Gays from Australia, Mexico share concerns in N.Y.

America may be full of homophobic politicians and military leaders, but gay and lesbian Jews from around the world say the U.S. Jewish gay scene has a few things to teach their own countries.

While the majority of the approximately 600 participants at the 14th International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews came from the United States, about 65 people from 13 countries made the trip to the Sheraton in midtown Manhattan recently.

Through three days of networking, more than 100 workshops, a film series and a keynote address by Knesset member Yael Dayan on legislative gains made by gays and lesbians in Israel, the international visitors gave conference participants an opportunity to compare notes on the gay scene in different countries.

To be among "so many Jewish lesbians and gays is amazing," says Dina Cohen, from Adelaide, Australia, who came with five others from a Jewish lesbian feminist group there. "We don't know any gay Jewish men in Adelaide or of any other groups. To realize there are so many of us is heartening and exciting."

Conference-goers — including 30 rabbis and cantors — participated in workshops ranging from "Jewish and Queer in the Age of Newt," to interfaith couples, coping with AIDS, coming out, homosexuality in Jewish history and new rituals. The conference was hosted by Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village.

For David Freedman, president of Beit Haverim, the only gay Jewish organization in Paris, the conference "is very important, because it's difficult for someone who never leaves Europe to see the worldwide success and spirit of the Jewish gay and lesbian movement.

"This conference will give us the energy to return to France and continue our work," he adds.

Seven other Beit Haverim members accompanied him to the conference. With about 30 paying members and 100 sympathizers, Beit Haverim meets monthly for open discussions at the recently opened gay and lesbian center in Paris.

The group's events "tend not to be religious but cultural," says Freedman, who was a member of Beth Simchat Torah before he moved to Paris seven years ago. "Most of us are assimilated for reasons having to do with the Jewish community's clear rejection of gays and lesbians."

Only in the past year has Beit Haverim opened a dialogue with the mainstream Jewish community, after years of writing letters to other Jewish groups that went unanswered, says Freedman.

"Things are changing," he says. "What I see in New York may come to Paris in five years."

For Mexico City, make that 10 years. "The Jewish community has no idea of our group," says Luis, who didn't want to use his last name. "Practically nobody [in Mexico] thinks being Jewish and gay can co-exist."

Last year about 40 gay Jews, tired of the bar scene, formed Shalom Amigos, which holds a monthly oneg Shabbat.

"I thought I was the only gay Jew in the world," says group founder Juan, who would not use his real name because he works in the Mexican Jewish community and fears reprisals. Shalom Amigos "is a revenge for feeling alone."

Establishing contact with the Mexican Jewish community won't be on the agenda for quite some time, though. "The first thing is to be at ease with ourselves," says Juan. "We want to help people who want to come out, because no one [in Mexico] is proud to publicize" his or her gay identity.

As in Mexico, the Brazilian Jewish community "is very conservative," says Sam, one of two conference participants from Brazil, who also withheld his real name. "It's like Big Brother, you feel spied on and the most unthinkable tragedy is not to marry."

Sam knows of about 10 gay Jews in Brazil. "We are not organized and we're resentful of the Jewish community," he says. "Those who practice their religion find it difficult to reconcile" their identities.

In a workshop titled, "Between New York and Tel Aviv: Comparative Notes On Gay Life," Moshe Shokeid, a professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University, noted that some similarities exist between Latin American Jewish communities and Israel in that both often "practice gay life in invisible ways."

Although Israeli politicians make gay life sound like the "Garden of Eden, the status of homosexuality [in Israel] is ambiguous," says Shokeid, responding to Dayan's speech.

"I don't deny the legal achievements; I'm saying it's now a question of tolerance in daily life — the macho ethos…the reluctance of Israeli gays to show up in public places."

Despite these difficulties, "Israeli gays do not seem to be packing up and leaving for Western hemisphere havens," says Shokeid.

And for that matter, neither do the gay Jews from other countries. "Change has to percolate slowly," says Juan, adding that he does not intend to leave Mexico City.

All the more reason to come together and hold a conference.

"It's a pity that being gay makes so many of us feel apart from our Jewishness," says Maurice Benchitrit, who came with the Keshet Sharon group from Toronto.

"Here" at the gathering, "whether you're French or Mexican, there's a bond, a feeling that you belong somewhere."