Tel Aviv’s Pride Week 2018, themed “The Community Makes History,” has culminated with five historical milestones: 10 years since the founding of the Gay Center in Tel Aviv, 20 years since Tel Aviv’s first Pride Week, 30 years since the annulment of a law banning gay relations, 70 years of Israeli independence and a record 250,000 people participating in the June 8 parade, many of them tourists from around the world.

Each year, Tel Aviv’s pride parade is the largest such event in Asia and the Middle East, and one of the largest parades in the world. Reflecting on the country’s vibrant LGBTQ community, pioneers of the movement shared with JNS their thoughts on Israel’s past LGBTQ report card up until now, as the country has reached various historical milestones.

Professor Uzi Even, a former scientist at the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona and a professor emeritus of physical chemistry at Tel Aviv University, was the first openly gay member of Israel’s Knesset. He successfully petitioned the government to decriminalize homosexuality and allow LGBTQ people to serve equally in the army.

Born in 1940, he recalled a time in which LGBTQ were “hunted down by police” in Israel. In February 1993, he led and witnessed a turning point in changing the policies of Israeli society. Within three months of his army-based initiative, a committee was arranged and a new military code was made, ensuring no discrimination in recruitment or placement of LGBTQ soldiers.

Even, who was the first same-sex male couple in Israel whose right of adoption was legally acknowledged, told JNS: “In the following years, several judicial decisions supported the notion that couples of the same sex can have the same life as heterosexual people, such as pension rights and later, the ability to adopt children and receive egg donations.”

He continued, “In 2006, Israel’s supreme court began to recognize gay marriage outside of Israel,” adding that those who ““come out of the closet … feel more secure in Israel than they used to, and that’s one good measure of success.”

Even maintained that despite Israel being a “beacon of light” and on par with many European states on LGBTQ rights, “that does not mean we live in paradise.” He lamented that “with the present government, and with this particular coalition, no gay issues will be discussed.”

Lt. Ofer Erez, the first openly transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces, is currently CEO of the Open House for the Gay Community in Jerusalem, and works with organizations and militaries abroad, including in the United States and Canada, to share Israel’s best practices in military policies related to LGBTQ army personnel. He received his gender-reassignment surgery during his service and told JNS that Pride Week “celebrates the possibility to live your life as you want to.”

Erez was one of the central figures that helped change IDF regulations in 2016 regarding transgender service and policies related to uniforms, dorms and medical services. “It was a big privilege to help change the IDF regulations, which resulted in a declaration that gender dysphoria isn’t a reason to discharged,” he said.

Efrat Tilma is the first transgender woman in Israel to volunteer in the Israeli police. Born in 1947 in a kibbutz in the Galil, Tilma told JNS of her heart-wrenching struggles with Israeli police, who jailed her—a biological male at the time—for dressing as a woman. She spoke of humiliating tests ordered by the Ministry of Interior in Israel that were deemed necessary to change her paperwork to reflect the gender-reassignment surgery that she received in Europe.

After decades of living abroad, she moved back to Israel began working as a volunteer in the Israeli police, not knowing of her past.

After four years of working with them, they called her into a conference room with the top police leadership at which time they told her that they knew of her past and wanted to make a documentary about the “new, diverse Israeli forces,” celebrating her as a transgender volunteer in the police.

Since Israel’s transformation on LGBTQ rights, Tilma has become an ambassador between the transgender community and the Israeli police, and her autobiography was made into a play that was played at one of Israel’s most prominent theaters. More than 80 police officers have seen the play, and for overcoming various struggles in Israel, she was awarded an official apology and special medal from the police.

“The Israeli police put me in the closet, and they took me out of the closet,” said Tilma. “They made me feel free. It closed a circle.”

As her country began to celebrate her for her service and overcoming past discrimination, Tilma has now begun to celebrate her country, saying proudly, “Israel is the only country in Middle East that we can live in freedom. We are the light tower in the region, showing how freely we can live.”