Life's just full of surprises
Here's a funny thing. It's always presented as a self-evident truth (usually a sentence or two after "Israel is the only democracy in the region") that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has full gay rights, unlike all these wicked Islamic countries where homosexuals are executed. This mural in New York is a good example.
We'll come back to gay rights in a minute, but these days what was once the "gay" community is now very much the "LGBT" community, something the lady in this article is very clear about:
Through her extreme obstinacy, taking pains at every opportunity to say the full name of the Agudah, she made it so that when the word `community' is said, the intention is to transgenders as well, and anyone who says otherwise is being political incorrect. Now, if anyone dares to say only `the Agudah of Gays and Lesbians,' Nora's face will immediately appear in his mind's eye, adding the words `Bisexuals and Transgenders.' But no one would dare to give an interview now without saying the full name of the association, and we even have an inside joke, and when anyone forgets to say it, heaven forbid, people quip: `We are reporting you to Nora.'
As that article also makes clear, transgenders in Israeli not only suffer discrimination at work and elsewhere but have trouble getting their identity documents updated. And as this one points out, they are discriminated against by Israel's medical system as well.
So you're thinking OK, maybe things aren't all that rosy for transgenders in Israel, but the T in LGBT was the last to join the party in Britain and the USA too: and anyway, all these guys would be dead in Islamic countries, right?
Well, here's the thing. As I discovered at the Edinburgh Book festival (in a talk I haven't got round to reviewing yet) transgender rights are surprisingly advanced in Iran: indeed the country ranks number two in the world (behind Thailand) as the destination for people to go for their sex-change operations. Read about it here. Right now, Iran is a better place to be transsexual than Britain, never mind Israel. Full legal recognition of the change with all documentation automatically updated (including backdating to birth certificate); half the cost (for Iranians) paid for by the government; and support from most of the Islamic clergy. (Transgenders who don't want to go the whole hog and have gender reassignment surgery, however, find themselves being treated as either transvestites or gays: which is to say, not well.) They face a fair amount of intolerance from society as a whole, but that, I would say, is still true in places like Britain and the USA.
Now we've brought up gays again, let's return to gay rights. That NY mural was, I'm sure, correct in all its facts. In Israel same-sex couples can adopt children: but they can't get married. Gay people serve openly in the military and government: indeed they do, but there are plenty in the government who are viciously homophobic and don't think they should be allowed to serve in the military. (The IDF is indeed a shining example of tolerance, as this article shows rather neatly - and it's amusing to note that the law allowing openly gay soldiers to serve was passed in 1993, the same year the USA introduced "Don't ask, don't tell".) Homosexuality is indeed illegal in Syria, though how many people are prosecuted for actually being gay (as against being someone the secret police want to put away) seems uncertain. And Iran's laws allow for death by hanging for homosexuality, though the Iranian government claims that it does not execute people solely for being gay, but only if they are also guilty of rape, murder or drug trafficking. (I was reading some statistics from Amnesty International recently on Iran's use of the death penalty, and something like 60% of all executions there are for drug trafficking.)
But let's not be taken in by the idea that there is something inevitable about Israel's tolerance of homosexuality, something that sets it apart form other countries in the region. Gay rights in Israel have resulted from as much as a struggle as in most other countries, and were obtained much later than you might think,. In Britain, England and Wales legalised homosexual relations in 1967, while Scotland did not do so until 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982. Israel, on the other hand, did not decriminalise homosexual acts until 1988 (and even after that, gays could be arrested for public displays of affection). (Though Israel's ambassador to the USA didn't bother to check any of that before shooting his mouth off in public about gay rights in Israel. What a dork.) Meanwhile, Jordan legalised homosexuality way back in 1951. As for Palestine, the West Bank was part of Jordan and the Jordanian legal provisions were carried on after the Israeli occupation (meaning that for 21 years gays had fewer rights in Israel than in part of the territory it occupied). Homosexuality is illegal in Gaza, not because of wicked bigotry from Hamas but because nobody has bothered to repeal the ban the British put in place in the whole of Palestine in 1936. Of course, legality does not guarantee that gays will not suffer discrimination on society, and they do.
Just to round off this little review of the myth of Israeli exceptionalism, let us note that homosexuality is also legal in Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey.
Let's be clear: Israel is a pretty good place to be gay, or indeed LGBT. It IS better in that regard than most other countries in the region, though not because they criminalise homosexuality (though some do) but because of increasing acceptance in society, driven in part by anti-discrimination laws (as her in Britain). But to paint all other Middle Eastern countries as having medieval attitudes to gays is simply to lie. Old-fashioned attitudes, yes, but only throwbacks to the 1960s or so in British terms (only to the 1980s in Israeli ones). Iran is rightly characterised as being intolerant of gays: but it's one of the most accepting countries on the planet for transsexuals, and certainly better than Israel.
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Oscar Wilde wrote that in The Importance of Being Earnest. Given his sexual proclivities, he would doubtless agree to its application here.