Article featuring Tamika Butler in Haaretz

October 31st, 2013

Editor’s note:  Tamika Butler participated in a Project Interchange Seminar for Water Management Experts  and was featured in an article on Haaretz.com To view this article on the Haaretz website, please click here. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Interchange.

Visiting LGBT leadership group gets a blunt Israeli welcome

One American delegate here with the high-powered group says that being in Israel is sort of like being back in Nebraska - random people aren’t afraid to talk to you.

By Judy Maltz | Oct. 30, 2013 | 7:55 PM

Project Interchange Leadership Group delegates at the Gan Meir gay center in Tel Aviv (courtesy photo)

Project Interchange Leadership Group delegates at the Gan Meir gay center in Tel Aviv (courtesy photo)

Tamika Butler

Tamika Butler

Tamika Butler has been “extremely out,” as she puts it, ever since middle school, and as she herself acknowledges,

“Most people know that I’m gay just from looking at me.”

Still, when she landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport the other day, as part of a high-powered delegation of American LGBT leaders, she was in for a bit of a shock. “There was this nice gentleman standing there holding a big sign that said ‘LGBT’ on it in big bold letters. I looked around and it was this crazy thing like I was taken aback. I was like ‘Whoa, people are gonna know what we’re here for.’”

Not that anyone would have tried to hide who they were had this been America, says Butler, but in an airport there, the sign would most likely have been more subtle. “It might have said something like “Project Interchange Leadership Group’ or ‘Diversity Seminar’ - not straight out LGBT. But you know what? Being direct and blunt and to the point - that is so Israeli, as I’ve learned in the past few days.”

Butler, a Stanford-educated lawyer, is the California director of Young Invincibles, an advocacy organization that encourages young adults to make their voices heard on domestic policy issues. Also co-chair of the National Center for Lesbian Rights board of directors, she is participating this week in the first-ever seminar organized for American LGBT leaders by Project Interchange, an institute run by the American Jewish Committee that brings opinion leaders and policy-makers from around the world to Israel for a week of travel and exchanges with their local counterparts. Since its establishment more than 30 years ago, Project Interchange has brought more than 6,000 influential figures to Israel from 77 different countries.

The nine-person LGBT delegation is headed by Malcolm Lazin, the executive director of Equality Forum, a national and international LGBT civil rights organization. Other members include Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, America’s largest organization of gay conservatives; Kevin Naff, editor and co-owner of Washington Blade, America’s oldest LGBT news publication; John Campbell, treasurer of the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Andrew Sacher, the founder and executive director of The Lavender Effect, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that promotes LGBT culture.

Midwest in the Mideast

During their week-long visit, the delegation members will be meeting with representatives of Israeli LGBT organizations and leaders of the local gay community, as well as senior government officials, academics and civil society leaders. The group will also spend a day in the West Bank meeting with Palestinian leaders.

As a military brat, Butler says she is particularly interested in how the Israeli army views homosexuality. “I thought about our ‘Don’t Ask - Don’t Tell’ policy back in the states, and we were told that here in Israel, once it was acknowledged that there was this issue, and you guys were gonna change it, it went very quickly,” she says. “That was really surprising to me. I guess it’s part of the startup nation culture. People just feel empowered here to push for change and get things done.”

Israel is often accused of “pink-washing” its treatment of the Palestinians by flaunting its record on gay rights. Do you agree with that?

“Since we’ve had only one day of sessions so far, it would be hard for me to really address that.”

And what do you say about those organizations that call on people like you to boycott Israel?

“You know, I run an organization that works with young adults, and one of the things we’re always stressing is not to make generalizations, and what’s very clear is that people here are very diverse.”

Butler spent her early years in Okinawa, Japan, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. When her family moved back to the United States, they settled in Omaha, Nebraska, where she says, “It was really tough being a black, gay woman.”

Only when she moved west to California after graduating college, she says, did she realize that she would remain a Midwesterner at heart. This is her second trip to Israel, having been here a year ago, to attend the wedding of a law school classmate, and in certain ways, she says, Israel reminds her of the Midwest.

The Midwest? Really?

“Yes. People here, like in the Midwest, aren’t afraid to talk to you in the street even if they don’t know you. Like just yesterday, we were standing in the street, and someone comes up to us and says ‘Why are you here?’ So we tell him that we’re here for this leadership program. ‘Tell me more about it,’ he says. I could see that exchange taking place in Nebraska, too.”