Interview by Robyn Ochs
Dana Peleg was born in 1969 and raised in Kiryat-Haim, a suburb of Haifa, Israel. She lives with her partner, Mimi Peleg and their seven-year-old son, Boaz Wilde Peleg in Tel Aviv, Israel. From 2004 until 2009 they lived in Santa Cruz, California, where their son was born in 2004, and they were legally married in 2008.
Dana is a writer: as a journalist she wrote the first Lesbian column in the Israel press, and she has written articles, reviews and columns in mainstream as well as GLBT magazines. In 2000, she published Te’enim, Ahuvati [Figs, My Love], a book of short stories in Hebrew. Dana has written two screenplays in English and is currently writing a novel in Hebrew. She is also a literary, theatrical and academic translator (mainly English to Hebrew, sometimes Hebrew to English). Dana sees translation as another form of writing.
We conducted this interview via email.
Robyn Ochs: Dana, how did you come to identify as bi?
Dana Peleg: I grew up in a place that was very suburban and conformist. I was always the strange girl with the strange ideas. When I finally came out in my mid-twenties, I tracked back in my life and remembered how in junior high I once collected pictures of semi-naked women and of women in swim suits from women’s magazines, and how I admired – or was perhaps in love with? – my (female) lit teacher. At the same time, I fell in love with boys: my youth movement guide and boys from school. I had boyfriends since the age of 16 and was always attracted to and in love with them. (I recently learned my first boyfriend came out as gay soon after we broke up).
When I was 16 I joined a political youth movement and suddenly became popular for the first time. Outside Kiryat Haim, there were people like me! A year later, I fell in love with a girl at a youth movement conference and the world suddenly opened. I felt that I had the rare talent of loving both sexes (back in 1986, no one in my environment talked about gender fluidity). We didn’t live in the same town and lost touch after a while, especially after joining the army (I served in the army despite being a pacifist, because I believed I had to do it if I wanted to be part of Israeli society). During my freshman year I had a relationship with a guy, and wanted to marry him. A year later, when he broke up with me, I tried to come out. I went to a couple of meetings in the then tiny and closeted lesbian community of Jerusalem, where the message was clear: this is a place for lesbians; there is no room for you if you’re different. So I thought, if I must choose, I should choose men: I’ve been with them, I like them. Of course, it never worked. Moreover, two things happened: I was date-raped; and I fell deeply in love with my best friend, a woman. The first experience made me sick of dating and trying to have a relationship with a man. The second I denied for a long time, but eventually decided to explore what I called “my lesbian side.” I went to a meeting of the Gay-Lesbian student group at the Hebrew University. After this meeting I told a friend I met there, “I feel like a motherless child here, I’m bi.” At that point I was still very shy about it. A week later, at that same group’s party on December 22, 1994, it hit me: It’s OK to be me! It’s OK to be bi! There is such a thing and I don’t have to choose and no one and nothing has been able to stop me since. I started attending a bi-lesbian women’s group and became an LGBT activist.
RO: What is your religious background, if any, and what impact did this have on your coming out?
DP: For most people I know religion was a hurdle, a conflict, because they come from patriarchal religions. I grew up Jewish secular, celebrating Jewish holidays and family holiday dinners. I never liked the Bible and God and everything I was taught at school (in Israel the Old Testament is part of the daily curriculum) about Judaism (which is Orthodox Judaism), so I thought I was an atheist. I always had a feeling I wasn’t alone in this world, but I never knew there were nonpatriarchal religions. New Age started seeping into Israel in the mid-nineties. On May 22, 1995, I went to a talk at the Jerusalem Women’s Center about witches. I thought I was going to an historical lecture. Lo and behold, the presenter, Amy Ginzburg, talked about the Goddess. Suddenly I felt connected to the Earth. Suddenly I had a Mother, in the most spiritual way. That was me she was talking about, that was how I felt about life. Soon afterward, Starhawk came to Israel and I attended her workshops. Later on, she visited Israel on a political mission and we became friends. I interviewed her for the women’s magazine where I wrote my column, and one of my first questions was: “Is it true you’re bi?” My spirituality and sexuality are one, really.
RO: You live in Tel Aviv but also spent several years in Santa Cruz, California and have an American-born partner. What differences do you see between these two places, in terms of their approaches toward sexuality and specifically toward bisexuality?
DP: My column for Gogay.co.il about my life in Santa Cruz was called “A Postcard from Paradise,” and this is how I feel about Santa Cruz. Truth is, I wasn’t very active there as a bisexual. I wasn’t closeted either; my friends knew I was bi, but before the “No on 8” campaign, I wasn’t active in the GLBT community. The general feeling in Santa Cruz, was always: ”Anything Goes. Be whoever you want to be; the sky’s the limit.” The small Gay Pride Parade of SC includes so many identities and organizations, all respecting one another. Everyone seemed to be there, except for the Catholic and the Evangelical churches. There may even have been a Catholic contingent.
To me, Tel Aviv has the same spirit of anything goes, but in a different way. First, unlike SC’s quaintness and peacefulness, Tel Aviv is a bustling hub. Things, ideas and organizations emerge and disappear all the time. It’s probably the only place in Israel where queer and radical ideas can flourish and spread. Jerusalem is religious and conservative; Haifa is beautiful but sleepy. Culture, radical and secular or new age, happens here in Tel Aviv. The tent protest started here. Most writers and authors, and even most publishers, are here.
