From a small Israeli town only a short train-ride from Tel Aviv, a cartoon lesbian spends her days reassuring people around the world about their sexuality and fighting back against those who call her the Antichrist — and worse.
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For those haven’t been introduced, Lizzy the Lezzy, an animated stand-up comic with a high-pitched voice, has starred in around 100 YouTube videos since 2006, poking fun and singing about the trials and tribulations of gay life with friends including Gary the Gay.
After her initial success and media attention, including opening the 2008 Tel Aviv LGBT film festival with “Lizzy the Lezzy Does Gay Israel,” she fell off the radar, says her creator, web designer and filmmaker Ruth Selwyn. But in the six months since she has dedicated herself to Lizzy pretty much full-time, the cartoon lesbian has undergone a transformation.
First of all, Lizzy’s online presence has “gone mental,” the 45-year-old British immigrant told Haaretz at a café in Binyamina, to which she recently moved with her girlfriend of two years. With more than half a million Facebook fans – mostly women, mostly in the United States, — Lizzy reaches between 30 million and 60 million people a week. “In private, I joke that I’m the biggest lesbian in the Middle East,” Selwyn says.
She says her exposure to the anti-gay wrath that Lizzy attracts on Facebook – mostly from people who identify themselves as Christians – has made her “more extreme” in her atheism, and more politicized.
“Now this is a bit of a problem,” admits Selwyn, who grew up in a traditional Jewish family. “There are a lot of gay Christians on my page. How can I post anti-religious stuff without offending half my audience? Over the last six months, I’ve got braver, I feel like I need to be true to myself. If I believe strongly that the bible is bullshit, then I need to put that out there.”
Lizzy’s fans include “haters,” “fantastically supportive” straight allies and people who are struggling to come out as gay. One fan recently wrote her, “Sometimes I wonder if it would just be better to end it ... But when I read your posts, they inspire me to keep loving [my girlfriend] and keep fighting to the end so that I’d get to be with her someday.”
With the daily grind of satisfying her Facebook audience, Selwyn has less time for writing blog posts or making the videos that first introduced Lizzy to the world. Recently she brought out the catchy “Sex with your ex,” and is currently working on a song comprised of homophobic messages she has received.
‘A nice Jewish girl’
Selwyn moved to Israel partly because she wanted to meet a nice, Jewish girl, and she made up Lizzy originally to “get a girlfriend.” Although Lizzy isn’t exactly Jewish or Israeli, she is based on Selwyn’s experiences, and it was in Israel that Selwyn first began living openly as a lesbian.
She still thinks Israel is the best place in the world to be gay, says Selwyn, who describes herself, and Lizzy, as a bit of a "celesbian" in the local community. Over the years, she says she “has seen the gay community grow and flourish.”
“It was a great feeling yesterday to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed and see a picture of the Tel Aviv Municipality building in rainbow colors ahead of Tel Aviv Pride. Look we have it good here, we really do.”
When it comes to issues like marriage equality, she doesn’t think Israel is far from achieving it, even though, she acknowledges that there is no civil marriage for anyone in Israel, gay or straight. “The government loves to show how liberal they are toward the gays. And if they are going to ride off the back of how nice they are to us, they should really follow through, which means civil marriage for gays.”
Selwyn mostly refrains from addressing gay rights issues specific to Israel, or drawing attention to the fact that she is in Israel, although she doesn’t hide it. This is because she believes that Israel-centered content is less interesting to her mostly-American audience. It is also because she wants to keep her message universal. “It’s not about Israel,” she says.
But, she wonders aloud, does she also refrain from calling out homophobia in Israel, such as Ramat Gan’s Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel recently declaring that renting to lesbian couples who plan to “live in sin” is forbidden, because part of her doesn’t want to show the Jews “as being as ignorant and stupid?”
“Maybe I am a little biased,” she says, “I need to address that, I need to think about that.”
It's not that she has never criticized homophobia from Jews. In 2011, she made "Gays cause earthquakes!" after New York Rabbi Yehuda Levin claimed gay marriage had caused a quake in Washington D.C.
She does recall a fan with a pro-Israel boycott profile picture commenting on Lizzy's page, and that she replied "If you want to boycott Israel, you better get off this page, since I live there." The reply got a few likes, she says.
Has she received criticism for not speaking up for Palestinian rights, or accusations of “pink-washing”?
“It’s happened a bit, but I haven’t done much about promoting the fact that I’m in Israel, there was a tiny reaction, but my audience is very American and a lot of them are quite supportive of Israel anyway.”
“You have to go with the audience,” says Selwyn, and what the audience is responding to right now is gay rights messages. Still, politics doesn’t seem to come naturally to her, and she appears slightly less comfortable when her strong opinions on religion and prejudice are coming out of her own mouth, and not out of Lizzy’s. Despite this discomfort, however, Selwyn is very clear about why she sustains her “Lizzy habit.”
“I’m doing it because I get so many messages from people telling me how much it helped them come to terms with their sexuality, and how it helped them to come out.” Even before the struggle for rights, she says, there is a much more basic struggle — for acceptance.