Israel’s internationally recognized Gay Pride Parade is often seen as a symbol of the country’s progress toward LGBTQ equality. Even so, the daily realities of identifying as LGBTQ in Israel can be challenging. For example, while many LGBTQ youth in Tel Aviv have access to identity-affirming spaces, counterparts from remote areas or some religious communities face homophobia and lack a network of nearby support figures and role models. With these realities in mind, Israel Gay Youth (IGY) leverages both formal and informal educational frameworks to support LGBTQ young people in shaping both their communities and the broader society.
When IGY first launched in 2002, just a few young adults gathered secretly in Kfar Saba, a small city outside Tel Aviv. Today, IGY engages 4,000 LGBTQ youth across Israel by fostering meaningful and empowering social spaces, advancing LGBTQ rights and providing information and resources to teach equality, liberation and democracy.
Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies supports IGY’s work through its Israel grantmaking portfolio as part of a broader commitment to LGBTQ inclusion and belonging in Israel. To learn more about IGY’s unique approach to working with LGBTQ Israeli youth I spoke with Liana Meirom-Asif, IGY’s Vice President of Resource Development and External Relations.
Tell me about some of IGY’s initiatives.
We have several that are very meaningful. One key initiative is our regular youth programming—our facilitators lead 115 social groups across the country and 17 drop-in centers. These are spaces where we empower participants between the ages of 12 and 23+ to bring about a more accepting society and learn about sexual and gender identity.
We have many other initiatives as well. These include a year-long service program for Israelis before they begin their mandatory army service, a range of online discussion and information forums, and special programming for LGBTQ young people who are Arab, Ethiopian, Ultra-Orthodox, transgender or deaf.
Are there any new projects in the works?
Yes! I am excited to share that we have two exciting programs launching in September.
First, we are looking forward to running a pre-military academy for LGBTQ youth. Pre-military academies are common in Israel, but most are fairly conservative. In partnership with the municipality of Rishon LeZion, roughly eight kilometers south of Tel Aviv, we decided to open a progressive pre-military academy named after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that embraces LGBTQ young people. Participants of the academy will spend one year volunteering in Rishon LeZion and studying topics such as economics, politics, gender and feminism.
We will also be opening the Marsha College, which, in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Welfare, will provide professional certifications for transgender Israelis in everything from accounting to baking to beauty services. Because of their experiences of transphobia in communities across Israel, many trans teenagers—particularly trans Arab teenagers—drop out of high-school and have trouble finding a lucrative job. Our hope is to support these young trans people—most of whom are between the ages of 18-21—in gaining the skills needed to make a living and in creating community where they feel they are safe and that they can belong.
Why is the college called Marsha?
It's a debate amongst our team! One belief is that the Marsha College is named for Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman who (was a key activist) during the Stonewall riots. The other belief is that we named the college for Marcia Freedman, the first woman and lesbian member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and a pioneer of Israel’s feminist movement. Either way, the college is named for a groundbreaking woman in the history of LGBTQ equality.
What are the most pressing challenges facing LGBTQ young adults in Israel right now?
The challenges really depend on where you live. Although Israel is a tiny country, societal gaps can be enormous. For example, for some Orthodox Jews, it can be difficult to exist openly as an LGBTQ person.
We regularly publish studies (in Hebrew) on the experiences of LGBTQ young adults in the Israeli education system and Israeli Defense Forces to assess these environments. We have found that young people continue to face discrimination and even violence on account of their sexuality and gender identity.
During the pandemic, many of our volunteers were unable to participate with IGY because of our transition to virtual programming. To participate, these young people would need to take part from their parents’ house, but many are not out as LGBTQ with their parents. With the country opening back up, we hope young people inhibited by virtual programming will be able to join our in-person groups and activities and yet again have a safe place for them to be fully themselves.
What gives you hope about the rights and the well-being of LGBTQ young people in Israel?
One thing giving me hope is IGY’s new LGBTQ Jewish and Arab LGBTQ group in Tel Aviv. The group consists of roughly 20 LGBTQ youth and is led by both Arab and Jewish facilitators. Our hope is to launch more of these groups across Israel’s “mixed” Israeli cities, where Jews and Arabs live together.
During the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas—which led to violent riots between Jews and Arabs across Israel—our team reflected on the importance of our work launching these groups. It is meaningful to see how LGBTQ identity can be a bridge across differences, bringing people together of different religions and ethnicities, with the potential to spark friendships, partnerships and equality long-term.
Sara Ivry is a freelance writer, editor and podcaster.