(JTA) — On her first visit to Israel for Tel Aviv’s gay pride week, “Orange is the New Black” star Lea DeLaria was wowed by the attractiveness of Israeli women.
“There are apparently no ugly women in Israel,” DeLaria, who plays a butch lesbian prison inmate on the hit Netflix comedy and is gay in real life, told Ynet Tuesday soon after arriving in the country as a guest of Israel’s Tourism Ministry.
“I’ve not seen one ugly woman yet, but I can’t figure it out because I’ve seen, I’ve definitely seen ugly men here.”
“Orange Is the New Black” is an award-winning TV series produced by Netflix and created by Jenji Kohan, who is Jewish. The show has had many Jewish moments. Netflix, an online streaming giant, does not publish the specifics of its viewership statistics, but DeLaria told Ynet the series had reached more than 80 million viewers worldwide.
The series follows an upper-class woman’s trials in federal prison. Lesbian relationships are central to the plot, including in the life of the protagonist.
DeLaria, who is a gay rights activist, said she “never in a million years” thought homosexuality would feature so prominently in a mainstream TV series. She also didn’t believe the United States would legalize same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court did last year in a ruling striking down state bans.
“It’s something I’ve been fighting for,” DeLaria said, adding that she had been assaulted and hospitalized for being gay.
She said she was amazed to “be in Israel, in the Old City, standing at the Western Wall and have a man in your army, with his gun, there to protect people, come up” and ask her to pose with him for a picture.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry invited DeLaria to tour the country for Tel Aviv Pride, which will culminate Friday with a parade through the city. Tens of thousands of locals and tourists are expected to participate in the parade, which features floats with dancers and ends at a beach party that usually continues until well into the following morning.
Tel Aviv, whose fist gay pride took place in 1993, is a leading tourist destinations for gays and lesbians, with several gay publications crowning it the world’s best.
Idina Menzel said she is totally on board with a campaign to give her “Frozen” character a female love interest.
“I think it’s great,” the Jewish actress and singer told Entertainment Today on Sunday. “Disney’s just gotta contend with that. I’ll let them figure that out.”
Fans of the musical hit have urged Disney to give Menzel’s character, Elsa, a female significant other in the movie’s sequel, and the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend recently trended on Twitter.
We need more LGBTQ protagonists in film. Let’s make that happen stat, Hollywood. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend— The Opinioness (@OpinionessWorld) May 25, 2016
#GiveElsaAGirlfriend isn’t just about representing LGBT, it’s about normalising it, otherwise we can’t ever move forward— mariam (@mariam_razek) May 24, 2016
In “Frozen,” Elsa flees home after she accidentally reveals her secret superpower, which transform objects into ice.
The movie does not contain any explicit references to Elsa’s sexuality, although some say her outcast status and the self-acceptance song “Let It Go,” hint at the fact that she is gay.
Disney announced in March that it is making a “Frozen” sequel, but no release date has been set.
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The GLAAD Awards nominees are here and the Jews have a strong presence in the television and music categories. Here are four things you need to know about the 27th edition of the awards, which recognizes LGBT representations in the media.
In the Outstanding Music Artist category, the multitalented Australian Troye Sivan is nominated. Sivan, 20, is a musician, actor and YouTube star. He is openly gay and came out on YouTube in 2013 exactly three years after he came out to his family. Sivan played the young James Howlett in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He released his debut studio album “Blue Neighborhood” in December 2015 receiving rave reviews from music critics. Sivan was raised Jewish. On his Tumblr he replied to a question about his religion and said, “I’m born of a Jewish (converted, but Jewish) mother, so i’m as jewish as it gets. As for how RELIGIOUS i am, my family isnt very religious, but we are quite traditional, doing all the big chags (jewish holidays) and Friday night Shabbos dinners.”
