LGBT Olim: Personal Stories

Israeli magazine Walla! celebrated Pride with highlighting personal stories of two gay men and one lesbian woman who moved to Israel in order to fulfill both their Jewish and LGBT identities. (Photos: Reuven Castro)

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Taryn Bak, age 31, from Johannesburg, South Africa

Taryn Bak immigrated to Israel from South Africa in 2007, and currently works in the International Law Program at Tel Aviv University. If you ask her why she moved to Israel, she will say that there’s no one single answer. In her answers, she mentions words like Zionism and pride. She also points out the struggle between the two.

“In Johannesburg I grew up in a pro-Israel community and I’ve always wanted to come to Israel. I fell in love with Israel,” she says. “This is a very big step to make, to leave your country and move to Israel. Zionism is very different idea when you are abroad than the one you have when you’re in Israel. When people say they move to Israel because of Zionism- it’s a complex statement.”

On the connection between Zionism and the LGBT community, Bak says: “I wanted to come and live in Israel, period. I knew it was a great place to be out of the closet. In South Africa I was in the closet, and actually came out only after I moved to Israel. There’s a difference between coming out of the closet in the Jewish community where you were born, and coming out in Israel. The atmosphere in Tel Aviv is so great and it helps. Once I came out of the closet the reactions from family and friends back there was good.”

In Israel Beck met her girlfriend and married her in a civil union, in a reform ceremony. According to Bak, it was important to her to marry someone Jewish. “I’m not religious, though I’m connected to my Judaism,” she explained, “with the thought of building a family, Judaism is important to me in its cultural aspect. I wanted to share my life with someone who has the same cultural identity. We met four years ago and got married last year. It’s a little Ironic, that in South African gay marriage has been legal for more than a decade, yet I did not manage to come out there, yet in Israel, a country that has no recognition of gay marriage, I found the atmosphere warm enough and got a the opportunity to get married to someone I love.”

“We had a wonderful wedding,” recalled Bak, “though it’s impossible to marry in Israel. But now we are Known in Public and married according to a legal contract. We had a lovely ceremony with guests from South Africa, from Israel and even from Australia.”

Bak has to deal daily with the conflict in which on the one hand there is a sense of community acceptance for the LGBT community in Israel and on the other hand there is no legislation that promotes its rights for equality. “I think the biggest irony of all is that South Africa doesn’t offer so many activities and LGBT social life as are offered in Israel. It is simply a paradox. Tel Aviv is considered one of the ten best cities in the world for the LGBT community and has such a good atmosphere; but on the contrary, the state is not at all supportive of this idea. It’s very weird.” Beck doesn’t have an exact number, but she says she’s not the only LGBT person who moved to Israel from South Africa. Many young people from the LGBT community in South Africa came to Israel and came out, mostly due to the warm feeling they experienced here.

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Roy Freeman, age 42, from London, UK.

In 2012, Roy Freeman moved from Australia to Israel, following love. Originally from the UK, after nine years living in Sydney, he met an Israeli and decided to move with him to Israel. “I met him in Australia. I used to organize a social group for Jewish gays and lesbians in Sydney, and we met there,” says Freeman. Freeman said he almost moved to Israel in 1997, but changed his mind. He was still in the closet back then and thought that in Israel he would find it easier to make progress and come out, but eventually got cold feet and gave up the idea.

“When I moved here in 2012 I had a realistic vision of how it would work. I knew it would be difficult to find a job and learn the language, but I wanted to be with my boyfriend, and that’s why I did it.” Freeman, a high-tech guy by profession, studied for five months in an ulpan and had a few job interviews. He then realized he would have trouble finding work, so he then began working as an independent, and since then he often travels abroad as part of his work.
“At first I was afraid, because of the wars in Israel and the area. At the end of 2012 rockets were fired on Tel Aviv and I had never experienced such a thing. But I came here because I was in love with my partner. I am a Zionist who believes in the existence of this country, but I also know how to criticize it when necessary.”

Like Beck, Freeman also saw the importance of having a Jewish partner. “Culturally, I thought it would be better to be with a Jewish partner, life would be easier if someone understood me because he was also a Jew,” says Freeman. “I once went out with someone who wasn’t Jewish and I began to think what would happen if we moved in together, if I had to explain to him that I don’t want pork in our refrigerator.”

