Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, stands in Tel Aviv, Israel, with Eddy Morales, Council President, City of Gresham, Oregon; Arielle Schwartz, Regional Outreach Director, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Kori Blalock Keller, National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Leslie Herod)

TEL AVIV — State Rep. Brianna Titone was a grand marshal of the Denver Pride Parade in 2019 and has walked in Pride parades in New York and Copenhagen, but she said it was her honor as chair of the Colorado Legislative LGBTQ Caucus to be one of the 170,000 people marching in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade earlier this month.

“I like to be visible and interact with people in different places to learn from them and have them learn from me,” said Titone, the state’s first transgender legislator. “This exchange of ideas, of what equality looks like, helps foster change when brought back to our home lands.”

Titone and Rep. Leslie Herod, the first African American LGBTQ elected official in Colorado, both were on sponsored trips to Israel this month to learn about the LGBTQ+ community and other broader political issues. Titone, a Democrat from Arvada, was a guest of A Wider Bridge. Herod, a Denver Democrat, was on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation.

Herod and Titone said they feel many of the issues faced by the LGBTQ communities are universal, and they wanted to support and learn from the experiences of others. 

“Just like in the United States at Stonewall, Pride started as a riot here in Israel in Rabin Square in 1979. Visiting the region is an incomparable learning experience, and as a global citizen, I have a responsibility to lean into conversation with LGBTQ+ world leaders,” Herod said.

Israel has had several openly gay members of its Knesset, or parliament, including at the cabinet level. The current Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is gay (and used to head a major political party), while the first gay minister, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, was appointed in 2019 by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But like the United States, there is still a lack of acceptance of the LGBTQ community by some, notably religious zealots  — and also like the U.S., some events this year faced threats. 

Both lawmakers also spoke about using their success to support others. 

“I see myself as a consensus and bridge builder, and this the only Pride in the region where LGBTQ+ Arabs and Jews can come together and celebrate,” Herod said. “Pride here celebrates coexistence.”

Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, stands outside a building in Tel Aviv that housed one of the country’s earliest LGBTQ associations, on June 9. (Karen Schwartz, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“As one of the few higher ranking, out trans elected officials, I offer hope and inspiration to people, not just in Colorado and the U.S., but for many people everywhere,” Titone said. 

Herod, who did not march in the parade, said she was struck by the number and diversity of the participants and supporters.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen that before in that way, and so to see everyone celebrating together was really powerful,” she said. 

One of the first stops on Titone’s weeklong trip was a visit to Israel’s only shelter for LGBTQ teens. 

In 2020, she sponsored a bill that allows teens age 15 and older to give their own consent to stay in or receive services from a licensed homeless shelter, bypassing a law that would otherwise require a parent’s permission. Titone said she was intrigued to learn that in Tel Aviv, where parental notification is required, this shelter offers counseling services to the family, and about 40% of the time, the child is able to return to their home. That compares with about 25% in shelters elsewhere that don’t have the parental counseling. 

Much of the focus of the A Wider Bridge trip, which included about two dozen LGBTQ leaders from the United States, is on related issues in Israel. Only religious marriages are recognized in Israel, but civil marriages registered abroad are recognized by law in Israel, regardless of sexual orientation. Conversion therapy is banned and the country, which has nationalized health care, now allows gay, trans and single individuals to have children by surrogacy.   

A study this year in the British House of Commons that examined LGBTQ+ rights in Middle Eastern countries concluded only Israel provided legal protections. Consensual same-sex relations are criminalized in Gaza, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It is punishable by death in all of those but Gaza, where it carries a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years. Consensual same-sex relationships are not criminalized in the West Bank, but the report concluded that the Palestinian Authority continues to persecute activists and the LGBTQ+ community.

A Wider Bridge scheduled a visit with Palestinians in the West Bank, and meetings with lay people, academics and politicians to discuss peace efforts. Titone, whose wife is Jewish, said she was looking forward to hearing about successful coexistence.

“I’m looking to learn the secrets of how they have accomplished this and explore ways I can apply these ideas to negotiations and sparring communities,” she said. 

Herod’s trip included a trip to the Golan Heights, where Israel’s border meets Syria and Lebanon. She also planned to visit the West Bank and the Gaza border, learning about life in Palestine as well as the Israeli experience of living under the threats of Hamas rocket fire.

Herod, whose legislative work has included criminal sentencing reform, protecting access to mental health services for the families of young kids and an income tax check-off box for Urban Peak, a service agency for homeless youth, also led passage in 2020 of the CROWN Act that bans ban discrimination on the basis of hairstyle, said seeing the complexity and diversity of life in Israel was an “incomparable experience.” 

“This trip we’ve met with members of the Labor Party and Conservative Party. We’ve met with Black, Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Muslims, business leaders and activists,” she said. “There isn’t one way to be Israeli and there isn’t one way to be Middle Eastern. This land — and its people — are much more complex than we understand in the U.S.”

Denver’s Pride festival is Saturday and Sunday, with the annual parade down East Colfax Avenue beginning at 9:30 a.m. at Cheesman Park.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @WanderWomanIsMe