Another member of the Tribe member in the Outstanding Music Artist category is Adam Lambert of American Idol fame. Lambert was the runner-up in the eighth season of the TV competition, but that didn’t hurt his career. He’s recorded three albums since then and toured with Roger Taylor and Brian May of Queen. This is not Lambert’s first time on the GLAAD block, he won in the same category in 2010 and won the prestigious Davison/Valenti Award in 2013 for making a significant difference in the LGBT community. Lambert’s mother is Jewish and he was raised as a Jew in San Diego, California.
Continuing its awards sweep, last year’s Outstanding Comedy Series winner “Transparent” is nominated again. The Golden Globe and Emmy winning drama depicts the story of a family discovering their father is transgender. Tambor plays Maura, formerly Mort, a divorced, Jewish, father of three. Tambor is the first actor to win an Emmy for playing a transgender character and in his acceptance speech he thanked the transgender community.
The hilarious police sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, starring your dream Jewish boyfriend Andy Samberg, is nominated in the Outstanding Comedy Series category. The show’s character Captain Ray Holt, played by Andre Braugher, is the openly gay no-nonsense boss to Samberg’s character Jake Peralta. The show was nominated in the same category in 2014 but lost to Orange is the New Black. Samberg was raised Jewish and stars in and produces the show.
The prevalence of transgender issues in pop culture seems to have reached a pinnacle this year.
Caitlyn – nee Bruce – Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. The movie “Tangerine,” which stars transgender actors, took film critics by storm. Director Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” currently in theaters, tells the story of one of the first sex-change operations. And the second season of Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning “Transparent,” about a Jewish family coming to terms with their father’s decision to become a trans woman, was released to raves on Dec. 11.
At the same time, the Jewish community is coming to terms with how to include transgender Jews in synagogues, workplaces, schools and summer camps. In November, for example, the Union for Reform Judaism unanimously passed a “Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People.” It points out past efforts to include transgender people — the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student in 2003 — but concludes “there is more work to be done to make our Movement and our society fully inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming people.”
According to a recent Pew poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual. However, according to a recent Harris Poll, only 16 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender.
“That means that for 84 percent of Americans, everything they know about transgender people, they learn from the media,” said Nick Adams, director of programs for transgender media at the LGBT media advocacy organization GLAAD and a transgender man. “For the past 60 years, trans characters have been portrayed as either psychotic killers, as in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ or the butt of jokes, as in ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.’”
But that’s changing. Now a host of pop-culture offerings explore transgender issues, including Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller series “Sense8,” which was created by transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski and her brother Andy, and stars transgender actress Jamie Clayton.
The long-running CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” introduced a transgender plotline this year in which the lead model for a fashion company, Maya Avant (played by Karla Mosley) is outed as transgender. The show also includes transgender actor Scott Turner Schofield playing the recurring role of Nick, a transgender man and Maya’s friend.
“Only very recently have film and television portrayals of transgender characters begun to move beyond these offensive, defamatory stereotypes,” Adams said. “I do believe that shows like ‘Sense8,’ ‘Transparent’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ are allowing viewers to develop a greater understanding of the transgender experience.”
This gradual “mainstreaming” of transgender issues has had a profound effect: Research indicates that increased awareness of transgender issues may also lead to more legal protections. More than two-thirds of residents in every state support transgender non-discrimination laws, according to a new study by researchers at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, even though not every state has passed them.
In this spirit, the issues that transgendered people face are increasingly addressed within a Jewish communal context, too.
“The more it’s been talked about in popular culture, there has been more willingness of families and parents to try and understand when their child presents differently than ‘the norm,’” said Rabbi Denise Eger, the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and a longtime LGBT rights activist. “We’re able to talk about it now earlier, before kids go through puberty, because we’re listening to the voices of our children, we’re listening to the voices of our families in our congregations, and we’re able to provide resources.”
The Orthodox LGBT group Eshel is making inroads among more traditionally observant Jews. The group consults with Orthodox rabbis, holds Shabbat retreats for LGBT people and provides support for Orthodox parents struggling to accept their child’s gender or sexual identity.