Freeman didn’t come out to his parents when he lived in the United Kingdom. “Only after I left England did I decide to come out. The idea of coming out when you’re away from home was easier for me.” Despite the difficulties in finding a job, Freeman explains that culturally it’s easier for him to live in Israel. He said that homophobia levels are lower relatively to other places. “In England and Australia, people can shout homophobic slurs at you and this is not happening here. My husband and I walk around Tel Aviv holding hands, even in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberius, and no one has ever shouted at us or said anything. It’s easier and safer to be gay in Israel.”

Freeman and his partner were married in August 2015. Freeman is the one who proposed. “We had a wedding ceremony in Israel. Of course it was not legally recognized. Later we went to England, where we had a civil wedding, and now we are legally married. Then we went to the Interior Ministry and took our British marriage certificate and were able to update our Israeli identity cards, so now we’re also recognized in Israel.”

A year after he moved to Israel, Freeman decided to start helping immigrants like himself from the LGBT community. He created a Facebook page for LGBT immigrants in which he supports the process of moving to Israel. “LGBT Immigrants sometimes have questions that they do not feel comfortable asking the immigration caseworker”, he explains. “At the Ulpan I wasn’t always comfortable talking about things that matter to me as a gay man in front of the other 30 people. We have set up an LGBT ulpan in the LGBT center in Tel Aviv, called ‘Qulpan’ and we meet there once a week to learn Hebrew and discuss issues of the LGBT community in Hebrew.”

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Julien Bahloul, age 29, from Paris, France.

Julien Bahloul, married and father of two, presenter and journalist on French the news channel i24NEWS, left France in 2010 and immigrated to Israel. He said the reason was a combination of Zionism and anti-Semitism. “I suffered a lot of anti-Semitism in France. What I remember most from the first days in Tel Aviv, is that I felt as Jewish and gay as I wanted, without suffering. Suddenly I felt free in all aspects.”

Until he moved to Israel, Bahloul was in the closet and didn’t tell his parents about his identity. “I met someone in Israel and then went back to France to tell my parents. Israel gave me the feeling that I could do it, that I could be both Jewish and gay. In France I really suffered both as a Jew and as a gay man. They don’t see gays as you see them in Tel Aviv. There is no LGBT mainstream as there is in Tel Aviv, there’s no accepting atmosphere. In 2012 when France passed the law to allow same-sex marriage, many people went down to the streets to demonstrate against this law. The demonstrations were very violent and homophobic. I believe that if in Israel this bill passed, it would go a lot more quietly.”

“I understand the feeling that the LGBT community wants the same rights as everyone else, because we are all equal, but there’s a political system that is very complicated and difficult to pass these laws here,” continues Bahloul. “Most of the Israeli public is in favor of our rights, but the political system gives power to small parties that block these laws.”

Bahloul finished his master degree studies in Israel, joined the army voluntarily as a lone soldier and served in the IDF Spokesman’s office, and before his discharge he had met the guy who later became his husband. “I proposed to him and we got married both in Israel and abroad. In Israel we had a symbolic wedding. Gal Uchovsky officiated at the ceremony, then we went to France to get married at City Hall. It’s annoying to return to France to get married, but what can you do, at least now Israel recognizes our marriage certificate,” said Bahloul, “and this is something.”

“It’s true, France recognizes gay marriage, but it is almost impossible to have a family there,” said Bahloul. “There are almost no rights for a gay father. Here I received paternity leave. In Israel we received a parenting order, my husband and I, and each of us has been recognized as a father of two children.” Bahloul has two daughters who were born through surrogacy. “It is annoying that surrogacy is allowed in Israel but for gay people they say ‘this is not for you,’ you homosexuals have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to be parents, you have to travel abroad to get married. On the other hand, once the child is born the State of Israel does not differentiate rights – not even the National Insurance Institute, the Ministry of the Interior, health care and more. Even if we lack rights in Israel I’d rather be a gay man in Israel than be gay in France. Here I feel at home.”