In a gathering at the Charles B. Wang Center on Feb. 27, Imri Kalmann, co-chairperson of the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, known as The Aguda, shared his experience of what it means to be gay in Israel at the event “Understanding the LGBTQ movement in Israel,” hosted by Stony Brook Hillel.
Kalmann — a political activist, entrepreneur in the Israeli nightlife scene and a veteran of the Israeli Defense Force — began his talk by encapsulating his message in a statement: “I’m not every gay.”
His message was echoed by Tal Mansur, the event coordinator who helped bring Kalmann to speak at the university through The David Project, a nonprofit that aims to educate campus communities about Israel.
Mansur, who studied international affairs and political science at Open University in Ra’anana, Israel, said he hoped that through the event, Kalmann’s story would work to dispel certain modern day myths of Israeli culture. Mansur said he hoped that the students who attended can see how open and accepting Israeli culture has become, primarily in cities like Tel-Aviv, as a result of LGBTQ representation in the social conscious of most Israelis, despite recent global trends of rising conservatism.
“I want students in general to see how a culture of a country can operate, how we can act and behave, and still everybody lives together enough to respect their way of lifestyle,” Mansur said.
While Kalmann would later describe it as being “easy to be gay” where he grew up, he faced existential conflicts when coming to terms with his own identity. This confrontation with himself was further complicated by the fact that his father was gay, something that in his youth was treated with shame and fear by his family. They were, as he had described, “in the closet as a family.”
Together with some friends, Kalmann inadvertently attended his first gay party in Tel-Aviv at the age of 17, an event that began his own personal acceptance of his sexuality, he said. His own community had not responded adversely to the rising openness of the gay community during the time in which Kalmann himself had come out of the closet.
Although his father’s sexuality was a mark of shame, by the time he decided to come out later on in his life, he said that “it was cool to be gay in Israel.” His own classroom was full of LGBTQ students, and the first page of his yearbook even included a dedication to the gay community with a photo that displayed the gay pride flag proudly. When Kalmann attended prom, he and his male prom date kicked off the festivities as the first couple to dance.
Although this progress in self-actualization brought Kalmann a sense of peace, this peace was both figuratively and literally disrupted by the onset of war, he said. Having served in the Israeli Defense Force, Kalmann spoke of how his service affected his psyche, offering his perspective on being gay in an environment commonly assumed to be masculine and unfriendly to the gay community.
However, the Israeli army, which incorporates men and women in the same units, is proud of its diversity, Kalmann said. He described the army as one of the most open armies in the world, and he even joked about how certain units have become known as “more gay” than others.
Still, Kalmann felt the need to “go back into the closet” during his service, a decision he said he regretted, but eventually came out, for the second time, after serving for three years.
Following his service, Kalmann became active in creating the gay nightlife scene in Israel, organizing parties at various clubs catered toward the LGBTQ community. Despite the openness toward the gay community in city-centers like Tel-Aviv, the danger of terrorism, the assassination of politicians and LGBTQ cultural figures and horrific nightclub shootings, still loomed forebodingly in the periphery of his everyday life, he said.
In the face of this threat, Kalmann approached organizing gay parties to double as protests and activism. Kalmann decided to conduct such events amidst war because shutting them down meant conceding to the terror propagated by those who oppose the gay community, he said.
When asked about his toughest conflict so far, Kalmann responded with insight into the ongoing battle between the religious orthodoxy of Israel and the gay community, describing the challenge as an uphill climb.
Kalmann presented the results of two recent polls, taken last year, that asked Israelis overall and Israelis of the orthodox community if they accept gay marriage. Results showed that 76 percent of all Israelis and only 20 percent of the orthodox population would accept it. Yet, Kalmann said, while the results did show that 80 percent of the orthodox community would say no to gay marriage, it also showed that 20 percent of the same community would say yes — an encouraging sign that he said in past decades would have been inconceivable.
Although he repeated that his own experiences should not be seen as representative of all LGBTQ people in Israel, he said he hoped that his story offered insight into the complexities and nuances that are associated with people’s perception of identity. On a more light-hearted note, Kalmann invited audience members to join him and the hundreds of thousands of others who participate in the annual Israeli Pride parade, promising that it would be an eye-opening experience for all.