the community in Israel. He reviews their achievements and challenges, particularly their legal difficulties.

In terms of inheritance rights, for example, Doron notes a 2004 ruling stipulating that although the law describes a couple as “a man and a woman,” there is no reason not to apply it to same-sex couples. But this approach hasn’t been embraced by all judges.

There is also legal murkiness when it comes to inheritance benefits for same-sex couples. In a petition filed against the National Insurance Institute in 2004, then-Attorney General Menachem Mezuz determined that the same criteria should apply to same-sex couples, and the NII changed its policy. But full equality is still a long way off.

Doron says the courts tend to apply principles set by the attorney general such as those on pension plans. Still, obtaining these benefits largely depends on a potential heir’s willingness to go to court, since pension funds and insurance companies aren’t yet too friendly to survivors of same-sex partners.

Yanai Yechiel

Four personal stories

“In the 1960s there was almost no option of living together with another man,” says Yaron Eliezer, a 68-year-old widower. He was born in a displaced persons’ camp at Bergen-Belsen and immigrated to Israel with his survivor parents in 1949. He was married to a woman for 40 years; she married him so she could avoid the draft, even though she was aware of his sexual preference.

“I have a feeling I’ve missed something,” he says. “In retrospect I should have liberated myself much earlier. When asked if I would have relived my life the same way the answer is an emphatic no, but the bonus I got is having children and grandchildren.”

Eliezer now lives in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, a widower with three children and eight grandchildren.

“Today, if you want to meet men you have the option of using a dating app, but that’s not for me. I gather from friends that the conversation there revolves around the size of your tool and whether you’re mobile or not. I’m not looking for casual sex,” he says.

“For gay men, when you’re over 40 you’re ancient, but I don’t feel that my age conforms to my chronological age. I like to meet people, have experiences and travel. My grandchildren and friends fill my time, and I also do some cooking and baking, selling what I make to cafés. I don’t feel lonely.”

Yanai Yechiel

Izzy Raymond is a 79-year-old bachelor who lives in Tel Aviv. He’s the youngest of eight brothers and was born in Mumbai, India, to parents of Iraqi origin. When he was 13 he and one brother were sent to Israel at the urging of the Jewish Agency. He later moved to England until his retirement.

“My first encounter with the Tel Aviv gay community was at the Evita bar after I returned in 2006. I went with a male friend and I remember people looking at us as if asking what we were doing there at our age,” he says.

“Once, when I was asked, I replied what was expected, that for younger men we’re invisible, but today I have no complaints. That’s the way of the world, including the heterosexual one. I too am attracted to men younger than me.”

He says that by now he’s no longer searching.

“Maybe occasionally in my dreams I do. Still, when I’m out for a walk I’ll look at a good-looking guy, try to catch his eye and see if there’s any interest or willingness there,” he says.

“Then I ask myself, what for? You look and they don’t return the look. I’m resigned to the fact that I won’t have a partner. That’s okay. I feel I’d survive even on a desert island.”

Dalia Itamar is 71, divorced and a mother of three and grandmother of five. She lives in Tel Aviv with her partner Dafna Aviv, who is 63 and divorced with three children and four grandchildren.

“I went on Shedate, a dating site for women, and my intuition led me to Dafna. She wrote that she was going to London for two weeks to visit her son and that I’d probably find someone else in the meantime, but I promised her I’d wait, so for the time being we conducted a virtual romance,” Itamar says.

“When she returned we met here in her apartment. I had a meeting the next day with my son so I told her I was staying over and brought an overnight bag with me. The rest is history. We first thought we’d be together only on weekends but soon realized we wanted to live together. After three months we went to get documents attesting to our being a couple legally.”

Itamar was born and raised in Haifa. She got married to her counselor at the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement when she was 19. A year later she gave birth to her eldest daughter.

After her third son was born she did an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in the history and philosophy of science. For 20 years she was a science teacher, retiring at 57.

“At around 35 I realized I wasn’t fulfilled in my relationship. I didn’t imagine that it was linked to my sexual orientation until such a possibility was mentioned on a TV program, and the penny dropped. I noticed that when I went to the pool I looked at women slightly differently.”

Dafna Aviv grew up in Rosario, Argentina. She was also part of a Hashomer Hatzair youth group, where she too met her husband. “We immigrated in 1973 and settled on Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak with our group,” she says.

“I had my first son at 20, and then I had two more. During my first years in Israel I was busy with motherhood. When my children were older I studied art history and French on my own and took up painting and ceramics.”

She started her graduate studies at Ben-Gurion University at age 45, studying English literature and philology.

“Toward the end of my studies I noticed that I was looking at women differently. I was looking at their legs and breasts, but there’s a difference between imagining things and finding out how things really stand,” she says.

“I heard about  a column in the local newspaper, where men looked for men and women for women. I put an ad there and after I met someone I realized that this was what I wanted.”

For a short while she tried returning to her regular life and her husband. “I was scared. I was anxious about making a radical change and about the financial implications of separating,” she says.

“But I quickly realized that if I stayed I’d be miserable, causing misery to everyone around me as well. I left the kibbutz with almost nothing. I put everything I had in the car, mostly clothes. I didn’t even take sheets.”

Telling the kids

When he moved to England, Raymond lived with one of his sisters and her family. “Every Sunday they’d get the tabloid News of the World. One of the stories there reported that guards at Buckingham Palace went to a certain pub in Piccadilly, where they offered their services to men. I decided to go there,” he says.

“I found this pub where everybody was male. A young guy came up to me, we started talking and went to his place. I was almost 30 then. Through him I met other friends, learning about pubs and discos.”

He later went to a gathering supporting equal rights for gays. When he left he noticed someone following him.

“His name was Michael. He worked at the Camden council and we were together for a few months. Other than him I’ve never really had a longer-term partner. In fact, you could say I’ve never loved anyone my whole life.”

Eliezer says that at 45 he had to find fulfilment, so he asked his wife for a pause in their relationship. “She threatened to kill herself,” he says. “I couldn’t take on being responsible for that.”

After 10 more years with her he plucked up the courage and told her he’d had sex with other men. “She was in shock; she had suspected my inclinations but didn’t think I’d carry them out,” he says.

They remained together for another seven years. “For the whole period we continued sharing our bed, with her constantly attacking me in an ugly way on the topic, saying things like ‘it’s too bad you didn’t get AIDS.’”

He told his kids two years after he told his wife.

“I got them all together. We sat at a café and I told them I’d been gay my whole life. All three of them said right away they loved me and that my sexual orientation wasn’t an issue for them. This has been their attitude to this day.”

One day, when things heated up, he told his wife that it was over.

“While I was packing she yelled at me from the living room: ‘before you go, let me tell you that I’m very ill.’ It was true. She had advanced-stage cancer. I nursed her for two years, during which she continued to abuse me. She died six years ago at the age of 62,” he says.

“I felt relief. At the memorial service a year later I told my children that this was the last time I was coming to her grave. I now say that at the 10th anniversary of her death I’ll go there and thank her for 10 years without her.”

After coming out and before his wife died, he met a Swiss man while on a business trip.

“I don’t think I loved him but I enjoyed having that kind of connection. He died a few years later from pancreatic cancer. Two years ago, on a cruise in which there were many gay men, I met a Welsh guy named Phillip,” he says.

“There was excellent chemistry and I thought we had a real connection. I remember him asking me about Gaza and how far it was from Tel Aviv. He was supposed to come on a visit but during the 2014 Gaza war he broke off all contact.”