Another big difference is that Tel Aviv is part of Israel, and thus has that pressured, sometimes violent atmosphere to it, the feeling you have to fight constantly: for your place in the grocery store line, or in the GLBT community. I can’t really compare Santa Cruz to Tel Aviv because, like I said, I wasn’t a bi activist there. I can say, however, that here we have to struggle to be heard and seen all the time. On a personal level, everybody’s for you. On a political level, within the GLBT community, there’s a long way we still need to go. Last Gay Pride there were two parades: the mainstream one, which was basically a big street party. (Unlike parades in the US, in Israel it’s not an organized march where one group marches behind another and viewers watch from the sidewalk. Here everyone marches.) Then there was a smaller radical parade, pointing out unrecognized, unachieved rights within the GLBT community and in the rest of Tel Aviv and Israel. Tel Aviv is the only place in Isreal where such a radical march could take place. In Santa Cruz, organizations fighting for labor, immigrant rights or animal rights would probably march with the other organizations in the big Gay Pride Parade, or with the Dyke March – without the need to protest against them. I guess this is the one main difference between these two communities.
RO: What words are used to describe lesbian, gay, bi or non-heterosexual people in Israel? Are these words equivalent to their English counterparts, or do they have different meaning?
DP: The right question to the right person! I even wrote and gave a lecture about this. Lesbian is basically the same word: Lessbit (“it” being the feminine suffix in many Hebrew words). There are no derogatory terms that I know of.
Gay: there are a few derogatory names (Mitromem – literally “rising up” – is equivalent to “Faggot”). Community members decided to use “Homo” as the proper translation of “Gay.” In many places the word Homo is still like “Homo” in the US: a swear word. But more and more people, even in the media, use it as the formal politically correct word. People often use the word gay, as in English, as they are more comfortable with a foreign language word, I assume, than with the charged Hebrew word. Many use “homosexual” in Hebrew (the same word).
Bi: there is a bad Hebrew translation, Doomini, which really means “someone who has two sexes” and refers not to humans (Intersex, same word here) but to, well, slugs (who are beautiful creatures, but not what the original terms referred to). So most bi people prefer the Latin word and say besexual, which is the Hebrew pronunciation of bisexual. Or just bi (“be” in Hebrew pronunciation, which also means “in me”).
Referring to non-heterosexuals, of any gender, many people would say gays, or Ge-im/ge-ot, (“ot” for the feminine endings) which is also a widespread variation of gays, and means “proud people” in masculine and feminine. I like this one, because of the proximity to “proud” and “pride.” Yes, damn it, I’m proud!
RO: What rights are accorded to LGBT people in Israel?
DP: An anti-discrimination law, and free sex re-assignment therapy are two major rights. The law against sodomy was abolished in 1988, after years during which it was not enforced. LGBT people can serve openly in the army since the late Prime Minister Rabin insisted on it in 1995.
Lesbians can adopt the kids their partner birthed, and their adoption of their kids from another country is also recognized. Any woman can use the public, government-sponsored sperm bank, no questions asked. And same-sex marriages performed outside Israel are recognized here, and we are recognized as a married couple just like any het couple who married abroad. Since the religious parties are very powerful here, there is a slight chance that a future law restricting civil marriage – including those of same-sex couples – could be passed. Many het couples who can’t marry officially in the State of Israel, marry in another country, and these marriages are recognized by the State of Israel.
RO: Are bi folks well-integrated into Tel Aviv’s sexual minority community? What resources are available specifically for bisexuals in Israel?
DP: We hardly have resources. My organization, Panorama, meets in The Rogatka vegan bar which is a community center for many other radical groups. Tel Aviv has a nice city-funded three-story LGBT center, where one bi group meets bi-weekly. That’s about it. One of Panorama’s goals is to achieve a quarter-time bisexual events coordinator at the LGBT Center.
RO: Dana, do you have contact with bi activists in other countries? Do you see a value in transnational activism?
DP: Personally I don’t have such a connection. Shiri Eisner, my co-activist in Panorama, does. [Editor’s note: See Bi Women, Summer 2010.] It could be very interesting to have such connections. I would love to hear what’s going on in other countries, as it can be very inspiring! Here’s an idea. My friends at Panorama and I are in very initial stages of organizing a bisexual conference in Israel. If anyone is interested in giving a talk here about bi people in their country, please contact me at email@example.com.
RO: Any last words?
DP: “‘B’ yourself, no matter what others say.” I believe bisexuality has a deep revolutionary message to society, which may be the reason we intimidate so many: the notion that attraction doesn’t have to be based on gender, that gender is quite useless and mostly oppressive. Basically I think that gender and heterosexism serve one another: If one looks like a woman or a man, then a member of the opposite (or the same) sex knows they are allowed (or not) to be attracted. If one doesn’t have to be attracted to just one gender, maybe people wouldn’t have to abide by gender rules, or vice versa: if there are more than two distinct genders, maybe heterosexuality, or monosexuality, are not so important either.
Robyn is the editor of Bi Women and of the 42-country anthology, Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World.