These Gay Progressive U.S. Lawmakers Agree on Most Things – but Not on Israel

Democratic Reps. Ritchie Torres and Mark Pocan represent two sides of the heated debate within America’s LGBTQ community over Israel. But they also reflect how far Congress has come since the days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Members of Congress Ritchie Torres (left) and Mark Pocan (right), two Democrats with very different views on Israel.
Members of Congress Ritchie Torres (left) and Mark Pocan (right), two Democrats with very different views on Israel.Credit: Andy Kropa/AP, U.S. House Office of Photography
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Perhaps no two lawmakers represent the Democratic Party’s growing divide on Israel better than Reps. Mark Pocan and Ritchie Torres.

The Wisconsin and New York House lawmakers, neither Jewish and both members of the LGBTQ community, share similar stories: spending their formative years in the closet, confronting both direct and implicit homophobia, and using such hate to inspire their political careers to help those disenfranchised and targeted by hate.

They each, however, manifested their experiences in opposite ways when it came to Israel. While one uses his identity to fight for Palestinian rights, the other highlights the Jewish state’s LGBTQ record as making him feel as if Israel is a second home.

For Pocan, his dedication to international human rights – including but not limited to the Palestinians – is significantly informed by his sexual orientation.

Rep. Mark Pocan speaking in support of then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020.Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

“That lens comes from being part of a population that still is fighting for equality,” he says. “Even though we have marriage equality here in the United States, we still are looking at laws in places like Florida and Texas still threatening those rights.”

Pocan, 57, grew up at a time where being a gay child was particularly difficult. “It was pretty tough: the effeminate boy at school would get bullied,” he recounts. “I got to college and there were some groups, but it was still difficult” visiting gay clubs but not being publicly out.

He was the target of homophobic abuse when he was 23, being attacked by several assailants with a baseball bat after starting a business. “That incident made me become far more active with LGBT organizations,” Pocan says. “I decided no one should ever have to go through what I went through.”

‘Something’s wrong here’

His involvement in local government helped spur Wisconsin to be one of the more progressive states with regard to equality: It became the first U.S. state with a Republican governor to have a gay and lesbian civil rights bill signed into law in 1980.

While most of his work with international human rights until he entered Congress in 2013 had related to Colombia, his first trip to Israel as a congressman was his first real exposure to the Middle East. Pocan says his views were similar to Torres’ before he started visiting in-person, at which point his positions starkly shifted.

“When you start seeing things on the ground as an outside observer – I’m not Jewish, I’m not Muslim – you’re looking at it and go, ‘Wow, something’s wrong here,’” he explains. “When you see things on the ground and you actually have your eyes open, you can’t unsee them.”

While Pocan has been dedicated to all Palestinian rights over the past decade, he has specifically led the charge on Capitol Hill to improve the living conditions in the Gaza Strip. He describes the Hamas-run coastal enclave as an “open-air prison” due to issues such as freedom of movement, access to drinking water and 1.1 million people on food assistance.

“Until this situation is resolved, this is a breeding ground for extremists,” Pocan warns. “At some point, that pot boils over. If it does, it’s very likely the United States gets involved – especially with a friend as good as Israel has been,” he says, adding: “I don’t think anyone should have to put their son or daughter at risk because of a situation we could take care of so easily.”

Pocan has met with Israeli officials, including the openly gay Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll, who have tried to showcase Israel’s LGBTQ rights record as a way of demonstrating the country’s dedication to human rights. He has not been swayed.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“I’m amazed they don’t understand the difference,” he says, noting the “inconsistency” in this thought process. “If they respect human rights for the gay and lesbian and transgender communities, why wouldn’t you respect human rights for Palestinians?

“I’m glad they have amazing Pride parades and the laws are generally very supportive – though I would argue there’s still not marriage equality, but I understand the situation somewhat,” Pocan says. “There’s a disconnect in not understanding that treating Palestinians differently does not jive with actually having a good human rights record.”

Pocan says this points to a broader issue where people tend to ignore others being treated differently because their community is treated well.

“I’m glad the environment for the gay and lesbian community in Israel is strong, in general. And I know it’s just the opposite in Palestine, and they need to have more enlightened views,” he says. “But I’m consistent in believing that it’s concerning when any group is singled out for reasons that don’t make sense.”

A ‘pro-Israel progressive’

Like Pocan, Torres, 34, began his political career in local government, becoming the first openly LGBTQ elected official from the Bronx in 2013. Before that, however, he faced a difficult youth, growing up in public housing in a single-parent household. He has publicly described his struggles with his sexual identity while finding his path, struggling with substance abuse and depression while contemplating suicide.