“The rabbis of the Talmud were way more comfortable identifying and talking about a spectrum of gender identity than rabbis are today,” said Miryam Kabakov, co-executive director of Eshel. “We try to remind them of that.”
Many Jews looking to bring transgender education to their community are turning to the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity at HUC-JIR. Its director, Joel Kushner, trains seminary students and consults Jewish institutions on helping transitioning youth and adults feel welcome.
Kushner said the higher visibility of transgender issues in pop culture is emboldening trans people to “come out” and be spokespeople for the cause.
“The calls that I get are almost always spurred by real-life situations that someone is faced with, and they’re looking for help,” Kushner said. “They’ve been made aware by ‘Transparent’ and all that, and I think it moves them a little bit to take more action because it has become more prevalent, like in ‘Orange Is the New Black’ [featuring Emmy-nominated transgender actress Laverne Cox]. I was getting the calls before, but it’s almost like the popular culture references have given those who want to do this in their communities a little bit more support or latitude.”
But not all Jews are so eager to embrace transgender inclusion. Earlier this month, conservative radio host and columnist Dennis Prager published an incendiary column in The Jewish Journal titled “The Torah and the Transgendered” on Dec. 4, and a follow-up, “The Hate Is All in One Direction” on Dec. 11. In his first column, he warned against “dropping the Torah and substituting compassion as standards” for accepting transgender people in our congregations, suggesting that “we are creating a Brave New World in which definitions of male and female no longer have meaning” and that “we are playing with fire and that future generations will pay a big price for this unprecedented experiment.”
The reaction from the Jewish community was swift and uncompromising. In the pages of The Jewish Journal, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center lambasted Prager’s “public display of ignorance and willful misreading of Jewish texts, primarily the Torah.”
Rabbi Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim, an LGBT Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles, wrote to Prager that “the type of shaming and verbal violence you inflict through the power of your pen and spoken word kills.” Others pointed out in letters published in the Jewish Journal that the Mishnah and Gemara acknowledge six different genders that include male, female and various combinations of the two, and that the Torah is hardly as narrow-minded as he portrays it to be.
Prager also singled out one transgender rabbi in his column: Rabbi Becky Silverstein, director of education at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, who was raised female but identifies and presents as a transgender male.
“Obviously the congregation and the rabbi believe that the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant,” Prager wrote.
Silverstein told JTA he feels supported by his congregation and the larger Jewish community, before and since the column was published. He sees the debate over transgender Jews as a natural progression of the efforts to make gay and lesbian Jews feel included, and part of a wider conversation about gender identity made visible through popular culture.
“I’m sure there were folks struggling with these issues privately” before it became a mainstream topic of discussion, Silverstein said. “We know that before [the Jewish Theological Seminary] ordained lesbian and gay rabbis, there was a secret society of lesbian and gay rabbis who met and talked each other through being closeted. So these institutions existed, but certainly not in the public eye.”
As transgender people become more accepted in traditional Jewish spaces, Silverstein expects that many gendered Jewish rituals will be reconsidered, from allowing people to self-identify their side of the mechitzah, the divider separating the men’s and women’s sections of the synagogue, to the inclusion of a female-to-male person in an Orthodox minyan to the pronouns used to call someone to read from the Torah.
Ultimately, Silverstein said, recognizing these distinctions can benefit everyone.
“If we can master nuance in different narratives of the trans community, certainly we can recognize nuances in different people’s journeys throughout our community, whether they relate to gender or other things,” he said.
One needs to look no further than July’s gay pride parade in Jerusalem for evidence the danger religious bigots pose to LGBT youth.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew, Yishai Schlissel, was charged with murder after a knife-wielding rampage that left 16-year-old Shira Banki dead and five others with stab wounds. Schlissel had served 10 years in jail for a similar attack in 2005 that injured three.
