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Gay Jews strive for acceptance in Argentina
JTA / April 3, 2005

By Larry Luxner

BUENOS AIRES — It's hard enough just being Jewish in Argentina, a country where, until recently, you had to be married and Catholic to run for president.

So imagine what it's like to grow up Jewish and gay, or Jewish and bisexual. Or Jewish and transgender, for that matter.

Germán Vaisman doesn't have to imagine. He lives that paradox every day.

"We're not rejected or expelled, but we're not fully accepted either," said Vaisman, a 30-year-old gay man who last year founded the nonprofit organization Keshet Argentina. At the moment, Keshet (which means "rainbow" in Hebrew) has around 120 members and is growing.

"Our mission is to contribute to the development of cultural, political and social initiatives that deal with sexual diversity within Judaism," he said. "Our vision is to have a fully inclusive Jewish community of all GLBT Jews."

That's shorthand for "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender," though 80% of Keshet's members are homosexual men in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. In fact, its unofficial slogan is "Oy Vey, Soy Gay" (Oy Vey, I'm Gay)."

Every week, Vaisman e-mails a newsletter to Keshet members, and every two or three months, they gather for potluck dinners which are associated with Kabbalat Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot or some other Jewish tradition.

Keshet Argentina belongs to the World Congress of GLBT Jews, based in California. It has distributed 400 booklets in Spanish entitled "Homosexuality and the Jewish Religion" — which discusses the Biblical and Halachic implications of being gay — and recently organized a "Jewish GLBT Film Series" in Buenos Aires attended by more than 500 people.

The organization also plans on participating in a big Gay Pride march in Jerusalem this August.

Vaisman, who studied architecture but works in construction, became active in the gay movement after doing a fellowship with the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston. He considers himself a "liberal, progressive Jew" who just happens to be attracted to other men.

"I was raised within the Jewish community and attended a Jewish day school. On Sundays I went to La Hebraica [a Jewish country club] with my parents. I don't remember being with non-Jews until I went to high school."

But it wasn't until he was 23 that Vaisman "decided to be sincere" with his own sexual identity and begin dating men.

"I spent my whole life in a straight environment. I never heard anything about gay issues," he told JTA. "I had girlfriends, but my parents never pushed me to get married. My gayness just came out. I have three brothers and all of them accept it. It was hard for my parents, but they're finally accepting it too."

Keshet isn't the only group of its type in Argentina. There's also Jag, which is a play on words because it's not only the Spanish way of spelling the Hebrew word for holiday, but also an acronym for "judio argentino gay." Jag is more of a social group, whereas Keshet is geared toward education and political activism.

Keshet operates on an annual budget of $15,000 and has seven board members — two of whom are straight.

Despite Argentina's conservative traditions, Buenos Aires recently became the first Latin American city to recognize domestic partnerships, which qualify gay and lesbian couples for social security and other benefits.

Even so, Vaisman won't hold hands with another man in public for fear of being physically attacked. He noted that in Argentina, the police routinely haul transvestites off to prison, where they are frequently murdered.

"In Boston, I was never afraid of someone approaching or saying something," he said. "That's one of my frustrations here, because I like to feel that sense of comfort in showing affection."

Tali Jeifetz, 28, doesn't have that problem.

An Argentine-Israeli who for the last three years has worked in the aliyah department of the Jewish Agency, Jeifetz said she doesn't hide anything.

"In my personal life, everybody knows my girlfriend," she said. "At the beginning, it was difficult for my parents, but they're OK with it. On Pesach, I bring my girlfriend to the house for dinner, and my brother brings his girlfriend too."

The petite woman, who sports short brown hair and a big smile, said she never thought seriously about her lesbianism until college, when another girl kissed her for the first time.

Jeifetz routinely refers to her partner, who's also Jewish, as her "novia" — though she says her girlfriend's parents have no idea their daughter is a lesbian.

"If I give a kiss to my novia, I'm not going to worry whether somebody is offended," she says cheerfully. "I consider myself very Jewish and very gay. I don't have any doubt about my sexuality. I love women."

On the other hand, "besides being gay, other things interest me ... being Jewish, being a freelance journalist, music, history. I don't find many things in common with other gay people."

Neither does Mauro Isaac Cabral, 33, who considers himself a "transgender Jew."

Cabral, a native and resident of Córdoba — about an hour's flight north of Buenos Aires — is a historian who five years ago adopted his current name, even though his legal name is Grinspan, and he's still legally a woman. He joined Keshet out of a need to identify with other Argentine Jews whose sexual identity is often called into question.

"One of the main problems of being a 'trans' Jew is the permanent association that exists, within and outside the Jewish community, between transgender masculinity and the desire to access spaces that have traditionally been closed to women," he told JTA. "Many people think of us as following the example of the film 'Yentl.' This implies that people don't recognize our own experience as trans Jews, in that we live our masculinity happily, and are not desperately trying to be someone else, with other rights and privileges."

Cabral said his Jewish identity was strengthened by the fact that the psychologist treating him during a time of crisis happened to be the wife of Córdoba's rabbi, Marcelo Polakoff. Even so, he says, "my integration into the Jewish community continues to be very weak."

One reason is that the terrorist attacks against the Israeli Embassy and AMIA have resulted in very intensive scrutiny of ID cards of everybody who enters and leaves Jewish institutions in Argentina. That, says Cabral, "prevents me from entering most buildings, because my name doesn't correspond to my gender, and this situation is terrible for me."

Vaisman, who runs Keshet Argentina from a home office, said that while Reconstructionist and Reform congregations have accepted his organization warmly, the Conservative movement has shown only lukewarm support, and the Orthodox community none at all.

"A couple of our members tried to speak about Keshet with the Hasidim, and were told that it was OK as long as they were not openly gay in the yeshiva," he said. "It was like 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

Vaisman dreams of having a family and even children one day, even though he's not dating anyone at the moment.

"Maybe I'm doing all this stuff because I want to have a Jewish community that welcomes my kids," he said. "A year ago, one rabbi told me that I wouldn't see many changes in my lifetime in Argentina. I think he was wrong."

For more information, please visit Keshet's website at www.keshet.com.ar.

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