“My openness about depression is rooted in my lived experience as an LGBTQ person,” Torres told The Advocate in October 2020. “When you are openly LGBTQ, you have to go through the process of coming out. You have to go through a process of embracing who you are and sharing it with the world. And that process teaches you integrity. And that applies not only to your sexuality, but to every aspect of your life.”

In that interview, Torres credited coming out with helping him feeling more secure in his skin, noting “it conditions you to embrace your individuality, embrace your integrity, to be true to yourself. I think that’s the beauty, that’s the gift of the LGBTQ experience, that we have to make a choice to be who we are. And that is a burden, but it’s also a gift.”

Torres defeated Rubén Díaz Sr., an anti-LGBTQ candidate, in the 2020 Democratic primary to represent his South Bronx district in Congress, becoming one of the first openly gay Black men, and the first openly gay Afro Latino, to be elected. He has since become co-chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus.

Throughout his nascent political career, Torres has positioned himself as a “pro-Israel progressive,” sharply decrying fellow young progressive Democrats for being critical of Israel, complaining that criticism of Israel can veer into antisemitism.

Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres attending a fundraiser benefit in New York last April.Credit: Andy Kropa/AP

He first visited Israel in 2015 as a New York City Councilman, rejecting left-wing criticism of his trip on the grounds of LGBTQ rights.

“I had activists from Jewish Voice for Peace accusing me of pinkwashing, accusing me of aiding and abetting apartheid. I even remember coming across an activist with a shirt that read ‘Queers for Palestine.’ I remember telling the activist, ‘Does the opposite exist? Are there Palestinians for queers?’” Torres told Jewish Insider in 2019, adding, “I found it utterly baffling that you had LGBT activists doing the bidding of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization that executes LGBT people.”

Upon winning his primary, Torres made his first post-election appearance at an Israeli Embassy event celebrating Pride, telling the crowd he feels “at home in Israel, as though it were my own country, because it has values that are recognizably democratic and recognizably pro-LGBTQ.”

Since entering Congress in January 2021, Torres has doubled down on his support for Israel – publicly lauding its LGBTQ record while being among its biggest cheerleaders in the House. He has signed onto letters endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, attending congressional delegations organized by the powerful pro-Israel organization.

This has often put him at direct odds with fellow self-described progressive Democrats, whom he has openly and publicly rebuked for their criticism.

He has also campaigned on behalf of Rep. Shontel Brown, the pro-Israel Democrat who defeated progressive challenger Nina Turner in a hotly contested primary battle in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. Torres also helped celebrate the launch of the New York Solidarity Network, a first-of-its-kind local pro-Israel group backed by billionaire hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb and seeking to counter progressive candidates in state legislative and local races.

While Pocan and Torres may disagree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fact that two LGBTQ lawmakers are de facto figureheads of the debate is remarkable compared to where the United States was a decade ago.

When Pocan followed the path of his friend Sen. Tammy Baldwin – the first openly LGBT female member of Congress – into national politics, there were not many LGBT members of Congress. But when Torres won his primary, he noted: “You’re about to have the gayest Congress in the history of the United States.

“It’s one thing to have an openly LGBTQ elected official from Chelsea or the Village,” he added. “It’s something else to have it in the South Bronx, in a place where you might least expect it. That to me is a new kind of breakthrough in LGBTQ representation of politics.”

A man waving an Israeli flag in rainbow colors at the Pride parade in Tel Aviv last Friday.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Lavender scare

Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, says Pocan and Torres “have increasingly staked out clashing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on U.S.-Israel relations. As a leading member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Rep. Pocan has often been very critical of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians and of unconditional and uncritical U.S. support for Israel. By contrast, Rep. Torres has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and of U.S. assistance to Israel. The differences between the two men clearly reflect the growing divide over Israel among Democrats.”

Ethan Felson of the pro-Israel group A Wider Bridge, which works to foster ties between the LGBTQ communities in Israel and the United States, says “the LGBTQ community, like the rest of America, remains broadly supportive of Israel. We are proud that several of the most pro-Israel progressives in Congress are LGBTQ.”

Whatever their disagreements, the very fact that Pocan and Torres are at the forefront of a national security and foreign policy debate in Washington is a sign of change, considering that hundreds of workers were fired from U.S. government agencies after they were suspected of being gay as part of the “Lavender scare” led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Historian Michael Beschloss emphasizes that point, noting that “for centuries, LGBTQ Americans have borne the brunt of some of the most severe social discrimination in American society, especially those acting on issues of national security. Amid all of the many dangers that threaten American society in 2022, the national leadership of two proud, gay men on different sides of a crucial national security issue in American politics deserves a moment of honor and celebration.”

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