About a dozen Israeli entertainers and leaders, including Michael Oren, Israel's U.S. ambassador, will fly to Philadelphia in May to represent their country at the Equality Forum, a weekend-long summit promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.
Israel was selected as the "featured nation" for the 20th annual event, which includes 25 free panel discussions, an art exhibit, parties and performances.
Though the Equality Forum is based in Philadelphia, it touches on international issues and draws thousands of attendees from around the country, said executive director Malcolm Lazin.
Lazin said he started thinking about highlighting Israel during his last visit there about six years ago as part of a gay pride mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He'd toured twice before — in college and again in the late '70s — and seen how the country had built up a reputation for being gay-friendly.
From the thriving LGBT community in Tel Aviv to openly gay members of the military and parliament, "Israel has been ahead of the curve" in the Middle East, Lazin said.
Gays still can't get married in Israel, similar to the situation in most U.S. states. But after a landmark court ruling in 2006, the country began recognizing marriages performed abroad — a huge victory, Lazin said.
"Once you're married, you're married," he said, "and you get the same benefits as any other Israeli who's married," including tax breaks and the ability to adopt children.
The Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia is funding the Israeli delegation, among them a D.J., a pop star, a drag queen and an openly gay city council member from Tel Aviv.
Oren will headline the "International Equality Dinner" slated to be held at the National Museum of American Jewish History over the May 3 event weekend. Lazin said the 600-capacity dinner could end up making history as the largest gathering of LGBT and Jewish leaders in the country.
For more information about the event, visit: www.equalityforum.com.