In the wee hours of Wednesday morning I boarded a flight to Iceland, from which I would connect to Tel Aviv a day later. It was just enough time to drink glacier tap water, eat fish stew, and experience my legal status as a queer woman in Israel diminish between when I departed home and arrived.
The legislation passed in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, on Wednesday could have been revolutionary. While falling far short, it still does expand the state’s socialized medical coverage for surrogate pregnancies from infertile heterosexual couples to single mothers as well.
By American standards — surrogacy for us requires no less disposable income than a luxury midsize sedan, and insurance coverage is often explicitly excluded — Israel is making a markedly stronger endorsement of the human dignity that comes from being able to raise a family if you desire than we will see any time soon. On Thursday, the same Parliament passed a separate bill on basic laws of Israeli statehood, which is its own conversation.
Where things got boneheaded and bigoted Wednesday, leading to multiple demonstrations as well as Sunday’s national strike, was a last-minute flip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his prior promise to add language opening this surrogacy coverage to single fathers and same-sex couples as well. Many suspect he caved to pressure from the ultraconservative fringe of his coalition government.
For the uninitiated, Friday and Saturday make up the Israeli weekend. Sunday is a workday — the original Monday, before Christianity switched things up. This is not a leisurely stroll in the park, but an economic message with teeth from queers and our allies alike, supported by numerous large businesses. Stances on social issues do not sync with American parlance, no matter what the haters try to tell you. An Israeli “right-wing” government is defined by its foreign policy and security tactics, and in fact unites some who are also socially conservative with others who might be considered socially liberal or progressive elsewhere.
I am an American transgender woman dating an Israeli transgender guy. As I never had a uterus and the testosterone he takes deactivates his, surrogacy (using my previously chilled sperm and eggs he can preserve) and adoption — which itself sees queer access disparity in Israel — are very real options for us to build our future with should our relationship progress. State support for us becoming parents equal to any other couple for whom it is physically less complicated would not only affirm the love and warmth we could offer our children but also allow us to begin that journey sooner. Instead of saving up for surrogacy itself, we could invest in a college fund.
The American parallel to this experience was watching North Carolina pass its transphobic “bathroom bill,” House Bill 2, in March of 2016, which attempted to regulate access to public restroom and changing facilities by birth certificate gender marking. Widely panned as a solution searching for a problem and an invasive, unenforceable provision from the start, it represented a vocal minority of social ultraconservatives hamstringing hate into state policy.
Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy is the same stain on conservatism that Americans wear as our Tea Party. Moderate conservatives in both nations made the same deal with the devil; the nuts tip the scales a few seats right yet are contained. If dismissed entirely, they would be incentivized to run as their own party, and the big tent of any conservative government would collapse entirely.
In the wake of Edie Windsor’s 2013 takedown of the Defense of Marriage Act, this homophobic front sensed the shifting tide on same-sex marriage and doubled down against trans people like me. A whack-a-mole of transphobic bills and ballot initiatives started in South Dakota and continues today through North Carolina to this summer’s Ohio “transgender reporting bill,” which would require schools to expose students who confide their deepest, darkest secrets in teachers they trust. Transphobia in Israel is ramping up too. There was an assault, possibly an attempted murder, of a trans woman in Tel Aviv last week.
For North Carolina, one response was to boycott and divest from the state. Major sporting events pulled out rather than tacitly endorse discrimination. Companies canceled planned expansion and job creation. Other states like California even banned nonessential travel there for state employees. Billions were lost in tangential economic activity from ticket sales, hotel stays, bar tabs, etc. The law was repealed (partially) in 2017, about a year after it was passed.
Ironically, the anti-Semitic left, especially radical queers, were already proposing the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of Israel for years now on account of actually being socially progressive for LGBTQ rights — because it was just a farce, you see —right? How was this ever the solution in the first place if the same response is proposed now over a setback? It is not the answer. It never was.
I moved to North Carolina from New York shortly after HB 2 passed and worked the Hillary Clinton campaign as an LGBTQ organizer. We may not have won the Electoral College votes, but we ousted the slimy governor and took the state in a new direction. Above all, we queers keep our focus on the big picture. We didn’t abandon a sinking ship; we came in and built more pontoons. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We must respect and support the same homegrown activism in Israel that will no doubt prevail in securing surrogacy, adoption rights, and universal marriage equality too, perhaps even before some of these reach our shores.
Do not think about using this week as fodder for your pre-existing anti-Israel agenda. Israelis — Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze alike — have got this. We must take their lead and amplify their voices. Sunday saw the populace rise in support of LGBTQ rights as it may never have so tangibly before. Many screamed, “We are queer and will not cease to exist,” because Israel is still a democracy where you can express dissent in a public forum. The free press here will hold this leadership’s failure to account in perpetuity.
There is no other country in the Middle East where these ideals are as possible to contemplate, let alone stand up to demand. Homosexuality is still an arrestable if not capital offense nearby. It is hard to imagine calling a surrogacy bill for single women “not going far enough” in places where single women cannot even walk the streets, drive unescorted, or keep their intact clitorises into adulthood.
Last week was a step backward in Israel; I cannot downplay that fact. American queers have faced setbacks too, but the faith in both of our nations to ultimately transcend them is what can bring us together. To paraphrase a favorite 2016 campaign quote, “When they go low, we go chai.”
HANNAH SIMPSON is a medical student, engineer, marathoner, and unabashed nerd. Her writing on transgender advocacy has been featured in Refinery29, Marie Claire, the Jewish Times of Baltimore, and elsewhere. She has appeared as a television guest commentator on trans issues on MSNBC and on Fox 5 (WNYW) Good Day New York. Follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.