LGBT Ethiopian Israelis go on U.S. tour to say we exist

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In every part of the world — even in San Francisco — being gay means living among a small group of people who struggle with centuries-old problems such as equal rights, acceptance among peers and gay marriage, to name a few. If you’re black and gay, that’s an even smaller minority group.

Now imagine you are Ethiopian and Israeli and attracted to the same gender. That is the reality for Sarah, 28, and Liel, 24, two Israeli women whose group aims to create a safe space for Ethiopian LGBT people who live in Israel.

That group is called KALA, short for the Hebrew words Kehilla Lahatavit Ethiopit, meaning “LGBT Ethiopian community.”

It began 18 months ago to meet what organizers describe as a need for “LGBT support, community and empowerment” among Ethiopian Israelis, and it’s small. As of early this week, there were about 70 members in its private Facebook group. They live as part of a community of 140,000 Ethiopian Israelis, in a country of more than 8 million.

Sarah and Liel are currently on a five-stop U.S. tour, giving talks in order to increase exposure of their group and ask for donations. The tour began with a visit to San Francisco on April 17 and will conclude next week in Washington, D.C. Other stops are West Hollywood, Chicago and New York City.

Liel (left) and Sarah in San Francisco photo/saul sugarman

In San Francisco on April 17, they met at a private home, discussing their experiences to a packed room of about 50 attendees. The next night, they had a dinner with the students at Hillel at Stanford.

“It’s so exciting to see everyone come to hear what we have to say,” Liel said.

Arthur Slepian, whose S.F.-based nonprofit is hosting the KALA tour, said he hopes the talks will help break up some misconceptions about the Israeli gay community.

“When people think about the Israeli LGBT community, they think of handsome young guys on the beach in Tel Aviv,” said Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, which works to strengthen ties between North American and Israeli gay communities. “The fabric of the [full LGBT Israeli] community is so much more diverse than that and more beautiful than that.”

Still, in Israel, there is barely any cognizance of an LGBT Ethiopian population. Sarah said when she was 15, “I didn’t have people to talk to. Even on the internet, they don’t write about Ethiopian lesbian or gay people. I felt very alone.”

With KALA, the attempt is to shine some light on that culture.

“People don’t know about us and what we do,” Sarah said about KALA specifically and about LGBT Ethiopian Israelis in general. “The most important thing that we want is for people to know we exist. We have many struggles.”

Sarah and Liel both were born in Israel, growing up just outside Tel Aviv. Their generation was born as part of a wave of immigration out of Ethiopia in the 1980s and ’90s.

The two women both said they have fractured relationships with their families, mostly with their mothers, as being gay is not accepted in Ethiopian culture. In Amharic, the official Ethiopian language, there is no word for homosexuality, according to the two women, and being gay in Ethiopia could mean up to 15 years in prison.

Moreover, a 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 45 countries ranked Ethiopia behind only Mali in places that are least accepting of a homosexual “way of life.”  Not surprisingly, Sarah and Liel have never visited their ancestral home, nor do they have any desire to do so.

Liel, whose left arm bears the tattoo “Never Give Up,” wiped away tears describing the two times she discussed being bisexual with her mother.

“I know that my mom loves me, but she doesn’t know how to deal with this,” Liel said. “She really cares about what people say. It’s already a big deal in our community, what people say about you. She can’t accept it, but I think she wants to accept it and she can’t.”

Sarah echoed this, adding it’s difficult for her to be among other Ethiopians in Israel.

“Sometimes I’m very afraid to go with a girlfriend to Ethiopian clubs because people there are not open-minded,” she said.

They hope their group can one day wield a power similar to something like PFLAG, which boasts more than 200,000 members across the United States. PFLAG stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“Love is love,” Liel said. “It’s something we really need to think and talk about in our community.”

Rochelle Snyder, a spokeswoman for A Wider Bridge, said KALA hopes its mission one day resonates with the older Ethiopians.

“The group wants to be able to articulate its stories to their older generation and to support larger conversations that can be had about the LGBT community,” she said.

Saul Sugarman

Saul Sugarman is a freelance writer.