In the U.S., says furniture executive Mitchell Gold, the stamp of religious and moral disapproval is fueling a national crisis that drives thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth onto the streets and into harm’s way.
And all too many, like last December’s case of Ohio trans teen Leelah Alcorn, whose parents sent her to Christian conversion therapy, are driven to suicide to end their pain.
Gold, who was born Jewish, but practices “treating people the way I want to be treated,” draws a direct relationship between hatred in the pulpit and a crisis in which 40% of the estimated 500,000 homeless young people on the streets are LGBT.
“The vast majority of these kids are either thrown out or leave their homes because their family’s religion teaches them that LGBT people are ‘sinners and an abomination’,” Gold said Friday night at a benefit for New York City’s Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit that helps homeless gay kids 365 days a year.
“These teachings must stop,” he said in accepting the center’s corporate Spotlight Award for the work he and business partner Bob Williams do on behalf of the gay community. The two gay men are the owners of the North Carolina-based Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams home furnishings chain.
Gold is founder of Faith in America, a national group whose mission is to urge religious leaders to stop teaching that being LGBT is evil and a sin. More than 5,000 people have sign the organization’s Change.org petition.
Gold, who was introduced to the packed gala inside New York’s Capitale by out weatherman Sam Champion, poignantly recounted a recent visit he and Williams made tom the Ali Forney Center.
Great night to honor a friend #MitchellGold and a great cause #aliforneycenter #afcgala2015 #nyc pic.twitter.com/lTD0ThOriP— Sam Champion (@SamChampion) October 24, 2015
“We listened as several of these kids told us that at Ali Forney, they feel loved like they never have before. Stop and think about that for a minute. These kids who have suffered the trauma of not being loved by their families have found that love from the staff at Ali Forney,” he said. “What extraordinary work the staff does.”
‘LEGAL’ & ‘SPIRITUAL’ PROGRESS
Gold noted that 2015 has been an extraordinary year for LGBT Americans legally (the marriage equality ruling) and even spiritually.
“Several very prominent, and less so, ministers have come out and said they no longer believe homosexuality is a sin — and that gay people should be allowed to marry,” he told The Forward.
He cited the Rev. David Gushee, a Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, a Baptist college and divinity school in Georgia; and the Rev. Tony Campolo, a long time progressive evangelical leader.
“I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be,” Gushee said last fall.
“For a kid in an evangelical home in Oklahoma, North Carolina or even New Jersey, that is extraordinary progress and hope. It could save their life,” Gold said.
Gold says he was disappointed, however, that Roman Catholic Pope Francis was muddled.
“Sadly, if I were a Catholic kid, I think I would not quite be sure what to think. The Pope talks out of both sides of his mouth: One day says something encouraging and the next day … He’s certainly better than his predecessor,” Gold said.
He said Francis should have taken up Ali Forney Center Executive Director Carl Siciliano’s invitation “to visit a homeless shelter for LGBT teens — especially because the Catholic kids there are there largely due to the church’s harmful, outdated and misguided teachings.”
BEA ARTHUR AWARD WINNERS
Three others were honored Friday night with Bea Arthur service awards. Arthur, the Jewish stage, screen, and television great who died in 2009 at age 86, was a major supporter of the Ali Forney Center.
A new residence for homeless LGBT youth is being built in the East Village and is to be named in her honor.
The three Bea Arthur honorees were: New York State Assembly Members Linda Rosenthal and Andrew Hevesi and State Sen. Brad Hoylman.
The Ali Forney Alumnus Award went to Hilal Khalil, who came to the center in 2008 when his family cut him off. He is now in his third year at the City University of New York School of Law.
Friday night’s “A Place at the Table” annual gala for The Ali Forney Center was hosted by funny lady Lea DeLaria, a long time actress and jazz singer who gained major fame as part of the SAG award-winning cast of Orange is the new Black, the Netflix series in which she plays Carrie “Big Boo” Black.
Follow John A. Oswald on Twitter - @nyc_oz
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