An LGBTQ Invitation to Israel

04/24/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

It might seem like an audacious act, perhaps a bit of chutzpah, to invite LGBTQ leaders from around the world to a conference in Israel. After all, there are some very strong anti-Israel feelings in parts of the LGBTQ community. So why not play it safe and hold a conference somewhere less controversial, say Madrid, Stockholm, or Washington D.C.? Here is why -- sometimes bold, risky and surprising acts are exactly what is required. 40 Years of Pride, Israel's first ever global LGBTQ leadership summit, will take place in Tel Aviv June 9 to 11, 2015. Come join us.

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I am inspired by the stories of the individuals whose courage and leadership have moved this community forward. It was neither pre-ordained nor obvious that Israel would become something of a success story in the struggle for LGBT equality and that Tel Aviv would become one of the most LGBT friendly cities in the world. I am writing this while visiting Jerusalem, where today is Israel's Independence Day, marking the 67th anniversary of the signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence. Not surprisingly, even in this most remarkable document that promotes equality for all Israeli citizens irrespective of race or religion, the words "sexual orientation" do not appear. Israel began with a set of laws held over from the British mandate that criminalized homosexual acts. These anti-sodomy laws were not repealed until 1988, 40 years after country was founded.

The progress in Israel since that time and that challenges that still remain will serve as a unique and powerful backdrop to the discussions at the conference. Here are a few salient examples:

-- How do we effectively struggle for LGBT equality in a country such as Israel, where there is not a clear separation of church and state? In Israel, the issue of marriage equality is embedded in a broader struggle for the right to "civil marriage" or "civil unions."

-- How do we address the special concerns of minority communities within any country's LGBT community? In Israel, LGBT people who are Ethiopian, Palestinian, religious etc. face unique challenges, and the organizations set up to serve the needs of the community have challenges in reaching these groups.

-- How do we continue to fight for the right to enable LGBT people to create families, including issues such as adoption rights, access to medical care and surrogacy? In Israel there is a high profile debate about the right of gay men to utilize surrogacy, as well as a parallel discussion about the rights of the women who serve as surrogate mothers, both in Israel and in other countries.

-- What are the challenges faced by the transgender community in their struggle for greater economic empowerment? (Each year the Israeli LGBT community gathers to select a theme for the Tel Aviv Pride Celebration. The theme the community chose this year is "Trans Visibility.")

On all of these issues and many others, conference participants will benefit from the Israeli experience, and the Israeli community will benefit from the experience of the speakers and leaders coming to the conference from around the world.

Beyond the strength of the program, we hope that having this conference in Israel will begin to move our global LGBTQ community away from the self-defeating strategy advocated by those who insist that we need to shut down the voices of those with whom we may disagree. This conference will be an example that the best way to move our community forward is through free speech, dialogue, and open discussion - not by advocating for boycotts or asking participants to stay home.

A few people have already suggested that this conference is a "pinkwashing event," a phrase way past its "sell-by date." The Israeli LGBT community is not a creature of the Israeli government. The progress that Israel has made in LGBT rights was achieved through years of struggle on many fronts, not granted by the government as part of a branding or tourism campaign. Israel is a society that is open enough to have created an environment that has enabled an LGBT community to grow and develop, and stand up for itself. This community deserves to be a part of our global conversation about LGBT equality, and their work and their history merit respect.

The oldest Israeli LGBT organization, The Aguda, was founded in 1975, and the Israeli LGBT community is rightfully proud of many positive outcomes over the past 40 years. Israeli LGBT people have been able to serve openly in the Israeli Army since 1993. The Israeli Knesset (parliament) banned discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation in 1992. Same sex couples, whether legally married or not, are afforded almost all the same rights as mixed gender couples. Israeli film and television are filled with positive, multi-dimensional and non-stereotypical portrayals of LGBT people. And Tel Aviv is a very special city in terms of the visibility and ease with which LGBT people participate openly in civic and daily life.

We look forward to leaders from around the world coming to Israel in June, taking this opportunity to participate in the conference, to see the community and the country for themselves, and to join in the celebration of Tel Aviv Pride. We will be stronger together.